Ballot Box

Fool Me Twice

The press swallows a story.

The signs were there from the beginning. On Dec. 3, when Dr. Brigitte Boisselier announced that her company, Clonaid, had produced the first human clone, journalists wondered why they should believe her. “That’s a decision for you to make judgments about. It’s not for me. Clonaid knows that this couple has a cloned child,” she told them. The next day, a reporter asked for proof. “Based on our information, the couple indeed has a cloned child,” Boisselier replied.

Days passed, but reporters heard nothing from Dr. Michael Guillen, the former ABC science editor who was supposed to confirm the birth through DNA testing. “We’re going to continue to work with Dr. Guillen to help to get him the information so he can do his job,” Boisselier assured them. “Of course, at the same time, we want to make certain that the identity of the parents is not compromised.” Reporters grew anxious. “Dr. Guillen says he was not getting this evidence,” one asked. “Is he getting it now?” To this, Boisselier replied, “I’m not at liberty to discuss conveyance of evidence in any great detail. But it’s in Clonaid’s interest for Dr. Guillen to be successful.” When a third journalist wondered whether Clonaid had an “obligation to come up with affirmative proof,” Boisselier scolded him. “There are reasons [why] members of Clonaid” were making the claim, she said. “They’ve said it because they have reporting to let them know that it’s true.”

More days passed, and still Guillen said nothing. On Dec. 20, a reporter told Boisselier, “Dr. Guillen has said publicly that he would like to get more or better evidence from Clonaid … Is that a possibility?” Boisselier deflected the question. “We will continue to work with Dr. Guillen to provide him information. The one thing we won’t do is do anything that … could compromise the identity of the parents.” A second journalist pressed Bosselier: “For those members of the public who are asking Clonaid to provide them the evidence that Clonaid [says] is persuasive, Clonaid’s answer is, ‘No.’ Is that correct?” “No, Clonaid’s answer is, ‘Yes,’ ” said Boisselier. “We continue to provide information and to share evidence and to make means available to Dr. Guillen so he can do his job.”

To this day, Boisselier has yet to produce evidence. In an interview published Thursday in the Washington Post, she rules out the idea of “opening up every door that we have” to scrutiny. Guillen says he has seen “no evidence” of the clone’s existence, but Boisselier insists “we know for a fact” that it’s real.

Should reporters be embarrassed that they gave the story so much play? No. They should be embarrassed because the story isn’t about Clonaid. It’s about Iraq. The quotes above are real, but they don’t come from Boisselier. They come from White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The proper nouns have been replaced by analogous substitutes. “Clonaid” is the U.S. government; the “couple” is Iraq; “Dr. Guillen” is the U.N. inspectors; the “cloned child” is weapons of mass destruction; “the public” is the U.N. Security Council; “evidence” is intelligence; and “the identity of the parents” is sources and methods.

Reverse the translation, and here’s what you get: The U.S. government keeps saying it has evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The press keeps reporting this as news, even though the government never produces the evidence. All we get are evasions, excuses, and indignant assurances. Maybe the weapons exist. Maybe the clone does, too. But let’s see the goods.