Revealed: Bogus 'Trump Banned Words at the CDC' Story Was Rooted in Suggested Guidelines From Liberal Bureaucrats

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Posted: Dec 19, 2017 2:30 PM
Revealed: Bogus 'Trump Banned Words at the CDC' Story Was Rooted in Suggested Guidelines From Liberal Bureaucrats

If you're just joining this flap, here's a short recap: Late last week, it was reported that Trump administration officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had sought to "ban" words they deemed to be controversial, including "transgender" and "fetus."  This sparked an immediate outcry, as Orwellian censorship rarely plays well with the American people.  The Trump-hostile media were in full throat, pounding the table against this anti-science outrage.  The original story ("forbidden words") appeared in the Washington Post, then spread like wildfire.  Here is CNN's framing of it:

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the very agency tasked with saving and protecting the lives of the most vulnerable, are now under order by the Trump administration to stop using words including "vulnerable" in 2018 budget documents, according to The Washington Post.  In a 90-minute briefing on Thursday, policy analysts at the nation's leading public health institute were presented with the menu of seven banned words, an analyst told the paper. On the list: "diversity," "fetus," "transgender," "vulnerable," "entitlement," "science-based" and "evidence-based."...As news of the word ban spreads at the CDC, the analyst expects growing backlash. "Our subject matter experts will not lay down quietly," the unnamed source said. "This hasn't trickled down to them yet."

Prominent Democrats and leftists quickly piled on, and just a few hours ago, the Baltimore Sun promulgated the story in an op/ed. As someone who co-authored an entire book arguing against the stifling of political speech, the initial details of this contretemps, as originally reported, were concerning to me: 


Many conservatives were rightly aghast when the Obama administration insisted upon euphemisms (overseas contigency operations, workplace violence, etc) and censorship ("Islam" and "jihad") to airbrush national conversations about serious issues. It seemed to me that if the Trump administration were doing something similar here, we should push back. But as Christine wrote yesterday, the CDC's director took to social media to dispel these reports, swatting down what she called a "complete mischaracterization:"


Additionally, the New York Times quoted administration sources who debunked the "ban" claim, explaining that the new guidelines were merely (non-mandatroy) suggestions about how to present topics in budget-related documents, not scientific or medical content.  In other words, the justifications for media hyperventilation over alleged Trump-imposed authoritarian word purges were slowly falling apart.  But it gets even worse.  Writing at National Review, former Bush administration official Yuval Levin did some digging and has now revealed the perfect punchline for this sadly-typical episode of journalistic laziness and confirmation bias.  The anti-Trump narrative was "too good to check," then disintegrated completely when someone finally bothered to check:

These [terms] are “avoid when possible” terms in a style guide specifically intended for budget documents. They’re not words that are banned in the department.  Second, these three terms to avoid apparently came up in the course of a meeting among career officials at the CDC late last week about preparing next year’s congressional-justification documents. That discussion then led to a conversation in the meeting about other terms that might be best avoided...This meeting did not involve any political appointees, and apparently the conversation about terms beyond “diversity,” “entitlements,” and “vulnerable” was not about terms that anyone in the department had said should be avoided but about terms that it might be wise to avoid so as not to raise red flags among Republicans in Congress.   In other words, what happened regarding these other terms (“transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based”) was not that retrograde Republicans ordered career CDC officials not to use these terms but that career CDC officials assumed retrograde Republicans would be triggered by such words and, in an effort to avoid having such Republicans cut their budgets, reasoned they might be best avoided.

Amazing: The "banned" words were never banned, and were dreamed up as part of a list of suggested guidelines for budget documents by career (non-Trump-appointed) bureaucrats who were trying to avoid 'triggering' Congressional Republicans through the inclusion of those terms.  So this entire freakout was based on comprehensively fake news -- yet it's virtually guaranteed that multiple days of dramatic news stories and breathless social media posts left a widespread and false impression on millions of news consumers.  Many Americans do not trust the press for precisely this reason, and Trump-hostile journalists keep soiling their own reputations by reporting and repeating overwrought or totally inaccurate stories that happen to align with their pre-existing biases.