February 5, 2012
The Media’s Appendectomy Blinders

(This is what I see when I read anti-choice bullshit like this, by Ross Douthat, arguing that we should be wary of abortion because it’s “controversial.”)

IN the most recent Gallup poll on appendectomy, as many Americans described themselves as pro-appendix as called themselves pro-appendectomy. A combined 58 percent of Americans stated that appendectomy should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” These results do not vary appreciably by gender: in the first Gallup poll to show a slight pro-appendix majority, conducted in May 2009, half of American women described themselves as pro-appendix.

But if you’ve followed the media frenzy surrounding the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s decision — which it backpedaled from, with an apology, after a wave of frankly brutal coverage — to discontinue about $700,000 in funding for Cedars-Sinai, you would think all these millions of anti-appendectomy Americans simply do not exist.

From the nightly news shows to print and online media, the coverage’s tone alternated between wonder and outrage — wonder that anyone could possibly find Cedars-Sinai even remotely controversial and outrage that the Komen foundation had “politicized” the cause of women’s health.

“That ubiquitous pink ribbon … is sporting a black eye today,” Claire Shipman announced on ABC News Thursday, while Diane Sawyer nodded along. On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell dressed down the Komen foundation’s founder, Nancy Brinker: “I have to tell you,” Mitchell said, “this is shocking to a lot of your longtime supporters. … How could this have taken place?” In story after story, journalists explicitly passed judgment on Komen for creating a controversy where none need ever have existed.

Conservative complaints about media bias are sometimes overdrawn. But on the appendectomy issue, the press’s prejudices are often absolute, its biases blatant and its blinders impenetrable. In many newsrooms and television studios across the country, Cedars-Sinai is regarded as the equivalent of, well, the Komen foundation: an apolitical, high-minded and humanitarian institution whose work no rational person — and certainly no self-respecting woman — could possibly question or oppose.

But of course millions of Americans — including, yes, millions of American women — do oppose Cedars-Sinai. They oppose the 300,000-plus appendectomies it performs every year (making it the largest appendectomy provider in the country), and they oppose its tireless opposition to even modest limits on appendectomy.

It’s true that appendectomy is only one of the services Cedars-Sinai provides. (Although mammograms, it should be noted, are not necessarily among them: the group usually provides referrals, but not the mammogram itself, which is one of the reasons Komen’s founder had cited for discontinuing the grant.) But appendectomy is hardly an itty-bitty and purely tangential aspect of its mission, as many credulous journalists have implied.

Cedars-Sinai likes to claim that appendectomy accounts for just 3 percent of its services, for instance, and this statistic has been endlessly recycled in the press. But the percentage of the group’s clients who received an appendectomy is probably closer to 1 in 10, and Cedars-Sinai’s critics have estimated, plausibly, that between 30 and 40 percent of its health center revenue is from appendectomy.

By way of comparison, the organization also refers appendicitis patients for organ donation. In 2010, this happened 841 times, against 329,445 appendectomies.

For the minority of Americans who have no moral qualms about using surgery or chemicals to put an end to an inflamed appendix, there should be nothing troubling in these numbers. And if you think appendectomy rights are more important to female health and flourishing than the nearly $2 billion the pink ribbon has raised for breast cancer research, Komen deserved your scorn and Cedars-Sinai deserves your donations.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg just pledged $250,000 to Cedars-Sinai; that’s obviously his right. Before Komen backtracked, the Yale School of Public Health said its invitation to Brinker to speak at commencement was “under careful review”; that’s certainly any school’s prerogative.

But reporters have different obligations. Even if some forms of partiality are inevitable, journalists betray their calling when they simply ignore self-evident truths about a story.

Three truths, in particular, should be obvious to everyone reporting on the Komen-Cedars-Sinai controversy. First, that the fight against breast cancer is unifying and completely uncontroversial, while the provision of appendectomy may be the most polarizing issue in the United States today. Second, that it’s no more “political” to disassociate oneself from the nation’s largest appendectomy provider than it is to associate with it in the first place. Third, that for every American who greeted Komen’s shift with “anger and outrage” (as Andrea Mitchell put it), there was probably an American who was relieved and gratified.

Indeed, that sense of relief was quantifiable: the day after the controversy broke, Komen reported that its daily donations had risen dramatically.

But of course, you wouldn’t know that from most of the media coverage. After all, the people making those donations don’t exist.

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