Without so much as a nod to George Carlin, officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly issued an Orwellian ban on seven words last week. In breaking the news, a Washington Post headline blared, "CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity."
The paper's own lede modified that sensationalist charge just a bit, noting the allegedly forbidden words were only forbidden in budget documents.
"The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including 'fetus' and 'transgender' — in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget," the article began. Those seven words were said to be: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.
The move was framed as an ideologically-motivated scrubbing of disagreeable language and interpreted as evidence the Trump administration is taking extreme measures to steer federal agencies from an anti-science agenda.
But it seems increasingly likely the initial story wasn't actually the full story.
By the next day, a New York Times report cast doubt on whether the Washington Post's account was a fair depiction of the situation. "The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans," wrote Sheila Kaplan and Donald McNeil. Their report quoted a "former federal official" as saying, "It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the C.D.C. does... They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what C.D.C. can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded."
Indeed, writing in National Review on Sunday, Yuval Levin shed more light on the situation, further confirming the move was less of an ideological ban and more of a strategy to persuade Republicans in Congress primarily within the narrow scope of budget documents. Levin, who previously worked for the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees the CDC), reached out to HHS officials for more information on the Post report. That information-gathering lead Levin to conclude there are "two significant caveats to the Post story and the firestorm that has followed it."
First, the question of these terms (both those in the style guide and those that came up in last week’s CDC meeting) relates only to a distinct subset of budget documents and not to the general work of the CDC or other agencies. No one is saying people can’t use these terms at HHS, though some people clearly think they shouldn’t be used in budget requests sent to Congress. And second, the most peculiar and alarming of the reported prohibitions on terms were not prohibitions at all and did not come from higher-ups in the department but emerged in the course of an internal conversation at CDC about how to avoid setting off congressional Republicans and so how to maximize the agency’s chances of getting its budget-request approved.
In specifically addressing the most politically charged words and phrases, Levin argued, "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."
Omission can often be as misleading and misinformative as plain factual inaccuracy. While omitting the information subsequently revealed about potential motivations for the "ban" in its report, the Post also included paragraphs on how the Trump-era HHS has addressed LGBT issues, framing the move as an ideological one. In fairness, the Post noted in its report that the banned words were only prohibited from use in budget documents, but its headline probably contributed to some confusion on that front.
In this case, and in many cases throughout the first year of the Trump administration, it's unfortunate the public had to wait days for a clearer picture of the full story to emerge.