Last week’s viral story about the Trump administration supposedly banning the CDC from using certain words was widely misconstrued.
As of this writing, the Washington Post’s December 15 story, “CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity” has been shared more than 1.7 million times, according to the Facebook graph API. In addition to those three words, other words like “science-based,” “evidence-based,” “entitlement,” and “vulnerable” were supposedly on the list of words to not be used in the CDC’s budget request to be sent to Congress.
The original report referred to a meeting between senior CDC leaders and policy analysts with the agency. While President Trump was never outwardly blamed for the change in wording, major news outlets cited the Post in their versions of the story and insinuated that the decision to ban the words from CDC budget proposals came from the Trump administration.
“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,” read CNN’s version.
“Trump administration bans seven words at CDC,” read a Baltimore Sun headline.
While the original story was shared almost 2 million times, an important clarification reported by the New York Times on the alleged word ban was only shared 28,000 times as of Wednesday. That’s approximately just 1.6 percent of the shares the Post got on their story, meaning many are unaware that the story they shared has been essentially debunked.
One key section in the Times’ report shows that the decision to not use those seven words in budget proposals wasn’t an ideological decision made by officials in the Trump White House, but by “senior officials who oversee the agency’s budget” who thought those seven words would be triggering to Republicans in Congress who hold the purse strings (emphasis ours):
A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.
“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,” the former official said. “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.”
In other words, the Trump administration did not censor the CDC — people heading the agency told policy analysts within the agency tasked with writing the annual budget proposal to word certain things differently so Republicans would be more willing to fund important programs.
As of this writing, The Washington Post’s original article has not been corrected.
Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.