Weird Science

The best entertainment of the past few weeks has been watching the news business squirm its way through the Clonaid story. From the moment when Brigitte Boisselier, the company's chief executive, announced the birth of what she claims is the first human clone, mainstream news outlets have been in full-body agony. But media connoisseurs have been in ecstasy. This one is a real treasure, a collectible that lays bare all kinds of painful truths about journalism.

The central problem with this story, and the reason it's driving news people crazy, is that it defies the usual story categories. On one hand, it's a Zany Cult story. Clonaid was founded by the Raelians, a Canada-based religious group that claims to have been in touch with extraterrestrials who started the human race, and that promotes human cloning as the road to eternal life. When covering religion, journalists are either terribly serious and reverential, or terribly dismissive. Zany cults get the latter treatment, when they are covered at all; their news appearances tend to be limited to the occasional strange-but-true feature, and to rare instances when a serious crime has been committed and the zany cult suddenly looks not so zany. Either way, the tone is the same: deep disdain.

On the other hand, this a Serious Science story. For all the absurdity of the Raelians and the wildness of their claim, the story is not totally implausible. Many scientists believe that, given the successful cloning of animals, it's now possible that someone somewhere will clone a human being. And since human cloning has not gained popular acceptance and raises all kinds of ethical questions, in a way it's fitting that the first clone would come from a fringe outfit like this one, whose stock-in-trade is rejection of popular beliefs. In any case, if Clonaid has produced a human clone and can prove it, that would be an authentic scientific milestone, the sort of thing the scientifically insecure media typically cover with deference and respect, as they did in 1997 when Dolly the cloned sheep was born.

The problem is that, in terms of framing and tone, there is no overlap between the Zany Cult category and the Serious Science category, between disdain and respect. The Clonaid story is a category-killer, and as long as there is no way of proving or disproving the company's claims, the media are left hanging in the excruciating limbo where we found them this week, swinging awkwardly, often sentence-by-sentence, between barely concealed mockery of the Raelians, and furrowed-brow consideration of their scientific case. A headline in Time magazine nicely captured the challenge: "The scientists" nightmare: How do you conduct a reasoned debate about complex moral issues when the news is coming from outer space?"

Of course, the scientists' nightmare was also the journalists', and the most fascinating part of this story—once you got past the little almond-eyed space alien dispensing wisdom from a volcano—was watching news outlets as they struggled to turn this seriocomic opera into meaningful news. One strategy was to do what journalists at a loss always do: Interpret the story through the lens of their own parochial interests and needs. Thus, The Washington Post's initial story about the supposed first clone baby, Eve, was headlined, "Religious Sect Says It Cloned Human; Claim Draws Criticism From White House, Skepticism From Experts." In The Post's world, the White House always comes before the scientists. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, paid a lot of attention to the money angle, including two stories about people involved in human cloning who tried to extract cash from media companies covering it as news.

An Alabama media outlet, The Huntsville Times, found a local Raelian named Damien Marsic who suggested that the group had quite a presence in his community: "A University of Alabama in Huntsville biotechnology doctoral student, Marsic is one of five members of the Raelian movement in the Huntsville area, though he says the group has many local sympathizers." Time, seeking to give the story a national arc, used the very same source to speculate, in an online story, that Raelians might be rare in the region: "It would seem that being a Raelian in the Bible Belt of the Deep South could be a lonely experience, but Marsic says it is not. 'Every Raelian is integrated into society,' he claims. Even so, he knows of only four other Raelians in Alabama, only a handful in Georgia and none in Tennessee." U.S. News & World Report, which ran the story under a "Science & Technology" rubric, mentioned Marsic as an example of the "many scientists" who are Raelians.

Even as the media saw what they chose to see, there was one aspect of the story that news people probably would have preferred not to glimpse: themselves. From the start, it's been striking to note the prominent role played in this story by journalists, not just as observers but as actors. Claude Vorilhon, the founder of the Raelian movement, is a former journalist, and is widely considered to be a great manipulator of the media. Michael Guillen, the man who was going to supervise DNA testing of the first clone—until the Raelians failed to provide the requisite evidence—is a freelance journalist and former science reporter for ABC News who tried to sell the Clonaid story to major media outlets for more than $100,000, according to both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Meanwhile, according to The Post, way back in 1978 there was a similar report of the world's first clone, in a book by a journalist who had written for Time and The New York Times. That one turned out to be a fraud. Better luck this time?