Coverage of Evolution Debate Shows Mainstream Media are Purveyors of ‘Fake News’
Following the national news lately has been a frustrating exercise in “He said, she said.” Is Trump on a fast track to impeachment for high treason in colluding with Putin’s Russia, per the drumbeat of the media? Or are the media a fountain of “very fake news," as Trump says, panting for revenge over a lost election, and willing to see the White House implode along with the country, sending the struggling middle class to h*** as a bonus?
Since few of us have the resources to verify any of this with first-hand information, must it come down to a question of which side you trust least? With so much at stake, that is unsatisfactory. No, what’s needed is some sort of independent metric for weighing the credibility of at least one side in the standoff over media truthfulness. In that, I may be able to help.
The Long-Term Media Accountability Experiment
For more than a decade, my colleagues and I at Discovery Institute have been conducting what I call a Long-Term Media Accountability Experiment. In this multiyear project, we have gauged the trustworthiness of mainstream media sources, focusing on a subject where we have first-hand knowledge: the debate about Darwinian evolution. Evolution is convenient for present purposes because so far it hasn’t figured prominently in controversies around the Trump Administration.
We’ve found that journalists routinely prevaricate and mislead and, when challenged, almost invariably refuse to correct the record. Though “fake news” is a recent coinage, we’ve been documenting it for years in media outlets from the national level -- the Washington Post, ProPublica, the New York Times, the Guardian, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, Religion News Service, National Review, Slate, Science, and more -- to a range of local newspapers. You may not be familiar with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or the Texas Tribune, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Austin American Statesman, the Weatherford Democrat, Huntsville Item, or Jacksonville Progress, the Akron Beacon Journal or similar venues, but they are influential in their communities.
When I say “evolution,” that’s shorthand not so much for the scientific question of biological origins -- whether the long history of life gives objective evidence of intelligent design. On that, thoughtful and honest people may disagree. Instead, I’m talking about the mundane and tractable question of how media spokesmen report on this debate, especially its public policy aspects, and characterize those on both sides.
In scores of articles at our daily reporting and analysis site, Evolution News, we have found that in the hands of the mainstream media, journalism merges seamlessly with axe-grinding propaganda.
Some Themes of Media Distortion
Some themes of media distortion include the following. We know that our arguments for intelligent design (ID) draw on the relevant sciences alone (biology, cosmology), not Scripture, and that that our arguments presume a standard Big Bang time-frame with a universe having originated some 13.7 billion years ago. Yet to discredit the scientific case for design, journalists over and over conflate ID with “creationism,” a particular way of reading science through the lens of the Bible, typically assuming a “young earth” less than 10,000 years old.
In states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and the current flash point of South Dakota, we have supported responsible academic freedom laws. These laws allow science teachers to present the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian theory as an explanation of biological novelties. They don’t introduce or protect teaching about intelligent design, and certainly not about any religious doctrine (like creationism). They explicitly extend protection to science instruction alone, and then only when it enriches students’ understanding of subjects that are already part of the curriculum (which ID is not). Yet journalists routinely assert that these laws would shoehorn intelligent design and “creationism” in public school science classes.
In the same context, when we advocate introducing students to “critical thinking” on evolution, with teaching material drawn only from mainstream science, the media claim that “critical thinking” is “code” for intelligent design, or for “intelligent design creationism.” We know that it’s not, and that the “code word” conspiracy theory is utterly false. It doesn’t make any sense, either. A law can permit or forbid something. Someone reading the law and deciding how to implement it needs to know what you meant to protect or forbid. A law written in “code” understandable only to a masked cabal would be pointless and self-nullifying.
Though Discovery Institute has always opposed pushing ID into public schools, one school district in Pennsylvania disregarded our advice and ham-handedly sought to do just that. In 2005 they lost a federal court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, over it. Though the case pertained only to the Middle District of Pennsylvania, media advocates ever since have falsely portrayed the decision as a Waterloo for intelligent design, an ultimate defeat as both policy and science.
Again, the idea is absurd if you think about it for a moment. A judge in Harrisburg, PA, steps out of total obscurity and suddenly has standing to decide once and for all an ultimate question that scientists and philosophers have struggled over for millennia? Please.
The Media Echo Chamber
Yet these points and more are hit again and again by media organs. The supposedly objective investigative news site ProPublica hit all of them -- codes, creationism, Kitzmiller v. Dover -- in a recent article, going after then-Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, who had mentioned “critical thinking” in her appointment hearing. When a colleague and I challenged their reporting, focusing on a distortion of our education policy that could be verified by published documents on our website, an editor brushed us off, claiming it came down to a “matter of opinion and debate, not fact.”
I’ve documented my correspondence with the editor, which I found very revealing. I might have let it drop had I not heard an annoying report on NPR extolling the comedian John Oliver for his smug, frequently vile and partisan rants on HBO. Besides commending flatulence as a pillar of comedy, Oliver praises ProPublica in a league with The New Yorker as a source of fact that he draws upon.
And remember that what I’ve said so far pertains only to coverage of the debate itself, mostly about public policy where the reporter wasn’t called on to adjudicate scientific matters. On the science of evolution, my single favorite media distortion was an article at The Daily Beast by theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson. Recounting a debate with Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer, he chided intelligent design advocates for failing to grapple with the proof of evolution from human babies being born with “tails.” In all seriousness, he linked to an article from a humor site, Cracked, with a photo of a tailed baby. The tail, we showed, had been Photoshopped in. The original Daily Beast article remains up, still deriding ID as “pseudo-science” and still pointing readers to the fake tailed baby.
So, do respected media outlets merit the respect they get, from other media outlets or from media consumers? The answer depends on whether you think they are what they claim to be, high-minded purveyors of fair, thoughtful reporting? Or are they activists using the guise of fair reporting to advance an agenda that they won’t admit, perhaps not even to themselves?
Perhaps it’s only their coverage on the evolution debate that’s a problem, while the media are scrupulously accurate when it comes to all other matters. Judge that for yourself.
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