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The Evolution-Creation Controversy: Subtle Bias in the Press
Now that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to review the Louisiana law promoting equal time for evolution and creation, it's a pretty good bet that bits and pieces of the evolution-creation controversy are going to be aired in the press. It is also a pretty good bet that the coverage is going to be less than superb. I feel that it is important that explicit misstatements be corrected whenever they occur. It is also incumbent upon all of us to attempt to correct the more subtle, often unstated, assumptions that these articles are likely to make.
Let me demonstrate some of the substantial bias (although probably unintended) that can make its way into news reports with the example of a short piece published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 6, 1986. The article was an Associated Press story out of Washington, D.C., and was simply meant to report that the Supreme Court had decided to review the federal appeals court ruling in the Louisiana equal time case. The 280-word article included at least four annoying points. The headline, "Top Court will Decide New 'Monkey Law' Case," cannot help but arouse interest. I do not feel, however, that the type of interest aroused will be very helpful in promoting a high level of intellectual discussion on the topic.
The next two examples of bias are more significant and come from a single sentence. In a paragraph briefly summarizing the basics of "creation science," the articles states: "Although it is consistent with religious views, it does not rely overtly on the biblical book of Genesis." By beginning with the phrase, "Although it is consistent with religious views," the sentence in question makes the unstated assumption that evolutionary theory is inconsistent with such views. Indeed, in the following paragraph where evolution is briefly outlined, no mention is made of the fact that evolutionary theory is also consistent with many people's religious views.
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Nor is it mentioned that many of the plaintiffs in both the Arkansas and Louisiana cases were religious figures representing most of the major faiths. Instead, the public is left to infer that "creation science" is both scientific and compatible with religion while evolutionary theory is in direct opposition to all religious teachings.
Second, whether "creation science" is too closely entangled with the Bible or with one fundamentalist religious sect is exactly what the Louisiana case is all about. Whether intended or not, the AP is apparently passing judgment on the constitutionality of the case and, in fact, is directly contradicting the decision reached in the very similar Arkansas trial in this regard. Judge William Overton's January 1982 decision ruling that the Arkansas equal-time law was an unconstitutional infringement of the establishment clause of the First Amendment was quite explicit:
By not attributing the statement that "[creation science] does not rely overtly on the biblical book of Genesis" to any particular person and by instead treating it as established fact, the AP is clearly misleading the large majority of people who read their account.
Finally, the article quotes two experts on the issue: Wendell R. Bird and Anthony T. Podesta. Bird is described as an Atlanta lawyer and the chief legal advocate for the "creation science" movement, while Podesta is portrayed as being the president of the liberal advocacy group, People for the American Way. These descriptions set the stage quite clearly, even if erroneously. The evolution versus creation controversy can thus be seen as one portion of the larger battle between liberals and conservatives. Although People for the American Way may have a liberal image, I do not understand why an organization that works to protect the First Amendment should be identified by the AP as either liberal or conservative. In fact, People for the American Way itself makes no claim to represent only a portion of the political spectrum. In the context of the article in question, moreover, I cannot fathom what important information is transmitted to readers by labeling Podesta as either liberal or conservative. Podesta is simply an outspoken defender of the First Amendment. Surprisingly, no mention of the First Amendment was even made in the AP article. It is also somewhat curious that Bird's affiliation with the Institute for Creation Research was not mentioned. This seems to be a particularly relevant point given that the ICR is the research arm of Christian Heritage College and that faculty, at the time of their appointment and annually thereafter, have to swear that they agree with the following statement:
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What can be done? Clearly an educated and fully informed public is the best ally that evolutionary scientists can have. It is thus imperative to correct such misuses of language when they occur. Articles such as the one described should not go unquestioned. Letters to the editor should be sent immediately to the newspaper in which the article appeared and, in the case of wire service reports, critiques should be sent directly to the headquarters of the service.
In the present case, I wrote a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer and, because of it, was asked to participate on a radio talk show in Cleveland. I have also sent a copy of this essay to Mr. Louis D. Boccardi, president and general manager of the Associated Press. Quite simply, no opportunity should be missed to correct popular misconceptions about the nature of this debate.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.