Unfortunate Evolution February 24, 2009Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
Tags: Bias, Creationism, Darwin, Democrats, Evolution, Fox News, Intelligent Design, Journalism, Media, Media Bias, Politics, Republicans
On the cover of its November 2004 issue, National Geographic posed the question “Was Darwin wrong?” But when you flipped to the article inside, the answer was printed in big, bold font: NO. Even the main evolution page on Wikipedia doesn’t mention any controversy, and for all of the free encyclopedia’s faults, that’s saying something. Yet just in time for Darwin’s 200th birthday, Gallup released a new poll showing that a scant 39 percent of Americans “believe in the theory of evolution.”
That’s appalling. This shouldn’t need explaining, but there is no substantive controversy about evolution. There are still questions to be answered about some of its mechanisms and intricacies, but within the volumes of predictive, verifiable data we have gathered, there is not a single piece of evidence that refutes the theory. And for clarification, that’s scientific theory, rigorously tested and tantamount to fact, like the theories of gravity and plate tectonics. This differs from the colloquial “theory” you might use to guess how you made it home from the bar without remembering. To paraphrase physicist Murray Peshkin, saying evolution is “only a theory” is like saying it’s “only science.”
Yet just last month, Dr. Don McLeroy (a dentist) led conservatives on the Texas Board of Education in a renewed crusade to wedge religion into the classroom at the expense of basic education. This review of the state’s science standards will face a final vote next month, but similar battles have already been fought in at least ten states over the past decade, often buoyed by alarming levels of public support. In Kansas, the most infamous case, teaching evolution was actually banned for two years. Thank goodness we aren’t trying to pass any evolution legislation.
We are, however, expecting legislation on important science-based issues like climate change, and the outlook there is just as bleak. In my first column this semester, I wrote about a May 2008 poll showing a partisan divide among Americans who understand that humans contribute to climate change. A similar Rasmussen poll recently found that this rift has widened: now just 21 percent of Republicans acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, compared to 59 percent of Democrats. As Stephen Colbert once said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias” (video in this previous post). So it is understandable that Republicans have not exactly championed our nation’s academic pursuits. But an anti-scientific sentiment can have dangerous consequences, especially if it goes unchecked.
Watching the major congressional battles since this summer (especially on offshore drilling and climate change) I have noticed a trend: the national media, particularly on TV, have largely abandoned their watchdog role and have been covering these debates without substantive fact-checking as “he said/she said” stories. Facts and fabrications have been placed on equal footing to avoid “taking a side.” The election was covered the same way. But this is a terrible journalistic paradigm.
Balance is nice, but isn’t accuracy a more important journalistic value? Calling out a politician for lying is not partisan, it’s the media’s responsibility. Obviously it would be best if people just told the truth, but that’s not happening. And the stimulus coverage was more of the same.
Media Matters analyzed twelve cable news programs’ coverage of the stimulus debate. Of the 460 guests interviewed, only 25 of them – that’s 5 percent – were actually economists. No wonder the potential impacts of the bill were so vulnerable to political spin. And Think Progress found that savvy Republicans were only too happy to exploit this opportunity, appearing on cable news programs twice as frequently as their Democratic counterparts. But one network took coverage to a new low.
The following may shock you, so brace yourself: Fox News has a Republican bias. And last week, they were as tactful as a skirted starlet stepping from a limo. On Feb. 10th, anchor Jon Scott put up a graphic showing the costs of the stimulus package that was copied verbatim from a press release by the Senate Republicans Communication Center, same damning typo and all. “Fair and balanced” my Democratic donkey. Kudos again to Media Matters for “exposing” such a blatant attempt to disseminate partisan propaganda as reporting. But at least Fox had the courage to apologize – for just the typo (video thanks to Howard Kurtz).
Our country is being steered by a misinformed public and polarized politicians unrestrained by accountability. Science itself is under attack. These are complex problems with varied causes. Yet they have one thing in common: objective media coverage could combat them all.
But that’s not going to happen. Believe it or not, journalism is evolving. With the expansion to the internet and growing popularity of blogs, niche news is on the rise. People seem to want their news told from their perspective, and media outlets will provide what consumers demand; Fox News, the Huffington Post, even Jon Stewart are thriving. And with newspapers experiencing serious financial difficulties, the days of the objective reporter could actually be numbered. If you think bipartisanship is a myth today, try to imagine it at the bottom of this slippery slope (a logical fallacy, I know, but the point stands).
I wish I could end this column with a solution, but I honestly don’t see one. It would be comforting to believe that some omnipotent, not explicitly Christian deity was guiding this media transformation, but judging from its current trajectory, this looks like anything but an Intelligent Design.
A version of the post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.