Time magazine demonstrates yet again why fewer and fewer people are turning to the old-guard media for their news. In its Jan. 31 issue, the once venerable news organ is running a hackneyed article on intelligent design as a secret conspiracy (yawn!). Bearing the hysterical title “Stealth Attack on Evolution,” the piece comes with an even more fevered subtitle: “Who is behind the movement to give equal time to Darwin’s critics, and what do they really want?!!!!” Okay, I added the emphasis and exclamation points. But the title deserves it. It reads like something you’d see in a supermarket tabloid. Time lists three authors for the story: Michael Lemonick, Noah Isakson, and Jeffrey Ressner. But in the interest of full disclosure, the magazine should have listed a fourth: Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Darwin spin-doctor extraordinaire. Scott is quoted in the article, but she should have been credited as one of the writers, for Time’s reporters simply recycled her spin in their own words. The writers’ effort to attack ID as a sinister secret plot to foist religion on unsuspecting students comes straight out of the NCSE’s playbook.
In a future post, I will catalog some of the more egregious errors and omissions of the Time piece. Here I’d simply like to tell about my encounter with Time reporter Jeffrey Ressner, with whom I had a lengthy phone conversation. After talking with dozens of reporters on the science education issue, I have become rather skeptical of most reporters’ ability to report fairly about the evolution controversy. Usually they have visions of “Inherit the Wind” dancing around in their heads, and they simply recycle stereotypes from the Scopes trial, regardless of the actual facts. Even reporters from places like The Washington Post produce shoddy and inaccurate stories on the subject (see here and here for examples). Because of the pervasively poor reporting of the old-guard media on this issue, I now begin many interviews by listing for reporters some of the most egregious inaccuracies and stereotypes in recent news reports. Usually when I do this, reporters respond that they just want to present the story accurately and fairly. They assure me that they don’t have any preconceived agenda. I’ve learned to be more than a little skeptical of such protestations; indeed, in my experience, reporters who protest too loudly about their fairness sometimes turn out to be the most biased.
True to form, Jeffrey Ressner reponded to my complaints by trying his best to convince me that Time wasn’t like the rest of the newsmedia. Indeed, when I noted how poorly The New York Times had covered this issue during the past year, he sounded positively offended that I would think of equating Time with a newspaper like the Times! His clear implication was that he didn’t think much of the Times for unbiased and fair newscoverage. He assured me, however, that Time magazine prided itself on being fair to all parties—on being “fair and balanced,” I believe his phrase was. He suggested that if Time wasn’t fair and balanced, it would eventually lose its readership.
Jeffrey also commented that one reason there was so much stereotyping on the evolution issue is that it was easier for reporters to fit their stories into a preconceived framework. But of course, he wasn’t going to be like that. Of course not… I guess that’s why his story parrots the NCSE and reads like a supermarket tabloid.