A free and independent press? Not quite. Our national media do not always operate at arms-length from state-backed science, as the California Science Center (CSC) affair has demonstrated.
As you probably know by now, in 2009 the state-run CSC cancelled a contract with the American Freedom Alliance (AFA) to screen a pro-ID documentary, Darwin’s Dilemma, triggering a lawsuit over unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. That lawsuit was recently settled. By the terms of the settlement agreement, the Science Center paid $110,000 and again opened its doors to the film, an invitation that was acknowledged by AFA as an apology and then respectfully declined for pragmatic reasons.
True, the Science Center did not explicitly admit in the agreement that it engaged in viewpoint discrimination, but the large payout and invitation may be taken as an implicit admission that its defense regarding the viewpoint discrimination claim was weak, and that a public trial should therefore be avoided. Indeed, the Science Center was wise to settle. Otherwise the world and a jury would have seen emails that pointed plainly to viewpoint as the basis for cancelling the event. On that, as one Science Center vice president aptly summarized, “[AFA’s] topic of Darwinism and the nature of their controversial approach is likely not a good fit with a science center,” for “the main problem is that [AFA] is an anti-Darwin/Creationist group.”
Despite this and other evidence of viewpoint discrimination, documented extensively here, the Science Center issued a press release this week denying all wrongdoing, and explicitly denying having cancelled the event on the basis of viewpoint. Rather, the Science Center claims it cancelled because AFA violated the event agreement. But, again, private emails discovered during litigation betray the Science Center’s public claim.
Once the top decision-maker at the Science Center learned that the event would portray ID favorably, and that this displeased the Smithsonian Institution and other heavy-hitters in the Darwin community, the hunt for a publicly acceptable reason to cancel was on:
[CSC CEO Jeff Rudolph] just called and is wondering if [AFA] violated an agreement — like was this supposed to be a private screening or did they say it was a public screening? If they misrepresented the event, then we can cancel them.
Shortly after the CEO’s order came down the chain, one of the Center’s vice presidents happily announced that she had manufactured plausible deniability:
[The American Freedom Alliance] did receive an agreement w/the following language — hope this covers us well!
Now, this isn’t the first time that a bunch of government actors have colluded to cover their own wrongdoing. Indeed, we’re accustomed by now to being misled this way, so much so that, since Watergate, the running convention has been to simply append “gate” to some catchy noun that captures the essence of the latest bit of taxpayer-funded subterfuge. To sum up the trickery at and around the state-run museum that is the Science Center, we tentatively commend to the reader the designation “Darwingate.” In view of just the emails referenced above, the tag has surely been earned.
Yet one wonders whether Darwingate has not already metastasized into another vital organ of American democracy: the press.
Normally, we count on those who take public money to live up to standards of transparency and forthrightness in the conduct of public business, all the more so when that business participates in the grand scientific project, as in the case of the California Science Center. (Of course, individual scientists are as inherently bias-prone and self-serving as anyone else, disciplinary methods notwithstanding.)
Normally, too, we count on journalists to live up to standards of journalistic integrity, which means working tirelessly and in good faith to fully expose all clues that point to an official breach of the public trust, as we’ve had here. (Where would we be without Woodward and Bernstein?)
So it’s disconcerting that the Los Angeles Times omitted from its coverage of this story the significant fact that the Science Center paid $110,000 to avoid public trial. Worse, despite being made aware of their original omission, the Times has refused to correct the mistake, and furthermore has let us know that it intends no additional or remedial coverage of this newsworthy episode, even though the whole thing went down in the newspaper’s own backyard, right under its nose in (the ironically named) Exposition Park.
As history has repeatedly shown, when freedom of the press is not vigorously and responsibly exercised, freedom of speech belongs only to established powers. Due to a lapse by the Times, First Amendment values went 0 for 2 in Los Angeles.