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Texas Textbook Story: New York Times Abandons Journalism for PR

John G. West

The New York Times used to be a serious newspaper. You know, the kind of media outlet where reporters actually bothered to interview people on different sides of an issue. But if its weekend story on the science textbook adoption process in Texas is any indication, such by-the-book journalism is now an endangered species at the Times.

Consider the article’s lopsided use of sources: Of the seven people interviewed in the story, four (57%) are ardent supporters of evolutionary theory and opponents of efforts to encourage critical analysis of evolution in textbooks. The other three offer neutral background information. None of the people interviewed defend critical analysis of evolution in textbooks. Not one. Zero.

That’s right, in an article purporting to examine a controversy over science textbooks, the only people interviewed by the reporter were those favoring one side of the controversy.

Regardless of whether one thinks there is a genuine debate in the scientific community over Darwinian theory, there most definitely is a political and educational debate in Texas over how evolution should be covered in science textbooks. If the Times still wants to be considered an impartial news source, its reporters ought to fairly represent the different sides of that public debate, not suppress the viewpoints they disagree with.

Alas, lopsided sourcing far from the only problem with the article. Here are some others:

  • The story uses the slippery terms “creationist,” “creation science,” and “creationism” nine times without ever defining the terms.
  • The article likewise twice cites the term “intelligent design” without defining it (unless you count slamming intelligent design as creationism’s “cousin” as a definition).
  • The story insinuates that scientist Ide Trotter is a “creationist,” neglecting to inform readers that Trotter accepts the standard dating of the earth and the universe.
  • The article uses matter-of-fact language to describe partisan lobbying groups such as the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) and the National Center for Science Education, while smearing the opponents of TFN with the less-than-neutral epithet “far-right” (another term the Times fails to define). In reality, TFN is a left-wing lobbying group that opposes pro-life and other mainstream conservative groups.
  • The article avoids discussing for the most part the actual scientific criticisms being raised by critics of the textbooks and whether those criticisms might be valid.

Now it doesn’t exactly surprise me to find the Times running a biased article on the evolution debate. We’ve been down that path plenty of times before (see here and here and here). What does surprise me is that the Times apparently has decided to abandon any pretense that it is an impartial news organization that continues to adhere to basic professional standards—standards like the Code of Ethics adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists, which calls on journalists to:

  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant…
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing by journalists in recent years about how the public increasingly gets its news and information from ideological media outlets rather than “authoritative” and “reputable” outlets like the Times. This story shows why there is good reason for the public to be skeptical of the old-line press establishment. If all you are going to get from news outlets like the Times are lightly re-written press releases, why bother with the middleman? If you really want to know what groups like the Texas Freedom Network or the National Center for Science Education think, you can find out on their blogs.

You don’t need the Times to tell you.

I remember a time when mainstream journalists were proud of their craft. They boasted about how they strove for fairness and accuracy in covering different sides of public issues. This pride was especially on display at the New York Times, which regarded itself as the nation’s newspaper of record. Self-respect among editors and reporters at the Times must have sunk pretty low to allow “reporting” like this. Perhaps it’s time for the Times‘ famous motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to be changed to “Only the Views We Endorse.” Or perhaps the Times should simply merge with The Huffington Post or The Daily Kos. At least that would be more honest than pretending to be an impartial news organization.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.