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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Popular media and the intelligent design controversy: When reporters write what they "know"

Last night, the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. offered a panel discussion on the theme of the book, edited by an old friend Paul Marshall, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion.

By the by, in Chapter 8, "Getting Religion in the News Room," Terry Mattingly discusses a recent "dropped ball" in coverage of the intelligent design controversy:

Consider one of the most loaded terms in religion news - "fundamentalist". In a New York Times story, reporter Jodi Wilgoren described the beliefs of Discovery Institute fellows highly critical of Darwinian evolution. In the final-edition version of the story, Wilgoren wrote: "Their credentials - advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California - are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world. ... [Most] fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism." But the group included Episcpalians, Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baptists, and several strains of Presbyterianism. What does the world "fundamentalist" mean in this context? (p. 148)
It means a person to whom Jodi Wilgoren considers herself immeasurably superior, even though she has probably not got the least idea why anyone would doubt the Big Bazooms theory of evolution. Mattingly continues,

On top of that, a bible of journalism - the Associated Press Stylebook - warns against using the divisive term in precisely this manner. It states: "fundamentalist: the word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent yeas, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."
Apparently, the Times had to retreat on this one, and it offered a correction in the digital archives. Mattingly comments further,

To avoid having to make that correction, all that was neecdd was to consider the Associated Press Stylebook or allow members of the group to describe their own ideas and beliefs, rather than using labels assigned to them by their enemies? (Pp. 148-49)
Well, I don't know. Given that the whole point of the Times's coverage is to suck up to the DI group's enemies and to reassure those enemies that nothing is happening - nothing that can't be contained by propaganda and crackdowns - why not just continue to use the labels? And when the group's enemies can no longer pay for the persecution, hit on the government!

Think that won't happen? Look here where Jonah Goldberg notes,

... journalistic Brahmins, who last year would have spontaneously combusted at any hint of government meddling in the Fourth Estate, now openly debate whether we should revive the Federal Writers' Project to give jobs to scribes thrown out in the cold by newspaper downsizing.
I myself have had to leave at least one prominent Canadian writers' organization because members are obviously far more interested in writers' welfare than intellectual freedom. So yes, it is in the air.

Never mind, I have a trade for Terry Mattingly: Here Wilgoren's colleague Elisabeth Bumiller substitutes "biblical" for "biological" when interviewing a Discovery Institute fellow - and can you guess the results?

Honestly, as I have said here, I think legacy media will either go under or get legislation that forces everyone to listen to them. In which case, further discount anything you hear from them.

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