Last week, the New York Times published a page 1 article by Kenneth
Chang on the creationists' latest antiscientific propaganda campaign,
the "Intelligent Design" movement. The article was criticized
for letting the creationists ramble on at length before offering any
refutation, and generally putting their hackwork and propaganda on a
equal footing with over a century's worth of scientific investigation.
It's been asked whether the Times would give the same treatment to
other false controversies --- whether a holocaust denier, say, would
get similarly reverential treatment. And here in my very own comment
answer, posted by someone who identifies himself as, well, Kenneth
Chang, which I'll reproduce here with emphasis added on a few key points:
- The reason we're writing about I.D. is because they have
already managed to get onto the national stage and influence education
policy around the country, and if you're writing about it, you have to
explain what it is. Similarly, if there were a holocaust denier who
was, say, running for mayor, then yes, we would write an article
describing his (or her) views followed by the appropriate
denunciations and perhaps a clarifying passage indicating there is no
historical dispute that the Holocaust occurred. It would have a
similar back-and-forth structure, and no one would come away with the
impression that the Times approved of holocaust denying simply because
that view was presented first. Rather, I would expect that most people
would appreciate that these views had been exposed and they could
easily judge for themselves how offensive they were.
Note the subtle shifting of the goalposts here. The Times has not
been accused of approving of "intelligent design"; it has
been accused of presenting the debate as legitimate when, in
fact, it is not. If you're writing about I.D., you have to explain
what it is, but you don't have to devote half your article to
a respectful rehash of their idiotic non-arguments. (Though I'm not sure Chang's article actually did say in plain English what "Intelligent Design" really, objectively is: charlatans trying to get religious teaching into the classroom by dressing it up as science, while ignoring all standards for scientific evidence and review. For the most part, it treats them as if they were real scientists with an unorthodox theory. And if you think it's inconceivable for the Times to use language that strong in cases where it demonstrably fits, I invite you to review the Times's coverage of David Duke's run for governor of Louisiana -- like the Nov. 10th, 1991 page 1 piece headlined "Duke: the ex-Nazi who would be governor").
But, never mind that. Let's just think about that holocaust denial
article for a minute, written in the same "back and forth" style as
Chang's "intelligent design" piece, and see how we'd all like it.
Starting at the top, Chang's
begins by explaining, at length, the argument of "leading design
theorist" Michael Behe that the complex of proteins involved in blood
clots could not have evolved. Which drove P.Z. Myers to ask
- When Behe says, "if any one of the more than 20 proteins
involved in blood clotting is missing or deficient ... clots will not
form properly", why not point out right there, in that paragraph, that
[Prof. Russell] Doolittle says that "scientists had predicted that
more primitive animals such as fish would be missing certain
blood-clotting proteins", and that Behe was shown to be wrong?
Instead, the fourth through seventh paragraphs of the Times article
--- all on the front page, in my library's printed edition --- have
Behe's argument, and Doolittle's refutation doesn't start till the
fifteenth, for which the reader must turn to page 10. People who read only the grafs
on page 1, of whom there are many, could easily be left with
the impression that science had no specific refutation of Behe.
A similar treatment of a Holocaust denier would give a respectful
restatement of his views, then go on for several more paragraphs to
say, in general terms, that Jews find these sorts of views
objectionable, before finally explaining, starting in the fifteenth
graf, that we have pictures of mass graves and death camps, or that the once vibrant
Jewish communities of Germany and Poland had essentially vanished
after the war. It would put the denier on page 1 (along with a few
statements of general distaste for his position), and leave a
presentation of the evidence against him, for "balance", along with
plenty more "evidence" in favor, for the inside pages.
Who could have a problem with that? After all, a similarly
"balanced" treatment of Iraq WMD skeptics in the IAEA and foreign governments
before our invasion, or of the people within our own military raising doubts about
the administration's "cakewalk" postwar scenarios, would have been a marked
improvement over what we actually got.
Looking over that last paragraph, I can imagine someone from
the Times asking whether I want them to be more balanced or less. So to put my position in slightly plainer English: In each case here, the Times made a judgment about which views to present, and at what length. In each case, the friends of the present administration got more credit and respect than they deserved, and in each case, their opponents got less. That's the same bias both times, even if the result in one case was a piece which, measured crudely by word count, might appear superficially "balanced". The Times's coverage of the Duke campaign was largely free of this phony "balance", and better journalism for it.