By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Crucifying science

Today’s New York Times account of the intelligent-design trial about to get under way in Pennsylvania is weirdly even-handed. You’d never know from Laurie Goodstein’s report that there’s scandal afoot in Dover, Pa.

Head on over to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, though, and you’ll find a story by Bill Toland that includes this bombshell:

TOLAND: It’s clear that, in Dover, “the board acted with the purpose of promoting religious view,” says Pepper Hamilton attorney Stephen G. Harvey. “One board member said, ‘Two thousand years ago, a man died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?'” Harvey is repeating an account of a school board meeting published in both of York’s daily newspapers. But the board member reported to have made the comment has since said the quotes were fabricated.

An audio tape of the meeting has been destroyed.

I’m sure this isn’t news to people who’ve followed the case more closely than I. But the entire nation wasn’t watching until recently.

The York Dispatch is standing by its account. Just last Friday, it published a timeline of the case that included this:

YORK DISPATCH: — June 15, 2004 — Nearly 100 Dover residents and teachers attended a board meeting to continue debating whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution. School board members, residents and the head of the high school science department said they were concerned about mixing science and religion. Buckingham stood by his opposition to the Prentice Hall book, saying “Nearly 2,000 years ago someone died on a cross for us; shouldn’t we have the courage to stand up for him?”

Board members Alan Bonsell and Noel Wenrich agreed with Buckingham, saying creationism should be taught to balance evolution.

The Times did mention Buckingham’s quote in an article published on Jan. 16 of this year. At that time, the paper reported that Richard Thompson, a lawyer who’s defending the school board, had claimed Buckingham “made that statement in another context, a dispute about the Pledge of Allegiance in 2003.” Hmm. That’s rather different, don’t you think?

Meanwhile, the dispute over what Buckingham and other school-board members actually said could land two journalists in jail, according to this article by Michelle Starr, a reporter with the York Daily Record and York Sunday News. With the tape no longer in existence, lawyers want to force the reporters to testify about what they heard.

Surely this is one of the very few instances where reporters have been subpoenaed to testify about what they observed in an open, public meeting. If they lose their bid to stay out of court, the so-called reporter’s privilege – already under siege in cases ranging from Judith Miller to Wen Ho Lee – will all but disappear.

This is an ugly case. By no means should the mainstream media try to gloss this over with a coat of respectful even-handedness out of a misguided attempt to show that they’re not anti-religion.


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2 Comments

  1. Steve

    What is this “reporter’s privilege”? Starr reports it without question – but I don’t believe any such thing exists. The argument for reporters being able to keep their sources confidential can’t apply here – it was a public meeting. So what legal leg are they trying to stand on here?

  2. mike_b1

    Good question. As you probably know, there’s much debate over what, if anything, reporter’s privilege entails. The attacks on it are mounting; witness last winter when an Illinois appeals judge named Richard Posner entered the fray, much to the media’s dismay. Here’s the story:http://www.chicagoreader.com/hottype/2004/041210_1.html

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