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A Look Inside the Media Sausage Factory: Alternative Facts from ProPublica

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Do respected media outlets like, say, The New Yorker or ProPublica merit the respect they get, from other media outlets or from media consumers? The answer depends on whether you think they are what they claim to be, high-minded purveyors of fair, thoughtful reporting? Or are they activists using the guise of fair reporting to advance an agenda that they won't admit, perhaps not even to themselves?

I ask because we get fed into the machinery of these organs, and it makes a difference when someone is reporting about you rather than about a stranger. That's not only because you have a direct stake in the matter but because you know the truth about yourself that they either have got right or hopelessly mangled.

Well, I spent the latter part of Tuesday corresponding with an editor at ProPublica ("Journalism in the Public Interest") regarding their inaccurate reporting about Discovery Institute's science education policy. I focused on an assertion in an article that was untrue in a clear-cut manner, as should have been clear from a look at our own website and other published material. The editor would not budge, insisting it was a matter of opinion, not fact. It was a look into the sausage factory -- how fake news is generated and defended.

Our colleague Sarah Chaffee had already responded to the ProPublica article, "DeVos' Code Words for Creationism Offshoot Raise Concerns About 'Junk Science.'" She noted a variety of misrepresentations in the piece by reporter Annie Waldman, including about how "'critical thinking' has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design," ID is an "outgrowth of creationism," and "According to federal law, [ID] cannot be taught." Sarah did a fine job, and I likely would have let it rest there had I not heard an irritating NPR story the other day about comedian John Oliver, adored for his smug (and frankly, vile) rants on the HBO program Last Week Tonight.

In the interview, besides soliciting from Oliver the pronouncement that flatulence is one of the pillars of comedy, NPR noted that his facts are provided to him "by a team of researchers, many of whom are pulled from such journalistic outfits as The New Yorker magazine and the investigative site ProPublica." Oliver has even plugged the website on his show, telling viewers to "donate to groups like ProPublica, a nonprofit group which does great investigative journalism." This resulted in a "surge in donations," according to another source, Poynter.

"Great investigative journalism," you say? I decided to put their investigative ethics to the test by seeing how well they would respond to a challenge on the facts. We all make mistakes. Would Ms. Waldman ignore me and stick with her errors, or correct them?

I first tweeted to her on this, then upon not receiving a reply, sent her an email. She never answered, but I did hear back from her editor, Dan Golden. I don't see any reason why our email interaction should be private since ProPublica is an "investigative site" that attacked us using alternative facts that I know to be untrue. Indeed, when Center for Science & Culture associate director John West was contacted by Ms. Waldman, he told her one of her notions, that "'critical thinking' is code for intelligent design," was "ludicrous." Dr. West's attempt to set her straight made no impression, though at least she quoted him.

It's all very revealing. I wrote:

Ms. Waldman,

Writing at Evolution News & Views, which I edit, my Discovery Institute colleague Sarah Chaffee has pointed out significant misrepresentations in your January 30 article for ProPublica. Do you plan to correct them?

[Link]

[Link]

Kindly let me know. Thank you.

David Klinghoffer

To this, her editor replied:

Dear Mr. Klinghoffer,

How are you? Thank you for your email to Annie Waldman. As her editor, I am responding to your request for a correction.

I have reviewed both Annie's article and the critique by your colleague. In my judgment, Annie's article is factually accurate, and therefore we do not plan to publish a correction.

Ms. Chaffee takes issue with Annie's description of intelligent design as an offshoot of creationism. This is actually a widespread view, as both creationism and intelligent design posit the existence of an intelligent cause or being guiding the development of the species.

In addition, Annie's article does not state (contrary to your colleague's suggestion) that the Discovery Institute advocates mandatory teaching of intelligent design in public schools. It does state, correctly, that the institute published a briefing packet walking educators through the approach of "teaching the controversy."

Finally, Annie interviewed and quoted the Discovery Institute's Mr. West, so the institute's viewpoint was reflected in her article. I'm sure Annie will continue to reach out to the institute if she writes more on this topic.

Thanks again for getting in touch.

Yours,

Dan Golden

Senior Editor, ProPublica

I answered:

I appreciate your getting back to me. I'll focus on this, which is very clear-cut. Your reporter writes:

"Advocates have contended that presenting intelligent design side-by-side with evolution, also known as 'teaching the controversy,' would enhance the critical thinking skills of students and improve their scientific reasoning. Indeed, a briefing packet for educators from the leading intelligent design group, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, walks teachers through this approach."

You are saying our published document "walks teachers through" teaching intelligent design "side-by-side" with evolution, which you indicate is identical with "teaching the controversy." That is not accurate, and it's not a matter of opinion or interpretation. The approach and examples supplied in the document your reporter cites focus on teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory, NOT on presenting the theory of intelligent design.

See, in particular, the material presented on pages 6-8 and 20-26. In the "Dos and Don'ts" section, we also warn teachers "DO NOT push intelligent design into the public school curriculum." You are confusing ID with the wider controversy about evolution, which is independent of ID. These are two separate things, and scientists who challenge standard evolutionary theory, while rejecting ID, recognize as much. On our website, we make clear that "teaching the controversy" over evolution is not the same as presenting the case for intelligent design:

[Link]

"1. Is raising scientific criticisms of modern Darwinian theory the same thing as advocating intelligent design?

No. One can critique the sufficiency of current evolutionary mechanisms (such as natural selection, random mutations, and genetic drift) without going on to conclude that intelligent processes are a better explanation for the features of nature under study. Indeed, many scientists who reject intelligent design in biology are nevertheless skeptical of key claims made by orthodox Darwinian theory."

Challenging orthodox Darwinian thinking is not limited, at all, to ID advocates. Here, for example, is a website organized by prominent scientists who question neo-Darwinism while also disavowing design in nature: [Link]. An overlapping group of scholars was behind a conference in November at the venerable Royal Society in London. We advocate "enhancing critical thinking skills" for public school students by teaching about this mainstream debate -- that is the purpose of academic freedom bills -- not by teaching about ID.

Put in the simplest terms, ID is defined by presenting positive evidence of design in biology and cosmology. The "controversy" does not pertain to that positive evidence but only to negative critiques regarding neo-Darwinian theory and whether its proposed mechanisms satisfactorily explain all biological novelties.

Our published material is clear. The media habitually confuse all of this, but your site is held to be a disinterested investigative news source. I look forward to a correction.

David

By this point I was not holding out a lot of hope of getting a favorable resolution. Sure enough, Golden replied:

Sorry, but many experts (which I am not, admittedly) would disagree with your view that intelligent design is "independent" of "the wider controversy about evolution." That is a matter of opinion and debate, not fact, and as such does not warrant a correction, which is limited to factual inaccuracies.

Now, this transparently evades the crystal clear issue I had raised. I deliberately did not bring up the business about "codes," which essentially posits a conspiracy theory, because it's so much easier to show that a published document says one thing and not another. Our briefing packet warns against teaching ID in public schools and strongly warns against mandating it. ProPublica's reporter, on the other hand, said our packet "walks teachers through [an] approach" of "presenting intelligent design side-by-side with evolution."

There's a big difference between warning against something and warmly inviting it, which is what walking them through would indicate. As a matter of fact, not of "opinion and debate," the reporting there by Annie Waldman is not accurate. You don't have to be an "expert" to see this. You only have to draw upon a minimal level of reading comprehension. And remember this is all quite apart from the other significant issues raised by Sarah Chaffee that I didn't even try to bring up with the editor, though he says he reviewed Ms. Waldman's article in light of our post.

So there you have it: a source of "investigative journalism" called out on multiple instances of misinformation in a single article refuses to correct the record, brushing aside objections as no more than a difference in "opinion." But I thought the highly regarded news source is supposed to be a source of fact, not opinion?

I'll drop this now, because the parade of fake news about ID and the evolution debate never ends. See Sarah Chaffee's article from Tuesday noting more inaccurate reporting, this time from the Washington Post (another outlet recommended by John Oliver to his viewers, by the way), regarding a South Dakota academic freedom bill.

Keep this in mind when you open your newspaper, read stuff on the Internet, or see it on TV. Even given the imprimatur of a news source with a noble-sounding motto like "Journalism in the Public Interest," if your skepticism is the least bit aroused, don't simply take them at their word. If you suspect axe-grinding, yeah, it's probably there.

Image: John Oliver endorses ProPublica, via YouTube.

I'm on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.