Saturday, August 06, 2005

Matthews Declares a Winner

What should a TV public affairs show do when it stages a debate, and one side performs badly and doesn’t make its points effectively? One approach, displayed on Hardball last Tuesday, is to pressure the bad performer to do better, and when she fails, declare her the loser. Another approach might be to learn something about the issue before hand, and bring relevant facts into the debate if the debaters fail to do so. This approach would better inform the viewers, but it's definitely not the Hardball style.

Chris Matthews was playing Hardball with Mike Johnson of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. The topic was a curriculum developed by the National Council, purportedly on the Bible as literature, which critics, including Miller, accuse of being an academically weak and thinly disguised course on the Bible as Truth.

Miller claimed that the course contains many errors. When Matthews asked her to name some, she mentioned that it took an explicitly Protestant perspective on the Bible, and did not recognize the Catholic or Jewish perspectives. When asked to cite actual errors, rather than instances of bias, she mentioned that the book spelled Hanukkah three different ways. Matthews responded “So what,” and asked for additional errors.

Then the following discussion ensued:
MILLER: They use creation science to—as the foundation of science in the Bible.


MATTHEWS: OK, give me another error. Give me another error, Kathy.

I am giving you plenty of time. Take all the time you want.

MILLER: I'm sorry?

MATTHEWS: Give me another—give me the biggest error in the book, the Bible studies program, the biggest one you got.


MILLER: The biggest error in the book is the fact that pages and pages are lifted verbatim from questionable sources with little or no citations.

MATTHEWS: Like what?

After a bit more floundering from Miller, Johnson proceeds to reassure Matthews that the course involves no proselytizing and that it just helps young people develop cultural literacy.

This is how Matthews completes the segment.
MATTHEWS: We have to get out of here.


MATTHEWS: Kathy, Kathy, you lost the argument.

Michael, you won the argument this time.

Suppose that instead of merely refereeing a debate and then pronouncing a winner, Matthews had instead done a little homework. A New York Times article from the previous day would have informed Matthews of the following facts about the curriculum:
  • It falsely “cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II Kings.”
  • It claims to offer "scientific documentation" of Noah’s flood.
  • It gives credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the Scriptures.
A quick visit to the website of the Texas Freedom Network would have found the following additional accusations about the curriculum:
  • properly endorses the Bible as the “Word of God””
  • it “erroneously implies that historians generally believe that the Bible, even more than the Constitution, is the nation’s “Founding Document””
  • it “cites a “respected scholar” who claims that archaeological evidence “always confirms the facts of the Biblical record””
  • it “identifies a creation scientist as an expert and recommends materials from his Creation Evidence Museum to explain the origins of life.”
  • it is full of errors (such as the dates of historical events, the identities of key individuals, and the details of biblical stories), faulty logic, unsubstantiated claims and unclear wording, including (for examples, follow the link).
Apparently Ms. Miller was not well briefed enough to make these points, or perhaps she was too flustered by the being on TV, or by the cross-talk and by Matthews’ hostility. Clearly, her performance could have been better.

But what about Matthews? A journalist who was treating the discussion seriously, rather than as a debating game, would have raised these issues. Half an hour of research would have been more than sufficient to find these points, which could have been addressed to Mr. Johnson. Matthews might also have asked Johnson how his portrayal of the secular nature of the course fits in with the statements on this organization's website that “There has been a great social regression since the Bible was removed from our schools” or that "The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children." Perhaps Mr. Johnson would have had good responses to these questions. But we don’t know, because Matthews couldn't be bothered to do a minimum of homework, and didn’t take the discussion seriously. As a result, a group that appears to be trying to put religious indoctrination into the schools in the guise of a Bible as literature course got to portray itself as a victim of pointless carping.