Columnists > Voices

Withholding applause

But why shouldn't journalists be able to clap with both hands when they witness new wonders?

Issue: "Terror on trial," Oct. 18, 2003

AS BASEBALL PLAYOFFS AND HEARINGS ABOUT one-sided teaching of evolution continue, we might contemplate the old Zen Buddhist question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? I have an answer: It's the sound of journalists in a press box.

Quick explanation: Applauding or cheering are forbidden in the spaces behind home plate where knights of the keyboard gather. Rule and custom have said so for at least 20 years, according to Jim Schultz, director of public relations for the Atlanta Braves. But I saw him pushing his right hand against the press box table this summer when his team did well. Confronted with that observation he came clean, and fingered a couple of Atlanta reporters who surreptitiously do the same for the Braves.

When I asked sportswriters about cheer-less press boxes, some said they were trying to maintain a professional atmosphere in their workplace. Others offered a rationale of "objectivity": They did not want to be "homers," rooters for the hometown team. But I found myself wanting to break the rules by cheering or applauding great plays by either team. Art lovers can see new paintings and rejoice, so why should press objectivity require the silent denial of excellence?

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The real reason for silence, I suspect, is tiredness: Some who spend every day at the ballpark lose their sense of wonder about athletic achievement and instead become know-it-alls. A reporter at one game spotted dark clouds and predicted, "This game won't go five innings." He was right: The downpour began in the fifth inning and tarps came out. After a half-hour stoppage the field crew ran on and fans cheered, but the reporter muttered, "Don't get excited, they're just pushing off the water." He was right again, but what price predictive glory: His seen-it-all sense left him without wonder.

One problem of conventional objectivity is its tendency to embrace tired blandness. (That's why at WORLD we try to practice biblical objectivity, an attempt to report accurately by beginning with the belief that the Bible shows us how to look at the world with fresh eyes.) Another problem is that no reporter practices conventional balancing all the time anyway. Reporters do not balance news about breakthroughs in the war against cancer with pro-cancer reports. These days newspapers that affectionately cover Gay Pride parades rarely sense any need to quote thoughtful critics of homosexuality.

And so we come to one controversy facing proponents of Intelligent Design. The Texas State Board of Education plans to decide early in November whether to require textbooks to include a pinch of criticism in their pages of pro-evolution teaching. But many journalists feel no need to balance Darwinian propaganda with Intelligent Design perspective, since they see the latter as educational cancer.

Is that an exaggeration? Look at a recent e-mail exchange between Rob Crowther of the Discovery Institute, the Intelligent Design spearhead, and Houston Chronicle editorial board member James Gibbons. Mr. Crowther wrote of his disappointment to find the Chronicle twisting the textbook question and misrepresenting the Intelligent Design position. He asked whether the Chronicle had "any interest in representing Discovery Institute's side of this important issue?"

Mr. Gibbons replied with a firm NO, writing that "As Winston Churchill once remarked, 'I will not be neutral as between the fire and the firemen.' In similar fashion, the Chronicle Editorial Board will not be neutral as between biologists and members of the modern no-nothing [sic] party who have no regard for reason, intellect, or even basic honesty."

In defense of Mr. Gibbons, his role on the editorial page does not require him to pretend to be neutral. Even so, his expression of bigotry is breathtaking: It's rare to label people you don't know as idiots and liars. But that's the way it's been for critics of Darwin ever since the Scopes trial in 1925.

CNN, on the other hand, has no defense. The news network covered an Austin hearing this summer in which witnesses encouraged the State Board of Education to correct factual errors in biology textbooks and to require that textbooks present both the weaknesses and strengths of evolutionary theory. But CNN ignored the actual testimony at the hearing and depicted the textbook battle as one between extremist Bible-thumpers and scientists, instead of the dispute among scientists that it now is.

Many ballpark press boxes, sadly, include reporters bored with baseball. Many media organizations, sadly, include journalists who have boxed themselves in ideologically. But why not bring our hands together when we see new wonders on the basepaths or in the pathways of life?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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