Media Coverage of Expelled

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I haven't seen Expelled, and I probably won't, but I've read some reviews of it across the spectrum of thought about design arguments and the particular species of them that people are calling Intelligent Design. It's been a nice occasion for everyone to say pretty much the same old things, with virtually all opponents of ID misrepresenting it pretty drastically amidst a few legitimate complaints and many supporters overstating their case, confusing some of the same basic distinctions ID opponents regularly confuse, and setting up science against religion rather than what the argument itself is supposed to suggest, which is that science and religion are in fact compatible.

So this film has drawn out much of the same nonsense that usually gets thrown around. Yet occasionally some real gem pops up that strikes me as insightful and helpful, and this time around I see that in Mollie Hemingway's wonderful critique of the media coverage surrounding this film. Several interesting points stand out:

1. She notices that the mainstream media have largely ignored this. That seems right from what I've seen. She only cites two examples, one that she doesn't think got the film quite right and the other that even I can see gets it completely wrong.
2. She compares it in style and tone to the strident, ideologically-colored, often fact-challenged documentaries of Al Gore and Michael Moore. Since I've seen none of the above, I can't comment, but it's an interesting suggestion.
3. She points out that Moore and Gore have garnered far more mainstream media coverage, not just of their documentaries, but of the issues their documentaries are about.
4. She also takes note of opinion media's much more substantial treatment of the film, and I think that's even much more obviously true when you take into account blogs (which she doesn't mention).

She doesn't really draw the conclusion that's just begging to be drawn and that I think she's suggesting. Whether a strident, ideological, fact-questioned documentary garners media attention and brings about a significant discussion of a certain issue seems to depend on what it's about or what ideology is behind it. It's unclear which it is in this case, which may be why she doesn't draw the conclusion explicitly. Is it because it's an ideology that's associated with conservatism and in particular religious conservatism? Or is it because of the issue rather than the viewpoint? Would a documentary by Michael Moore on the idiocy of intelligent design have the same no-impact result as this film has had in the major media? Would a conservative documentary starring Ben Stein but on health care or the Iraq war have the same attention Moore got with his films on those subjects?

My suspicion is that the answer is no in both cases, which if true means it's the ideology and not the topic that has made the difference. That doesn't demonstrate the point the documentary aims to make (which is about academic freedom), but it does demonstrate a similar point about which views are considered kosher by the establishment media.

8 Comments

Whether a strident, ideological, fact-questioned documentary garners media attention and brings about a significant discussion of a certain issue seems to depend on what it's about or what ideology is behind it.

I suppose that's always been true. But I think there's more going on here.

Michael Moore's best movies have been endorsed by reasonable people. As more information about Moore's methods gets out, however, and as his shtick wears thin, the enthusiasm for Michael Moore has waned. I don't think Sicko got nearly the attention that Fahrenheit 9/11 did; that's probably in part because F9/11 turned out to be gosh-awful. Moore's earlier films, by contrast, were rather interesting. They were dishonest as documentaries, but they were genuinely thought-provoking.

Likewise, Al Gore's filmmaking has been supported by reasonable and even expert people.

I have not seen the same sort of people backing Expelled. The thinking evangelicals I know who have seen it are, at best, conflicted. In most cases, that's because the movie Godwins big-time.

Here's how Mark Moring describes it in Christianity Today:

The film's biggest flaw is a too-long segment where Stein explores Darwinism's alleged connection to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust, essentially implying that such horrific events are almost a necessary result of belief in evolution. In an interview with CT Movies, Stein said he was especially taken by the book From Darwin to Hitler, saying that "It's about how Darwin's theory . . . led to the murder of millions of innocent people." Well, maybe, or maybe not. That may be a theme to be more fully explored in another documentary, but for the purposes of this film, it seemed too tangential.

Tangential, and utterly horrifying to anyone trying to convince people to take ID seriously.

I've heard people say that the scene in question doesn't Godwin quite so badly, i.e. that the suggestion isn't so strong as Darwinism necessarily or even in fact leading to Nazism. I don't remember what this was from, but one of the reviews I saw was critical of it on this issue but not to the point of claiming that it has such a strong conclusion. It was more that someone who wants to derive that conclusion might find support in the film, because they don't work hard enough to resist that conclusion, but according to the review the film didn't give the impression that that claim is true either. These are the dangers of discussing films you haven't seen, I suppose.

I haven't seen it either, to be sure, so I shouldn't make very strong claims about it. But after hearing my best friend's take on Expelled, and then reading the Ben Stein interview quoted above, I'm pretty sure I would rather this movie not get much publicity.

Here's a longer excerpt from Ben Stein's interview with CT:

I read one book cover to cover, From Darwin to Hitler, and that was a very interesting book -- one of these rare books I wish had been even longer. It's about how Darwin's theory -- supposedly concocted by this mild-mannered saintly man, with a flowing white beard like Santa Claus -- led to the murder of millions of innocent people.

That remark and my friend's report, incidentally, make it sound very much as if the movie gets ID wrong the same way its detractors do. Everything I've heard about the movie implies that it is an attack on Darwinian evolution tout court disguised as a defense of IDers' academic freedom.

I suppose it's possible that it's an attack on the perceived consequences of Darwinism, i.e. what it presents as dangers. What it seems not to be is a presentation of any arguments that Darwinism is false. It doesn't even present the ID arguments (not that such arguments involve any denial of evolution anyway).

As for why Expelled is getting little media coverage while Moore and Gore got tons--I'd have to say that a big factor being overlooked is box office. Moore and Gore pulled in Huge grosses, and IIRC it was only after the huge numbers that the media really started devoting lots of ink to the documentaries. I'm sure that if Expelled somehow managed to get in the same ballpark as the revenues of An Inconvenient Truth and Bowling for Columbine, the media would be all over it.

Basically, I don't see it as an ideological thing that the media isn't covering it, but a numbers thing. After all, it's not like the media didn't cover The Passion of the Christ.

F-911 and An Inconvenient Truth did get lots of coverage before they were even released, though, didn't they?

F-9/11 did, but I wonder if that example is in a different category entirely due to the subject matter. I don't think AIT got much coverage beforehand, other than maybe "the former vice president is making a movie." I could be wrong.

I'm pretty sure AIT got little press until it made a lot of money. I think Danny is right that it was mostly treated as a novelty until is unexpectedly drew in lots of crowds to the theater.

F-911 got a lot more pre-release press, but I think that's becuase is came on the heels of the Oscar-winning BfC, which made ridiculous amounts of money.

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