Covering the controversy

As Lebo covered the lawsuit and its participants, she had gradually begun to write with more authority, and did not feel she needed to back up as many assertions with quotes or with references to what “scientists say.” Now convinced of the truth of the broad outlines of the theory of evolution by natural selection, she struggled to construct her stories in a way that would acknowledge the controversy without seeming to give equal scientific weight to intelligent design, which she now saw as poorly disguised creationism.

Lebo wrote, edited, and rewrote with an attentive eye to the macro-structure of her articles, as well as the implications of individual words. Was it fair to compare intelligent design to creationism when that would anticipate the opinion sought in the lawsuit just filed? Was it accurate not to, given that Bonsell and Buckingham had openly discussed their creationist beliefs with her? What about the distinction the school board insisted on between the words “teach” and “make aware?” Which was more accurate? Did intelligent design violate the definition of “science,” as its critics claimed? In a devout community skeptical about evolution, how could she dispute the evidence for intelligent design without seeming to attack religion?

The actual trial was still months away. On January 6, lawyers for the plaintiffs deposed members of the school board. Curriculum Head Buckingham, pressed about his June and July statements supporting incorporating creationism into the science curriculum, denied having made them. Board Head Bonsell and Superintendent Nilsen denied having heard them. This directly contradicted two newspaper accounts of the event, Maldonado’s in the York Daily Record and Bernard-Bubb’s in the York Dispatch . [1]

Lebo was on vacation in Seattle as the story unfolded. Another reporter, Teresa Boeckel, had been assigned to cover it. When Lebo accessed the story on the Daily Record ’s website on January 7, she was incensed by Boeckel’s balanced treatment of a statement Lebo felt was clearly a lie. “They denied what our reporters had printed,” Lebo recalls. Boeckel began the story with Richard Thompson, a lawyer for the Dover Area School District, calling it a “good sign” that lawyers for the plaintiffs had opted not to file an injunction to stop the board from implementing its new policy. “After several days of depositions it became clear that they simply did not have a strong enough case to ask that the policy be blocked,” Thompson said. “Clearly, if they thought they could have succeeded, they would have asked the court to stop the policy before it was implemented.” [2]

Boeckel wrote that Buckingham’s statements before the school board were “in dispute.” Lebo felt that was generous to the point of being misleading. She felt that board members were lying under oath—based not only on Maldonado’s reporting, which she trusted, but also on her own conversations with Buckingham and Bonsell. “I just remember thinking this is not a fair story, [because] it’s perfectly balanced,” she recalls. Looking back on her own coverage, she immediately regretted that she had not specifically used the word “creationism” in describing their stances on evolution education—it would have provided additional evidence to shore up Maldonado’s reporting.

Lebo returned to the paper the following week determined to prove that Bonsell and Buckingham had lied. She recalled the media attention the meetings had generated, and contacted the local Fox affiliate to see if the station had a taped interview of Buckingham using the word “creationism.” They did. Lebo hurried to the studio to watch the tape, on which Buckingham stated: “We’re just looking for a textbook that balances the teaching of evolution with something else, like creationism.” [3]

She went directly back to the office to write her article. Again, she wrestled with word choice. Could she say that Bonsell and Buckingham had lied in their depositions? Was it too harsh, even if it was true? She settled for describing Buckingham’s denial that he had ever suggested teaching creationism at Dover High School, alongside evidence from Fox’s tape and previous news reports.

On January 18, 2005, Dover High School reached the evolution section of the science curriculum. Science teachers had refused to read the four-paragraph statement noting “gaps” in the theory of evolution by natural selection and pointing students to the intelligent design book Of Pandas and People ; School Superintendent Richard Nilsen and Assistant Superintendent Michael Baksa did so in their place, then immediately left the classroom without taking questions. The Dover High School science teachers and close to a dozen students left the classroom in protest while the statement was read. [4]

Lebo was on hand after school to ask students how they felt about the controversy. One said he had not paid attention to the statement; a few expressed confusion about what intelligent design actually was, and wondered why Nilsen and Baksa had not allowed them to ask questions. Lebo wrote about their reactions for the next day’s paper.

[1] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 72-73.

[2] Teresa Ann Boeckel, “District lawyers see ‘good sign’; But lawyers for the parents said they can still prove their case.” York Daily Record , January 7, 2005.

[3] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 84.

[4] Lauri Lebo and Joe Maldonado, “Students miss ID idea; Dover Area school officials told students about intelligent design, then left,” York Daily Record , January 19, 2005.