Spotlight on Dover

As the trial approached, Dover’s bitter divisions over science and religion were on full display. Letters from both sides of the debate had poured into the newspaper over the previous year, and it was the Daily Record ’s policy to publish as many as possible subject to space constraints. Between January 2004 and May 2005, the Daily Record had printed 168 letters, editorials, and op-eds relating to the controversy; the writers were divided almost exactly in half on the issue. (This was partly the result of editorial page editors’ conscious effort to balance each op-ed on the controversy with another taking the opposite stance.) [1]

The four-member editorial board itself—which included Editor McClure and Editorial Page Editor Scott Fisher—had differing opinions on the merits of intelligent design, and so avoided taking a firm stance on the science. [2] But the editorial board repeatedly criticized the school board for subjecting the community to an expensive lawsuit. McClure and Fisher were also both apparently distressed not only because the lawsuit was the subject of such conflict in their small community, but also because Dover was now in the national spotlight and, they felt, being portrayed as a fundamentalist backwater. Comedy news program The Daily Show had showcased a mock special report called “Evolution Schmevolution” about the Dover controversy every night between September 12 and September 15. On September 18, Fisher wrote an editorial in response to the Daily Show feature:

“Evolution Schmevolution” made you laugh, it made you cry. It made you wonder why: Why is the Dover school board making us such a laughingstock? Why?

The Daily Record ’s smaller competitor and Lebo’s former employer, the York Dispatch , had meanwhile taken a firm pro-evolution editorial stance. [3]

Lebo had so far written most of her stories with little interference from editors. She was a veteran reporter in charge of her own beat. But in a general newsroom conversation a few weeks before the trial was to begin, Managing Editor Randy Parker and Editor McClure reminded Lebo repeatedly of her obligation to remain “fair and balanced” during the trial. She shrugged off the advice, which she interpreted as a generic comment on reporters’ obligations in general. But she was aware that she would no longer be covering a science story, but a court story with each side presenting its case to a judge. The weight of the scientific evidence was on evolution’s side, but what about the legal evidence?

[1] Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, “Undoing Darwin,” Columbia Journalism Review , September/October 2005.

[2] Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, “Undoing Darwin.”

[3] Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, “Undoing Darwin.”