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Liar, Liar – AKA “Journalists Beware”

Lisa here, checking in from Dallas. I apologize; I’ve been terribly remiss when it comes to participating in this blog. But I’ve promised Toby to make checking in here at least once a week one of my New Year’s resolutions, so I’ll trust all here will hold me to it. I always find transparency in these commitments helps me stick to them.

To get things going again from here, I wanted to tell you about a really stupid, if not entirely unethical mis-step here in the US by PEER – Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – that seemed to get lost in the holiday shuffle. It is particularly pertinent and worrisome for the journalists in the crowd. Everyone listening now?

In a nutshell, in late December, PEER issued a press release that claimed that Bush administration appointees had ordered the National Park Service to refrain from giving an official estimate of the geological age of the Grand Canyon to park visitors in an attempt to appease creationists. The press release from PEER also complained that a book contending the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s Biblical flood was being sold in the Grand Canyon Park gift shop.

Park Service officials have publicly refuted the claim that their explanations of the Canyon’s origin are scripted by the White House. David Bama, Chief of Public Affairs for the National Park Service, told Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com), which printed PEER’s claims and admitted it took the information at face value without checking it out on its own (something I’m sure we’ve all done on occasion), that park officials do not tow a creationist line at all. Bama tells Skeptic that all communications with both in-person and online park visitors regarding the age of the Canyon cite concensus among geologists that the Colorado River basin developed over the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself was formed over the past five to six million years.

Grand Canyon park rangers that wrote to Skeptic (and quite a few did apparently) insist they have never been told to present non-science based programs. In fact, they say they are required to use talking points based on the scientific version of the Canyon’s formation supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Science. Rangers say they do present the “creation” stories of Hopi and Paiute Native Americans because they believe it is culturally relevant, but only use the stories as a tool to introduce the scientific story.

The book PEER objects to, according to the park rangers, is Grand Canyon: A Different View by TomVail, but they say it is sold in the “inspirational” section of the bookstore along with other titles on myth and spirituality. The book, they insist, is certainly not promoted as THE story of the Canyon’s creation.

Michael Shermer from Skeptic says when he pressured Jeff Ruch, the executive director of PEER, to name those within the Bush administration who insisted park service employees tell a creationist version of the Canyon’s formation, he said he did not know who they were and had been trying to find out for three years.

Sounds a little fishy and wishy-washy when challenged, eh? Makes you wonder why it rated a press release from his group then, right?

It gets better. After being challenged by Shermer (and obviously many park rangers and others), PEER issued an amended press release that deleted the claim of creationist scripting by the Bush administration.

Do we have a word for “greenwashing” by a green group? Maybe “shellacking” is fitting? That’s certainly what happened to the truth in this instance.

Those involved in PEER may well be for environmental responsibility, but they’re obviously not for ethical responsibility and at least some are willing to publish untruths to further their views and agendas. The shame is they discredit not only their own organization with their unethical choices, they also hurt other watchdog and activist groups trying to play by “the rules of engagement”.

Journalists beware. Politics is a dirty game and the truth is nearly always cloaked in multiple layers of it. Watch out for those seemingly innocuous press releases and may the force be with you!

Lisa Roner, North America editor

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