It started on a Saturday afternoon when I was gazing at a print version of the Sunday Seattle Times. It was actually the “bulldog” edition, so-called because it comes out the day before. Before in the days before the Internet, this was the term used to describe the earliest edition of the Sunday paper that was sent to remote locations statewide so that theoretically, at least, everyone in the circulation area had some version of that big edition to look at.
I noticed this headline: “D.C.’s Bible museum will celebrate Christian Scripture.”
Now, last time I looked, the much maligned museum was planning to cover the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament. My colleagues Jim Davis and Bobby Ross covered the Washington Post’s article on this. So what’s this “Christian Scriptures” bit? Why not “Jewish Scriptures”?
What I turned up was one of the weirder instances I’ve run across of creative editing by wire desks. First, there was the original story filed Dec. 24 by a writer for McClatchy News Service:
WASHINGTON -- The National Mall may be the nation’s front lawn, but even at holiday time the museums that line it are only lightly decorated with Christmas trees and lights and not with any religious displays.
But a new privately-owned museum is going up just a few blocks away –- the Museum of the Bible –- that only wants to celebrate Scripture. The $400 million project two blocks south of the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have to worry about laws or rulings that keep religion and state separate.
The museum is the brainchild of Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, the privately-owned Oklahoma City crafts chain that follows its owners’ evangelical beliefs, including closing its 600 stores on Sundays.
Now, that’s not what was in the Seattle Times. In fact, I couldn’t find on the Times’ web site the same article that was in the the print edition. But I found something close in another newspaper with the same author and same wire service.
WASHINGTON -- The National Mall may be the nation’s front lawn, but religious displays are prohibited. Even at holiday time the museums that line it are only lightly decorated with Christmas trees and lights, and nothing religious.
But a new museum is going up just a few blocks away -- the Museum of the Bible -- that only wants to celebrate Christian Scripture. The $400 million project two blocks south of the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have to worry about laws or rulings that keep religion and state separate.
Notice a change in that second paragraph where the word "Christian" was inserted? Was this a revised version sent out from McClatchy's DC bureau or what?
Then what the Seattle Times had –- again from McClatchy with the same author –- was something different, once again:
But a new museum is going up just a few blocks away –- the Museum of the Bible -– that will be dedicated only to celebrating Christian Scripture.
Playing fast and loose with wire copy is something done by people of all ideological stripes. I used to work for a publication that made sure anything on gay marriage was phrased as gay “marriage” per the wishes of our editor-in-chief.
It’s another discussion as to how much tinkering should be allowed in a wire story and at what point the reporter of that story should be allowed to remove her or his name if the content is significantly altered. The way this story appeared in the Seattle Times with the aforementioned headline is a substantial alteration.
But here is the key: Whoever made those changes inserted something inaccurate.
Because the museum isn’t only about Christian Scriptures and anyone with access to a search engine could have learned that in a few seconds. Everyone from the New York Post to a recent (and somewhat grudging) opinion piece in the Washington Post says the museum is legit. The Post piece even admitted the museum does have some academic heft and that one-third of its items could be classified as Judaica.
So what’s with the “celebrate Christian Scripture” bit when there’s lots of “Jewish Scripture” to magnify?
One interesting thing the recent Post piece brought up was this:
(The museum) has hired David Trobisch, a prominent liberal academic, to head its collection. It will be up to Trobisch to win over skeptics and transform this intriguing assembly of artifacts into an institution that brings a bit of church to a secular state. … Trobisch, a non-evangelical, liberal European intellectual whose background makes him a surprising match for the family. Trobisch once shared the cover of Free Inquiry, a secular humanist magazine, with atheist Christopher Hitchens and wrote about his scholarly and unorthodox theory that Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, not Saint Luke, was responsible for the biblical Book of Acts and that this 2nd-century bishop “edited” the New Testament, deciding which books should be included.
Shouldn’t someone give the museum a bit of credit for trying to mollify its critics? No one is asking the Holocaust Memorial Museum across town to hire a Holocaust denier to satisfy its critics, so perhaps this Bible museum could be given a bit of slack?
And at the least, can we agree that journalists shouldn't rearrange the facts at copy-desk level to satisfy personal grudges?