Tuesday, May 5, 2009

“We Might As Well Be Monkeys If We Act Like Them

John Thomas Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, Tenn., created a firestorm of controversy during the late years of the Progressive Era.  Even in a time period pushing for scientific exploration and intellectualism, teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools violated Tennessee law.  In 1925, the Scopes Trial became a battle of evolution vs. creationism – challenging the justice system and the constitution.  Newspapers and media outlets antagonized the philosophical debate until it created massive public following for the trial, fiercely engaging Christian fundamentalists, civil right unions, and opinionated citizens.  Because of its popularity, the press followed the Scopes story for months, even beyond the final verdict.  And while journalists of the 21st century may have ranked this historic event at the bottom of the Newseum list, the controversy still reignites today within issues of “church and state.”

The last day of the Scopes Trial, after countless incidents of entertainment, surprise, and disappointment, Scopes was found guilty.

For The New York Times, verdict day was yet another opportunity to pit characters of the defense and prosecution against each other.  “Scopes Guilty, Fined $100, Scores Law, Benediction Ends Trial, Appeals Starts; Darrow Answers Nine Bryan Questions,” read the headline on July 22, 1925, focusing not just on the verdict, but the all important controversy that continued.  While the article seems quite balanced on first glance, the tabloid type focus on particular characters overpowered the actual description of events.  The story is framed to highlight the sensationalism of the trial – particularly the confrontation between Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow and Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan – blatantly arguing and exchanging insults.  In this sense, The New York Times achieved great storytelling, depicting the human passions of faith vs. science rather than the technicalities of Scopes vs. The State.  The newspaper relied on quotes and anecdotes (and sound bytes,) from these key personalities in order to perpetuate their conflict.  “Darrow characterized today as ‘the first case of it’s kind since we stopped trying people for Witchcraft,’” quoted in The New York Times alongside, Bryan’s infamous “nine questions on the basic fundamentals of Christianity.”  The New York Times even describes Scopes himself as “ hardly more than a boy” who was visibly nervous during the proceedings – contrary to reports made by many other press outlets that described Scopes as confident and unapologetic.  Because a guilty verdict came at little surprise to the general public, the newspaper simply choose to capitalize on the spectacle of the trial – satisfying thousands of enthralled readers.

But The Washington Post offered quite a different version of verdict day.  The headline reading “Conviction Hurls Evolution Battle Into Larger Field,” outlines an article focused primarily on the greater impact of evolution vs. creationism for the American people.  Instead of emphasizing Darrow and Bryan as opposite sides of this particular trial, The Washington Post posed the question of how their debate would be carried out on a national scale in the future.  Instead of quoting banter between the defense and the prosecution, as did The New York Times, The Washington Post framed its story on the issues of government policy and freedom – and the fact that the case would move to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.  Bases off of comments by the trial judge, The Washington Post labeled the case an issue of “passion for truth” vs. “word of God.”  But this newspaper did not entirely remain balanced.  By focusing on the unfair proceedings (in which the defense was not able to provide witness testimony or closing arguments,) the language of The Washington Post seemed to favor the side of Defense Attorney Darrow and scientific progression.  Because the Post explained trial events in chronological order while at the same time integrated broader debates of faith and science, the American people received ample coverage of the Scopes Trial from this newspaper – even if it was somewhat skewed towards a position of support for Scopes himself.

Coverage of the Scopes Trial solidifies what was occurring in journalism at the time – a decline of facts and invisibility of sources, but desire to use the press in modes of reform.  With a rapidly changing industry and government policy, the question of free thought seemed to grab everyone’s attention.



Scopes Guilty, Fined $100, Scores Law; Benediction Ends Trial, Appeal Starts; Darrow Answers Nine Bryan Questions,” The News York Times July 22, 1925.  Retrieved from Cohen, Herbert J., PAGE ONE: Major Events 1920-1980 Presented in The New York Times.  Arno Press, A New York Times Company, 1980.

CONVICTION HURLS EVOLUTION BATTLE INTO LARGER FIELD”  By PHILLIP KINSLEY. The Washington Post  (1877-1954); Jul 22, 1925; ProQuest Historical Newspapers pg. 1


  1. Your analysis of the coverage of the Scopes case is quite thorough and I feel as though I understand clearly the differences in coverage. It is interesting because the New York Times and the Washington Post were two main sources I used for my blogs and it seems as though the coverage was very similar. The New York Times seems to always take the route of sensationalism and drama to reach its audience while the Washington Post poses a more realistic and well researched analysis of the situation at hand. I really liked how well you tied everything into the course as well. The decline in facts is definitely evident in this case. All in all, very thoughtful reflection!

  2. Very interesting about the differences between the two papers, with the Times focusing on the trial and the Post on the larger issue. Sure enough, it can been seen that this battle still draws out today so I think it would be interesting to compare the articles of then with now, and see if the paper's coverage or the lawyers follow a similar route. And it's always interesting to know the kind of things that went on in the minds of the public almost a century ago... I never would have thought this kind of issue would be discussed. Well, maybe.

  3. This is a great analysis of of an issue that still influences U.S. policies--while state and church are supposed to be separate, religion infiltrates politics far too often, even today. You had a very thorough explanation of both papers' biases, good job!