Today's New York Times profile of Christian right propagandist David Barton reports on how the self-styled historian wields a great deal of influence in conservative and Christian nationalist circles, spreading his gospel that the U.S. was founded on Christian principles.
The Times' Erik Eckholm reports that "many historians call his research flawed" and that "liberal organizations are raising the alarm over what they say are Mr. Barton's dangerous distortions," and he quotes Baylor University critic Derek H. Davis, who says that Barton's work includes "a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history."
So Eckholm tells us that Barton has critics who say he generally mangles history, but what is true? This is where journalism and the professional judgment it entails should intervene, but Eckholm is content to act the court stenographer, simply recording what the various parties say, rather than informing readers about the evidence for the conflicting views.
Nor is any mention made of Barton's controversial role in the creation of public school history curricula and text books, or past links with extremist groups, including the Christian Reconstructionist movement and the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity sect (Church & State, 4/93).
It's not that there's a shortage of critical work on Barton. Online reports about his links to extremists are widely available, as are any number of solid factual debunkings of his historical claims. Indeed, you can even read about how Barton himself conceded that a dozen quotes he'd attributed to U.S. founders and other prominent political figures were either false or unverifiable. For instance, the Constitution's co-author and deist James Madison never said, as Barton claimed:
We have staked the whole future of American civilization, nor [sic] upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves … according to the Ten Commandments of God.
Wouldn't Times readers be better served to know not just that Barton's detractors exist, but that their charges are backed by abundant evidence? And wouldn't it also be important for Americans to know that such a careless and extreme "historian" is playing an influential role in creating public school history curricula and text books that their children are using in school?
By reporting on a conservative icon without ferreting out the facts, the Times can say they covered the issue without incurring the right's anger. It's a Times formula last noted by Julie Hollar about the Times profile of anti-immigrant activist John Tanton.
Corrected version, 5/11/11–providing fuller version of Barton's "Madison" quote.