Here is my first message to Mr. Zucchino:
April 12, 2012
Los Angeles Times
Dear Mr. Zucchino:
In your article entitle "Creationism discussions are now OK in Tennessee schools" from April 11, 2012, you wrote:
"The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. … The state’s teachers are not allowed to raise alternatives to evolution but, under the new law, would be required to permit discussion of creationism and other beliefs if they are raised in class."
This is unfortunately a severe mischaracterization of the new law. In fact, the law is careful to rule out just this sort of thing. The law says nothing about permitting discussions of creationism or any other religious theory, or for that matter anything not within the existing curriculum. You can see the actual Amendment here:
The language is quite clear. It repeatedly states that the new law does not introduce new material into the existing curriculum, and is instead restricted to "scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education."
Furthermore, it goes even farther in avoiding any confusion with creationism as it states: "This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."
In addition to your erroneous description of the law, your article was also heavily slanted toward the opposition, even including Barry Lynn, a well known partisan on this issue. Unfortunately all of this simply feeds an on-going cultural myth that really needs clarification rather than reinforcement.
Will you be issuing a correction to the story?
Here is Mr. Zucchino’s reply:
Thanks for your email regarding the Tennessee law.
A correction is not warranted.
A close reading of the amendments to the bill, and the sponsors’ summary of the bill, shows that the measure is clearly designed to open the door to debate over “differences of opinion about controversial issues,” as the bill's sponsors have written. They specifically mention evolution, clearly including it among “controversial issues” and requiring that competing viewpoints be discussed in class. Chief among competing viewpoints, of course, is creationism.
The sponsors appear to have calculated that including “creationism” or “intelligent design” in the bill’s language would make it difficult to pass, so they resorted to much more general language that allows broad interpretation under the term “scientific subjects.”
And while the amendment says the bill is not intended to promote any religious doctrine, it also says it is not intended to promote discrimination against a particular religion or “a particular set of religious beliefs.” Creationism, of course, falls within that description.
The amendment to the bill also says:
“The teaching of some scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education may cause debate and disputation including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
Again, the sponsors specifically point to evolution as a subject of “debate and disputation.” Thus competing viewpoints should be discussed in class, according to the bill. Among scientists, there are no widely accepted “scientific” alternatives to evolution. But there is creationism, which is certainly a subject of “debate and disputation.” Whether creationism has scientific validity is also a subject of “debate and disputation.” Therefore, it is allowed under the law.
If allowing discussion of creationism (as well as challenges to global warming and human cloning) isn't the purpose of the law, then what is? Discussions of scientific theories are already allowed in Tennessee schools.
As Gov. Haslam pointed out, the bill creates confusion.
The Los Angeles Times was one of many news outlets, along with AP, Reuters, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Nashville Tennessean and others, reporting that the bill will allow classroom discussion of creationism or other alternatives to evolution.
Los Angeles Times
Here is my follow-up reply:
April 13, 2012
Los Angeles Times
Dear Mr. Zucchino:
You state that a close reading of the new Tennessee law shows that it requires competing viewpoints to evolution (such as creationism), be discussed in science class. I don’t know how you could possibly arrive at that conclusion from a close reading of the amendment. I am delighted that you read the amendment closely, but it makes no such requirement. If you could indicate the particular portion of the amendment that you think stipulates this requirement then I could clear this up.
Your conclusion has two major problems. First, the amendment does not require any types of classroom discussions, competing or otherwise. There simply is nothing in the amendment that makes any such requirement. What the amendment does state is that the Tennessee schools shall encourage scientific questions and critical thinking skills, assist teachers in presenting the science curriculum, and not prohibit teachers from helping students to understand the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories covered in the curriculum. There is no such requirement of a classroom discussion.
Second, the amendment says nothing about competing theories, such as creationism. In fact, the language explicitly rules this out. It repeatedly stipulates that it is strictly in reference to the state’s curriculum framework. I don’t know how you could have inferred otherwise.
You also stated that the sponsors of the new law specifically point to evolution as a subject of “debate and disputation” and that therefore competing viewpoints should be discussed in class, according to the law.
Again, you seem to be avoiding the clear, obvious statements of the amendment. There is no mention or support given to competing viewpoints in the law. I don’t know how the language could be any more clear on this. The critical thinking, analysis of evidence, review of strengths and weakness are all of the science involved, and all deal with the state’s curriculum. There is absolutely nothing in the amendment that goes outside of the approved curriculum. And on top of that, the amendment explicitly states that it “only protects the teaching of scientific information.”
You seem to be confused about this. For instance, you stated that creationism is allowed under the law because whether or not it has scientific validity is a subject of “debate and disputation.” That would be an incredible contortion of the amendment. Whether or not creationism, or any other scheme, is or is not scientific is completely irrelevant.
The amendment is not allowing for whatever theories or viewpoints anyone wants to inject, just because someone argues that it is scientific. I am astonished you could have concluded this upon a close reading of the law. The language is crystal clear that it is addressing only the state’s curriculum.
Even creationists understand this. For instance AIG, one of the world’s leading creationist organizations, writes that: “media reports asserting that Tennessee law has introduced ‘creationism theory into science curriculum,’ and similar claims are simply wrong. The law does not permit or promote the teaching of intelligent design or creation science.” 
You also asked the question, if allowing discussion of challenges such as creationism isn’t the purpose of the law, then what is? This is troublesome for me for two reasons. First, you are divining a hidden, underlying purpose of the law, which not only is not in the law but is explicitly not allowed by the law, and then presenting that hidden purpose to your readers as an objective reading of the law. The fact that you are unable to imagine why legislators two thousand miles away would pass such a law does not give you the right to misrepresent the law to your readers.
Second, your question reveals that you are unaware how difficult it can be for students to raise scientific questions about theories. There is a hostile environment in our educational system, at all levels, to skepticism. Believe me, as one who has been blackballed by evolutionists, and one who has interacted with school boards and teachers, everything from passing grades to career options are at stake. This has nothing to do with creationism.
You also hypothesized that the amendment sponsors appear to have calculated that including “creationism” or “intelligent design” in the bill’s language would make it difficult to pass, so they resorted to much more general language that allows broad interpretation under the term “scientific subjects.”
But again, you are assigning motives that you imagine and projecting that onto the law itself. Even if your conspiracy theory was correct, that wouldn’t change the law. But I can also tell you that there is no such conspiracy. People I know involved with this legislation have no such calculation. And furthermore I know many people, myself included, who support these types of academic freedom bills who do not want to see creationism or intelligent design taught in our schools.
Let me be frank. I know journalists have time constraints and that you probably spent a grand total of a couple hours, if that, on the story. And I know that journalists are not experts in specialized fields. You probably haven’t thought much about biology since your high school class, and you probably know even less about the complex debate over evolution that has been on-going for years. You probably view the debate from afar through a political lens that casts evolutionists as the scientists and skeptics as the fundamentalists. Believe me, the debate is far more nuanced and complex than this. And again, it has nothing to do with creationism.
The bottom line is that your piece does need a correction. Without it you harm the reputation of yourself and your employer. You pointed out that the Los Angeles Times is one of many news outlets reporting that the bill will allow classroom discussion of creationism or other alternatives to evolution. I trust you realize this doesn’t justify false reporting. In fact, that is part of the story.
What the Los Angeles Times missed here was an opportunity to report on an often misunderstood story, particularly in the broad news media (this is not left versus right), and dig down a level beyond the usual cultural memes that continue to confuse the story.
Mr. Zucchino’s response to this second message of mine was simply to reaffirm that the Times will not print a correction. This exchange illustrates how the rules of journalism actually work (or don’t work) in practice and the high-standing and protection enjoyed by evolution.