NYT’s Easy Ride for Christian Right Propagandist

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.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.