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Ben Stein’s Trojan Horse: Mobilizing the State House and Local News Agenda

Special Report

Matt Nisbet

Volume 32.5, September / October 2008

Back in April, as the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed premiered in more than a 1,000 theaters across the country, I gathered with friends for an early Friday evening screening in downtown Washington, DC. The medium sized Regal Cinemas theater was about 80% full, with an audience that appeared to be the typical urban professional crowd for the surrounding arts and entertainment district, a demographic on a Sunday that is more likely to read the New York Times at a coffee house than to attend church.

As I watched the film and monitored audience reaction, I grew convinced that although Expelled’s claims have been thoroughly debunked, the documentary’s long term impact remains dangerously underestimated.

In the film, the comedic actor Ben Stein plays the role of a conservative Michael Moore, taking viewers on an investigative journey into the realm of “Big Science,” an institution where Stein concludes that “scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.” Expelled goes so far as to outrageously suggest that Darwinism, as Stein calls evolution, led to the Holocaust, and that today scientists have been denied tenure and that research has been suppressed, all in the service of hiding the supposedly fatal flaws in evolutionary theory.

Expelled employs several techniques common to political advertising. First, Stein’s narrative relies heavily on the use of metaphor. For example, his version of the “3 a.m. phone call” is to bookend the film with historic footage of the Berlin Wall and a repetitive emphasis on freedom as a central American value. The sinister message is that “Darwinism” has led to atheism, fascism, and communism. As a corollary, if Americans can join Stein in tearing down the wall of censorship in science it would open the way to religious freedom and cultural renewal.

Expelled also strategically employs emotion while playing on low levels of knowledge among movie-going audiences. As a way to trigger anger, Stein misleadingly defines celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens as the representatives of “establishment science.” In interviews, as these scientists compare religion to fairies, hobgoblins, and knitting, the implication for viewers is that in order to leave room for God in society, the concept of intelligent design (ID) needs to be taken seriously.

In the screening I attended, somewhat predictably, there were chuckles and positive laughter in reaction to Stein while there was audibly negative emotion directed at the comments of Dawkins and the other scientists. As the film credits rolled at the end, there was even a strong round of approving applause.

Expelled’s misleading emphasis on atheist punditry as representative of science even had film critics bristling. In reviews otherwise harshly dismissive of the documentary, Jeffrey Kluger of Time magazine described Dawkins and Myers performance as “sneering, finger in the eye atheism,” while Justin Chang of Variety referred to Dawkins’ commentary as “atheism taken to hateful extremes."

There is no way to tell how nationally representative the Washington, DC opening night audience might have been, although I have observed similar emotional reactions among university students with whom I have tested Expelled’s YouTube clips. At various other locations across the country, several bloggers have reported that they were the only person in the theater for a Sunday matinee or a weekday evening show. One thing, however, is for sure: By documentary box office standards, Expelled has made its mark.

With more than $7.5 million earned at the box office, Stein’s propaganda film ranks as either the sixth or seventh top grossing public affairs documentary of all time. Only Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and Bowling for Columbine have grossed more than Expelled. (After controlling for inflation, add Moore’s 1989 Roger & Me.)

Premise Media Inc, the production company that marketed Expelled, targeted two key demographics for the film. Predictably, a main segment included Evangelicals and social conservatives, with the production company advertising heavily on political talk radio stations and by way of Christian media and church networks. But in running advertising spots during The Daily Show and on CNN, the company also hoped to appeal to less religious thirty- and twenty-somethings, an audience more familiar with Ben Stein as a comedic actor and satirist than with the recent political skirmishes over evolution.

Yet despite these savvy marketing efforts, Expelled was unlikely to break the forces of ideological selectivity that have snared even the most successful documentaries. For example, polling data shows that the theater audience for Fahreinheit 9/11, which earned $120 million dollars at the box office, skewed heavily liberal and was more likely to live in “blue” rather than “red” counties of the country. Moreover, a recent study finds that rather than converting movie-goers into supporting John Kerry during the 2004 election, the effects of the film were most likely to reinforce and intensify already strong anti-Bush sentiment. In short, Fahrenheit 9/11 helped activate and mobilize the existing anti-Bush segment rather than persuading new converts.

Survey data specific to Inconvenient Truth and Sicko reveal similar selectivity bias and ideological reinforcement. Although similar data is yet available for Expelled, according to news reports, Premise Media’s own exit survey data from theaters in six states showed that 80% of the film’s viewers during opening weekend considered themselves “born again” Christians.

Yet Expelled’s influence stretches well beyond the theater and any ideologically reinforcing impacts on viewers. As I review in a recent report to the Ford Foundation, these indirect influences can be tracked across several different dimensions with the most important impacts relating to the news and policy agenda.

For example, although many mainstream film critics have savaged the documentary, Stein’s arguments have received either uncritical or positive coverage in reviews at Christian or conservative Web sites, in appearances on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, and by way of strong endorsements on conservative talk radio and cable news programs such as Rush Limbaugh, Headline News’ Glenn Beck, and Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes.

Since the 2005 Dover court decision, intelligent design had been off the national news radar, yet Expelled helped restart the media conversation, at least temporarily. Perhaps most importantly, by way of columns, op-eds, uncritical features, and letters to the editor at local newspapers across the country, the film offered both an opening and a new “authoritative” reference point for ID proponents to once again misleadingly argue that there are holes in evolutionary theory and censorship in schools.

Perhaps most troubling have been the advanced screenings for policymakers, interest groups, and other influentials. Expelled’s producers have previewed the film for both the Missouri and the Florida state legislatures, connecting the film’s message to a proposed “Academic Freedom Act” in each state that would encourage teachers to discuss the alleged flaws in evolutionary science. As Stein strategically framed the matter at the screening in Florida: “This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It’s about free speech."

With each of these dozens of screenings there has likely been a strong intensification of commitment and emotion among the conservative activist base in attendance along with advocacy training, the raising of money, and the distribution of other resources such as DVDs and literature. In particular, Expelled provides these activists with an increased repertoire of arguments, talking points, and examples to use with neighbors and friends.

There is even the possibility that the screenings helped anti-evolution groups link up with new conservative coalition partners not previously involved on the issue. For example, Stein has shown Expelled at several meetings and venues here in Washington, DC, including a special screening for Congressional staffers.

When the film moves to DVD distribution, expect more of these types of Expelled screenings, house parties, and church gatherings across the country, all aimed at mobilizing a political movement in favor of anti-evolution bills. As Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey reports, at a April 15 press conference at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Expelled’s financial backer Walt Ruloff said that as many as 26 states had been targeted this year with so-called “freedom bills.” As of May 2008, bills introduced in Florida, Alabama, and Missouri have been voted down while similar bills are still up for full legislative vote in South Carolina and Louisiana.

Over the next few years, Expelled’s enduring impact will be to serve as a vehicle for recruiting and mobilizing anti-evolution activists at the state and local level across the country. The targeted audience will include school board members, church leaders, legislators, journalists, and other opinion-leaders. Shown in its entirety or perhaps more effectively repackaged in 10 to 15 minute outtakes, these screenings will combine emotionally powerful metaphors with the commentary of various outspoken atheists to manipulate for viewers the important differences between science, religion, and atheism.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.