< Evolving Coverage


Friday, July 08, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Jackson's may have been the latest trial of the century, but we know it wasn't the first. In Hollywood there was Fatty Arbuckle's trial in 1921, in Chicago the Leopold and Loeb trial in 1924, and in Detroit the Sweets trial in 1925. But this week sees the 80th anniversary of a courtroom drama with the longest legs of all, the Scopes monkey trial. In 1925 the Tennessee State Legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching the evolution in public schools, and in response the recently founded ACLU took out newspaper ads offering to defend any teacher who challenged the law. Sensing the chance for a headline-grabbing story that could boost the economy and reputation of tiny Dayton, Tennessee the village elders asked a 24-year-old substitute science teacher named John Scopes to break the law and stand trial for teaching Darwin's theories in the local high school. In the 1960 movie called "Inherit the Wind" Scopes, or B.T. Cates, is arrested in the act.

MR. CATES: Oh, Mr. Charles Darwin was trying to tell us in his own way--

SAM: Bertram T. Cates--

MR. CATES: Come off it, Sam, you've known me all my life.

SAM: You're charged with violation of Public Act 31428, volume 37, statute number 31428 of the state code, which makes it unlawful for any teacher of the public schools to teach any theory that denies the creation of man as taught in the bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals. Bertram Cates, I hereby place you under arrest. (MUSIC)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Populist orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who led a crusade to banish the theory of evolution from American classrooms volunteered to lead the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, already a star after defending Leopold and Loeb and the Sweets, agreed to represent Scopes. Opening statements set the scene for a battle between good and evil or truth and ignorance. Bryan claimed that, "if evolution wins, Christianity goes." Darrow argued Scopes isn't on trial, civilization is. A carnival atmosphere developed outside the courtroom, banners adorned the streets, there were lemonade stands and chimpanzees, supposedly brought in to testify for the prosecution. The town was overrun by the curious, and of course, the media. University of Georgia professor Edward Larson said that was all part of the town elders' plan.

EDWARD LARSON: The town itself was struggling, losing population, local mills had closed. They didn't view that they were persecuting this local school teacher. He volunteered. He was guaranteed his job. The Scopes trial, probably more than any other trial of the 20th century, was conceived as popular entertainment and popular education. They thought they would have a summer chautauqua. Chautauqua back then were public lectures, and they thought that the media would come, that it would attract tourists for the summer and then after that maybe they could recruit some industry and some business. They didn't realize they'd become the butt of a joke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What started out as a white glove affair didn't end up that way. When did the gloves come off?

EDWARD LARSON: Both sides viewed this as a chance to promote their ideas nationally. And the national media showed up, including WGN, a nationally-known radio station at the time. And back then its signal could reach through a third of the country. They came and they set up microphones right in the courtroom. They broadcast it every day but the day that the electrical storm brought down their wire in Indiana. But they strung a wire from Chicago down to Tennessee to cover it. The newsreel cameras were allowed right in the courtroom. The film would be flown out every day to larger cities like Cleveland and New York City. There were also telegraph wires strung right into the courtroom, and there were key operators clicking out word for word what was said. And transcripts were published in the newspaper the next day. So you're getting this on all fronts. And the tension kept building as the two sides ratcheted out to reach this national audience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the role of the star reporter at the trial who was, of course, H.L. Mencken, famous reporter, famous essayist, famous curmudgeon and seemingly at the top of his form at the Scopes trial. He lampooned the residents of Dayton, Tennessee as yokels and morons, and he called William Jennings Bryan's speeches theologic bilge.

GENE KELLY AS MENCKEN: For all last night and today the legion of the unwashed and holy have been rivering out of the rustic backways to listen to their plump messiah coo and bellow. The high priest of mumbo-jumbo has alternatively been stuffing himself with fried chicken and belching platitudes since his arrival here two days ago.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That wasn't Mencken. We don't have tape of that. That was, of course, Gene Kelly who played Mencken in the movie, "Inherit the Wind." Now, most of us know about the Scopes trial from that play, or the movie of that play. So how accurate was it?

EDWARD LARSON: Jerry Lawrence and Bob Lee wrote a beautiful play, but from the very beginning they always said that the play was not about the Scopes trial. There are many things that are presented in "Inherit the Wind," which had no parallel at all in the Scopes trial, such as bringing in Scopes' fiancee to grill her and make her admit that Scopes was an atheist. Well, Scopes didn't have a fiancee. What they were trying to do was use the Scopes trial to criticize McCarthyism. The play was written in 1955, at the height of the McCarthy era witch-hunt. And the play gives a dark tone that was true for McCarthyism but didn't happen in the festival atmosphere of the Scopes trial.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the Scopes trial set the template for all the celebrity trials to come?

EDWARD LARSON: In many ways the Scopes trial showed the media what a event a trial could be. The news media back then were in fierce competition. The Hearst papers and great rivalry with the Pulitzer, great newspaper rivalries in New York City, and they saw that the trial was as good as a war for selling newspapers. Now WGN decided this could push radio, and it seems like many people bought their radios so you could listen to the Scopes trial. You had both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan agreeing to come to trial. They didn't care about Scopes at all. They wanted to use this media event, this bully pulpit to promote their ideas. Bryan, even before he got to the trial, he said that if Scopes is convicted I'll pay his fine.


EDWARD LARSON: All sides viewed this as a way to sell books and lectures.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know that H.L. Mencken may have had some influence in the selection of Clarence Darrow for this case. And we also know that he offered to assist the defense.

EDWARD LARSON: In fact, he was the first person to suggest to Clarence Darrow that Darrow participate in this trial. He stayed with the defense lawyers for a while. He met with them regularly. H.L. Mencken certainly took sides in this trial. There's no question about that. H.L. Mencken loved to lampoon the impact of religious ideas on public policy. And here was a trial where it was all laid out. And his editorial columns were biting, they were satirical, and they were republished in papers across the country. People were reading about these proceedings, which to many Americans around the country seemed very strange, outlawing the teaching of a scientific idea, and then indicting a teacher for having taught science in a science classroom.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's compare the American audience for that story with the debate over intelligent design today. It sounds like what you're saying is that most Americans were pretty much on the side of Mencken and Darrow at the time and Scopes. And now, of course, the way it's presented in the press is that we're very much divided.

EDWARD LARSON: People were very divided at that time. People like H.L. Mencken were writing for their particular audience. And there were certainly many Americans who were just appalled with what Tennessee was doing. But there's no reason to believe that that was necessarily the majority. There were lots of conservative Christians in America, the various conservative churches had newspapers that were widely read. And they were very severe in their attacks of Clarence Darrow, very much on the side of the prosecution. It doesn't pop out in the elite media like the New York Times or the Baltimore Sun. But it pops out in popular songs, for example. Some of those lionize Bryan and talk about monkeys into men. For my book, if you want to balance H.L, Mencken, then it's some wonderful country music songs that are just as humorous and just as delightful as H.L. Mencken.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward Larson, thank you very much.

EDWARD LARSON: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward Larson is a professor at the University of Georgia. He wrote "Summer for the Gods, the Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion." [COUNTRY WESTERN SONG] Oh, and by the way, Darrow and Scopes lost the case, but H.L. Mencken and his kind have been winning ever since, except in Kansas schools where Darwin is again on trial. [SONG, MUSIC]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Paul Heinz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org, also in the ITunes podcast directory. And you can email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.