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Stengel-gate Update: The National Constitution Center Ducks the Issue


Background: a few weeks back Time magazine published, as its cover story, an article by Richard Stengel. Reading it, I was stunned to discover fourteen clear factual errors in his piece, and I have been on a bit of a crusade since then to force Time to either correct or retract the article. And I have been examining how other media outlets and organizations have treated Stengel.

One of the things that bothered me in particular about Richard Stengel was his association with the National Constitution Center. As I wrote:

The author is not only the Managing Editor for Time, but he spent two years as President and CEO of the National Constitution Center. And even today, he works with the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution, whose stated mission is “to help both professional journalists and students interested in journalism understand constitutional issues more deeply.” That is right. He is there to help journalists understand the Constitution better.

So I decided to write to David Eisner, head of the National Constitution Center and see if they had any opinion on the rank incompetence on display. As you might recall I asked him two questions:

First, what is Mr. Stengel’s exact role in the National Constitution Center? Specifically, does he teach others about the Constitution?

Second, does the National Constitution Center have any official statement regarding the serial inaccuracies that appeared in Time, a national magazine, regarding the Constitution?

He wrote back to me with a brief “we’re working on it” message (that’s my gloss, not a quote) and I waited patiently.

Well, their response has finally come, in the form of an official post at their blog. In a post entitled “Weigh in on Time’s Controversial Constitution Issue” simply notes that there is a controversy, but for the most part they refuse to take sides. So you get this one ridiculous passage:

Among the issues that Stengel’s critics have raised with us:

  • The assertion that “If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it sure doesn’t say so.”
  • The suggestion that the Constitution is not law.
  • The suggestion that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment emancipated the slaves.
  • The suggestion that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to African Americans.
  • The suggestion that the original Constitution declared that black people were to be counted as three-fifths of a person.
  • The suggestion that the original, unamended Constitution prohibited women from voting.
  • The suggestion that the Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to tax individuals based on whether they buy a product or service.
  • The suggestion that Social Security is a debt within the meaning of Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment.

To find out whether Stengel made those claims, read his article. To learn what the Constitution says about those issues, you can find an annotated Constitution by clicking here.

So there’s a lot of controversy. What do you think?

You got that? There’s a controversy, but they really don’t know what to think about all of this. And the most ridiculous part of that passage is the first example. Are they really unsure if Stengel said that? Because unlike the other points on the list, it incorporates a direct quote, not a paraphrase.

Meanwhile they quote a statement from Eisner himself that is less neutral:

Seeing the Constitution ominously shredded on Time’s 10th history issue cover made me wonder whether the article would relegate America’s foundational document to the trash. To the contrary, Rick Stengel’s article underscores how much the Constitution does matter, and uses the “long national civics class” of the past decade to prove the point. What a relief! As CEO of the National Constitution Center, I identify strongly with the Constitution’s enduring relevance–as may Stengel, who once held this post. Still, he is correct to note the challenges of applying the Constitution to modern life, even as he vouches for its centrality and guidance in our national debates. The Constitution continues to unite and divide us; at the Center, we welcome the controversy as part and parcel of our extraordinary freedom as Americans. Congratulations to Mr. Stengel for bringing the debate to millions of readers–and for creating a cover that’s every bit as provocative as the most eye-popping pic of Lady Gaga.

Well, with all due respect, I always considered the shredding of the Constitution to be cheap provocation… much like the antics of Lady Gaga. And while Eisner’s statement is studiously neutral for the most part it still veers into praising this piece.

Look, I understand that it can be uncomfortable to criticize your predecessor. But if you are going to in the business of education, you can’t simply let factual errors that egregious go by without correction.

And that goes double when you consider who is paying for them. But I think I will save that post for another day.

Stay tuned.

And while you are at it, why don’t you pay their site a visit and let them know what you think?


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