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Pick of the Day: Vanity Fair hits creationism museum

I have to confess from the start that, as a native Kentuckian who grew up in Louisville, I get a little touchy and defensive whenever I read stories about the Bluegrass state by glib reporters from flashy national news organizations. Each year, right around early May, a Kentuckian can count on at least one story focusing on the exotic Derby hats worn by well-heeled ladies at Churchill Downs; but you never know when other, slightly ironic, anthropological features will pop up in the press.

And so, along comes Vanity Fair to write about Kentucky's Creation Museum in its February edition. To make the story supposedly more inventive, writer A.A. Gill brings along actor Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin in an upcoming film, to snap photos of the exhibits.

Let me be clear. I am not a creationist. But I am also not a fan of these thinly reported takes trying to paint religious people as hayseeds. I also felt like Bettany's only reason to shoot pictures was that Vanity Fair, of course, was promoting his film. Worse, the reporter seemed uncomfortable interviewing the visitors at the museum and getting down their names, so he needed someone else in the media industry to tag along.

The lead of his story begins with him challenging some unnamed clerk at a glasses shop and challenging her about who invented human beings. Which store? Which clerk? Why is this reporter beginning the story at something akin to a LensCrafters and picking a fight?

Gill enjoys bragging that he's brought along a movie star, an actor who starred in a film about Wimbledon, so he consumes more space at the top of his story for stereotypes: "Here in Nowheresville, Kentucky, tennis is considered a game for Europeans and other sexual deviants. I can’t imagine what they think of English actors." So witty, that Vanity Fair.

On he goes into the museum. I bring this story to your attention because it's an example of an interesting story that could have been so much more compelling, had the reporter tried interviewing real people there. I've never been to the museum, and I don't know much about who financed it, but the reporter doesn't seem to care to provide those basic details. He says it cost $27 million, but who paid that?

Give the story credit for Bettany's stark photo slide show of the exhibits showing eerie looking mannequins of Adam and Eve; an angry poster in the museum proclaiming that "SCRIPTURE IN AN ABANDONED CULTURE LEADS TO...RELATIVE MORALITY, HOPELESSNESS, AND MEANINGLESS;" and an elegant black-and-white shot outside showing the museum's modern design with huge wall windows. I felt like the photos, more than the actual story, gave me a sense of the museum. (I grimaced at one Bettany photo showing only a security officer's slight paunch and his left hand affixed to his firearm.)

Some of Gill's piece is funny, like this part:

It all gets good when the leading man arrives. Adam comes on looking like the Hispanic bass player for a Janis Joplin backup band, with a lot of hair and a tan. He looks a bit stoned. As well he might be, because he’s all on his own in Eden. Nothing can do him any harm, and he’s got the whole pharmacopoeia at arm’s reach. And then you get to Eve, a demure, foxy little girl who could be Juliet in a Guatemalan school play.

In the end, though, Vanity Fair took the cliched route, pointing a huge rifle inside a small bowl full of wriggling fish. The reporter relied on snark rather than a more deeply reported exploration of the museum and, more important, of the lives and mindsets of visitors there.

Of course, this isn't the first time Kentucky has enjoyed these sort of portraits. My favorite of all time was when the New York Times wrote a story in the late 1990s about our love of squirrel brains.

(And, in the interest of fairness, even my good friend Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post couldn't resist a pretty funny story earlier this month about Kentucky Fried Chicken getting sued by its franchise owners because of the company's push to go grilled and healthier, rather than sticking to the reliably money-making fried chicken. My favorite line in her story? "The furor over the fowl began in 2008..."

By Ian Shapira  | January 22, 2010; 8:16 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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That's all well and good, but that's basically what A.A. Gill does, and he does it very, very well. He's written the only architecture story I've ever enjoyed reading, and his piece about a New York "Sex and the City" tour last year is probably one of the funniest things I have ever read. I'm a Vanity Fair subscriber, and I don't look to his pieces for honest, solid reportage. I want to hear his perspective.

Posted by: jonathancribbs | January 22, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

No, actually, A. A. Gill does NOT do it "very, very well," and the general crappiness of this piece is exactly what the Post writer is writing about. Read the Vanity Fair piece--it is literally terrible, on every journalistic level. It is juvenile, immature, unprofessional, under-reported, horribly-written, lacking in facts and details, childish throughout most of the piece, filled with unprofessional stereotypes and generalizations, offensive to good taste, badly-constructed, and, again, just generally lacking in basic journalism tenets. That's not good writing. The piece is terrible. And I'm not a creationist or a religious person; in fact, I support Darwin's theories 100 percent. But anyone can through Gill's writing and see that this piece needed another author, and some other editors.

Posted by: thefrontpage | January 22, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Criminy, Ian, you've completely missed the point of the piece. It's not some neat little Metro feature about the 4H girl her her prize-winning pig, in which the reporter dutifully gets all the pertinent information, down to the pig's date of birth and favorite snack it likes to share with said 4Her. It's not even about your beloved Kentucky. It's commentary wrapped in ridicule, deconstruction and humor on the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species." He's having bloody fun at the expense of the utterly humorless absurdity of the museum and the people who visit. Get it? It's the sort of thing Von Drehle would do, only better. Or Weingarten. Or Achenbach. How do you not see this?

Posted by: jelogan222 | January 22, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Easily one of the most pathetic things I've seen in the Post and we're talking about a paper that publishes all manner of ludicrousness from the likes of Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, et al. Get over it, Ian. i am a native Clevelander, which means decades of jokes and stereotypical rustbelt pieces. Ihave a sense of humor about my roots and if I didn't, I'd have enough midwestern niceness in me to to not bother. the museum is a national embarrassment and if you're not a creationist, I'm surprised you don't see it as an embarassment to your home state.

Posted by: thebuckguy | January 22, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Too Snarky? I'd say Gill is not snarky enough. His piece is right on, and we need to do more of this, not less against the people who think it is smart to be stupid.

We must do a better job of teaching the public about willful stupidity and it's dangers, and good teaching begins with graphic illustrations of who and what is foolish and dumb, and why it is so bad.

Fools like Ham and his lot don't deserve anything but derision because they have become far worse than mere oddities. These dopes have become dangerous because they are being used as buffers and fodder against progress and reasonable reform in our nation by radical conservatives, now running the GOP, who are only concerned with protecting their wealth and power. They have proven they will do anything at any cost, including pulling down the whole country if that is what it takes, and religionists are helping them.

It is left for liberals, progressives and rational conservatives to do more about this problem, not less, and that begins with education and communication about what and who is the problem.

If readers think I'm a little over the top about this, just consider likely effects of two recent triumphs of Stupid: this week's election of populist Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and the Supreme Court's unleashing of corporate money in political campaigns.

Obviously we need to be more aggressive in dealing with fools like Ham, not less.

Posted by: bbuc | January 22, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

To each his own, yadda, yadda, yadda. Those who see credibility in creationism are begging, even praying, for a well-deserved mocking.

Posted by: seanpcarr | January 22, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

"The reporter relied on snark rather than a more deeply reported exploration of the museum and, more important, of the lives and mindsets of visitors there."

Oh, come on. The people who made and attend this "museum" are willfully ignorant, and they would impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

In fact, they already have imposed their views on the rest of us. Base stupidity has infected our national discourse.

Capitol Hill is so hopelessly gummed up that major changes can not be accomplished.

And now, our leaders have crapped their pants over a state election in which the feeble-minded and easily bamboozled carried the day.

It's time to assess whether the U.S. is on the road to second-class nation status.

Posted by: carlson1 | January 22, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

This all reminds me of David Foster Wallace, as Gill's piece provides little takeaway save the assurance that the author (and by extension the reader) is both hipper than the rurals and in command of a more impressive vocabulary. But so what. Who thought any different? In a few years, no one will remember Wallace either.

Posted by: jacksoncounty5 | January 26, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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