The Minneapolis Star Tribune has opened tomorrow’s editorial page to James Watt to allow him to try to undo some of the damage it did by running Bill Moyers’ January 30 column with the fraudulent quotation Moyers attributed to him. Secretary Watt’s excellent response is “Moyers’ column put words in my mouth.” Here’s Secretary Watt’s response:
A blogger brought to my attention an Op Ex article by Bill Moyers that appeared in the Jan. 30 Star Tribune entitled, “There is no tomorrow.”
The third paragraph reads as follows:
“Remember James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever-engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, ‘after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.’”
I have never thought, believed or said such words. Nor have I ever said anything that could be interpreted by a reasonable person to mean anything similar to the quote attributed to me.
The paragraph does have one true statement about me; I did serve as President Reagan’s first secretary of the interior. I am very proud of being associated with such a great president. After 20-plus years of hindsight, I am delighted that the revolution I helped to bring about remains fixed in America.
The Moyers column tells the one truth about me; it also tells us many things about him. First, he did no primary or objective research for the truth, because there is no record, in congressional hearings or elsewhere, of such words attributed to me.
Because Moyers is at least average in intelligence and has a basic understanding of Christian beliefs, he knows that no Christian would believe what he attributed to me.
Because Moyers had the privilege of serving in the White House under President Lyndon Johnson, he knows that no person believing such a thing would be qualified for a presidential appointment or be confirmed by the Senate, nor would he, if confirmed and then saying such a thing, be allowed to continue in service.
Since Moyers must have known such a statement would not have been made, what was his motive in printing such a lie?
Did he want to demean or degrade a man who has been out of the public arena for 22 years? Did he seek to damage the cause of Christ by attributing lies to his followers? Did he want to try to damage the record of President Reagan by repeating such an outrageous claim?
One way out of the mess would be for Moyers to respond by saying, “I did not say you said that; I correctly reported that Grist magazine [or whoever] said you said that.”
That is the cowardly way out. It is the sort of response many of the mainstream media gave when I was in the Cabinet and caught a news reporter or anchorman attributing quotes to me that I never made.
Another way to handle this matter, the way many in the mainstream media would handle it, would be to simply ignore the matter and continue on with the same ruthless disregard for the truth.
Or Moyers could simply apologize to me in the same space and with the same flair he used to impugn me; then the public might respect him as the honest man he should want to be. [Moyers' response is in Letters, page A20.]
The Moyers text was adapted from remarks he made when receiving the Harvard Medical School’s Global Environmental Citizen Award. If the school honored him for environmental reporting, and if this example is typical of his reporting, I question its judgment in giving him the award.
Here’s the text of the correction the Star Tribune runs at the conclusion of Secretary Watt’s response:
In quoting James Watt, Bill Moyers cited an article in Grist magazine. On Feb. 4, Grist published the following correction:
“In fact, Watt did not make such a statement to Congress. The quotation is attributed to Watt in the book ‘Setting the Captives Free’ by Austin Miles, but Miles does not write that it was made before Congress. Grist regrets this reporting error and is aggressively looking into the accuracy of this quotation.”
The Star Tribune also regrets the error, and will report any further developments in the Grist inquiry.
The Star Tribune’s editors apparently remain on the lookout for that phantom Watt quote. With any luck, they’ll cross paths with O.J. Simpson on his quest for the murderer of his ex-wife. Sickening.
HINDROCKET adds: And the Strib prints this letter by Bill Moyers:
In a recent speech that I made on religion and the environment (“There is no tomorrow,” Jan. 30 Op Ex), I made a mistake in quoting remarks attributed to James Watt, former secretary of interior, by the online journal Grist without confirming them myself.
Because those or similar quotes had also appeared through the years in many other publications — in the Washington Post and Time, for example, as well as in several books that I consulted in preparing my speech — I too easily assumed their legitimacy.
Despite their widespread currency, I should have checked their accuracy before using them. Grist and the Washington Post have now published corrections concerning the quote attributed to Watt in 1981.
I talked to Mr. Watt on the phone and expressed my own regret at using a quote that I had not myself confirmed. I also told him that I continue to find his policies as secretary of the interior abysmally at odds with what I, as well as other Christians, understand to be our obligation to be stewards of the earth.
Bill Moyers, New York.
In other words, Moyers says the quote was fake but accurate, and in any event, Watt is a lousy Christian. Moyers is a disgrace. He not only misquoted Watt, he completely misrepresented his environmental policies. And virtually every other “fact” in Moyers’ hate-filled tirade against conservative Christians was a lie, as was its central thesis. For a succinct summary, see our original post.
HINDROCKET notes an IRONY: Editor & Publisher also has an article titled “Bill Moyers Apologizes to James Watt for Apocryphal Quote.” It’s not bad, but in one of life’s little ironies, it closes with this quote from Moyers:
Moyers said he planned to contact the Star-Tribune, he did not know how else to seek to correct the record since he does not know who else reprinted the text of the speech. “It is difficult in this cyberworld to catch up with an error,” Moyers told E&P. “Once something like this begins to circulate, it takes on a life of its own.”
Actually, it’s always been difficult for truth to catch up with libel. At least in the cyberworld, a person who has been defamed, like James Watt, has a fighting chance. But for the blogosphere, Moyers’ lies never would have been even partially corrected; the Star Tribune and other newspapers would have been proud of themselves for printing Moyers’ contemptible smear against the Bush administration and conservative Christians.