Bill Moyers, James Watt and the Creation of Media Myths

Given his position as a sometimes-media critic, Bill Moyers recently provided an excellent example of how myths are perpetuated in the media. The short version is that even journalists tend to simply believe what other people tell them without every bothering to do any sort of fact checking. Its an odd problem in an age when so much information is at our fingertips.

In op-ed, Bill Moyers writes (emphasis added),

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.”

Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true — one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index.

In fact, there is no evidence at all that James Watt made this rather bizarre statement as part of any testimony to Congress. In fact, there’s scant evidence that Watt said it at all, under any circumstance. The quote doesn’t show up in a Lexis-Nexis search, and reporters at the time had a field day reporting Watt’s regular gaffes. If he said it at the time, it is genuinely surprising that no one else reported this statement.

So why does Moyer believe Watt did? Because he’s simply passing it along without checking its veracity. In this case he’s simply repeating what Glenn Scherer of Grist Magazine wrote back in November,

Odds are it was in 1981, when President Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back,” Watt said in public testimony that helped get him fired.

This is easily proven false. Watt wasn’t fired until 1983, and he was fired because he told a group of lobbyists that his coal commission’s decisions would be upheld because, “I have a black. I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” Watt’s many comments about the environment — many nutty, some not so nutty — played no role at all in his firing.

So why does Scherer think they did? Unlike Moyers, who is simply repeating a false claim, Scherer is simply making stuff up here. This is frequently called lying.

Scherer notes that his source for the Watt quote is Austin Miles’ 1990 book, Setting the Captives Free. But the quote in Miles book is a) problematic, and b) doesn’t say what Scherer reports it does.

Here’s what Miles writes,

Our desperate efforts to protect the environment have been met with opposition from the religious right. James Watt, a born-again evangelical who sat on the board of directors of the scandalous PTL Club ministry while serving as our Secretary of Interior, said this about the environment: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”

That’s all Miles has to say about Watt. It is impossible to check the veracity of this statement since Miles doesn’t bother to give any sort of indication where, when or in what forum Watt supposedly said this. Miles’ book seems positively allergic to footnotes. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to repeat second-hand, unsourced quotes.

Even then, Scherer seems to have simply made up most of the details for his column. As I noted above, Miles doesn’t say when, where or in what forum this was made, so how does Scherer conclude that it was made in 1981 at a Congressional hearing and led, in part, to Watt’s firing? He can’t. So either he has another source for this quote, or he simply made those details up.

And then Moyers bought this nonsense, hook line and sinker and even managed to “remember” the reaction of various people to Watt’s testimony.

Nobody, apparently, gives a damn about actually fact checking and striving for accuracy.


Bill Moyers: There is no tomorrow. Star Tribune, January 31, 2005.

The godly must be crazy. Glenn Scherer, Grist, November 1, 2004.

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