Bill Moyers Apologizes to James Watt for Apocryphal Quote

Wed Feb 9th 2005 at 8:48 pm ET

NEW YORK Bill Moyers has apologized to former U.S. Interior Secretary James Watt for referencing a quote, which has been wrongly attributed to Watt for years, during a speech Moyers gave last December upon receiving an award from Harvard Medical School. The text of the speech has since appeared in several newspapers and on numerous Web sites.

“I said I had made a mistake in quoting him without checking with him,” Moyers told E&P today. “I should have done my homework.”

Moyers, a well-known journalist and recently departed host of NOW on PBS, said he phoned Watt yesterday and faxed him a letter stating his regrets. Moyers wrongly referred to Watt during a speech in New York on Dec. 1, after Moyers received an award from Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

During the speech, Moyers said, “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 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’.”

As of this morning, neither The Oakland Tribune or The Miami Herald, which ran versions of the speech, had published a correction of the Watt reference. Calls to editors at those papers were not immediately returned.

The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, which ran the text on Jan. 30, is planning to run a correction tomorrow , according to Editorial Pages Editor Susan Albright. She said Watt contacted the paper Friday to object to the reference.

Albright plans to run what she described as a column-lengthed response by Watt to Moyer’s speech on Thursday, “He was pretty upset, and we are letting him take a few punches at Moyers,” Albright said. The paper also will run a statement from Moyers apologizing for the misquote.

The Indianapolis Star, meanwhile, referenced the incorrect Watt comment in a piece that ran Dec. 19, which also noted Moyers’ speech. But that story did not quote Moyers as referring to the Watt quote.

The Washington Post ran a correction yesterday relating to a front-page Feb. 6 story that also incorrectly attributed the comments to Watt. But that story did not mention Moyers or his speech. “Although that statement has been widely attributed to Watt, there is no historical record that he made it,” the Post stated.

The text of the speech appeared in the Oakland Tribune on Feb. 6. The Herald ran part of the speech, including the Watt reference, on Dec. 11. After hearing of the reference to him, Watt issued a statement declaring that he never made the comment, which has been attributed to him for many years.

Moyers said he chose to apologize after learning of Watt’s dismay yesterday. “I called Watt and spoke with him and said I had seen this on the Web,” Moyers said. “I believe he appreciated the call.” Watt could not be reached for comment today.

In a lengthy letter to Watt, Moyers stated his apology, but also defended himself by reminding Watt that he was not the first to wrongly attribute the quote. He then criticized Watt for his policies while in Washington.

“I owe you an apology. I made a mistake in quoting the remarks attributed to you by the online journal Grist without confirming them myself,” the letter stated. “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 several books that I consulted in preparing my speech — I too easily assumed their legitimacy. … I regret the mistake.”

But Moyers’ letter was not entirely conciliatory. “You and I differ strongly about your record as Secretary of Interior,” the letter continued. “I found your policies abysmally at odds with what I understand as a Christian to be our obligation to be stewards of the earth. I found it baffling, when in our conversation of today, you were unaware of how some fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible influence political attitudes toward the environment.”

Moyers said he never distributed his speech for publication, but said it had been placed on the Harvard Web site, where he believes other Web sites and newspapers picked it up. “I don’t know who else used it,” Moyers said. “When you make a speech, you are making a public statement, and if a journalist considers that news, so be it.”

He added that he was not paid for the speech or for any publicaton of it, and would not have sought payment. “If anyone had asked me, I would have given my approval,” he said. “It seems to me it is for public use.”

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.”

–Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

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