An Immortal Lie

A letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald:

You may want to suggest to Alan Ramsey that he do a little fact-checking before embarrassing himself in print, if indeed he is capable of embarrassment. Perhaps he was pressed for time, but his March 9 column was mostly a reprint of a speech Bill Moyers made, in which said that “delusional” American Christians supported the destruction of the environment and the expansion of Israeli settlements in order to hasten the Apocalypse. In support of this assertion, he quoted former Secretary of the Interior James Watt as saying “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” Mr. Ramsey may not be aware that Mr. Moyers formally apologized to Mr. Watt for using an entirely fictional quote. Since I am clearly a delusional right-wing fanatic, I invite you to consult a more credible source: Editor and Publisher’s website.

Please note the timeline: Mr. Moyers made his speech on December 1, 2004. The speech and the quote were published by a variety of newspapers, some more obscure than others, and reached the Washington Post on February 6, 2005. Mr. Watt demanded an apology and received one on February 9. Yet Mr. Ramsey reprinted the speech with its counterfeit quote on March 9. If you have no objection to paying Mr. Ramsey for recycling someone else’s three month-old speech – an admirable effort in conservation – I suppose I should not care whether the Sydney Morning Herald receives value for its money. As Mr. Ramsey himself says, “If not you deserve everything you get, even if the rest of us don’t.” Or if you favor the use of quotations, consider this one from Mark Twain: “One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.” And unlike Messrs. Ramsey and Moyers, I can furnish the source for that one.

Update: I should have included a reference to the original challengers to Moyer’s “higher truth.” The mad geniuses at Power Line, John Hinderaker in particular, drove this story. What a pity that professional journalists can’t be bothered to do for pay what Hindrocket does for love of the truth.

9 thoughts on “An Immortal Lie”

  1. Hm, on rereading, my comment seems dismissive and I didn’t mean that. I meant that you have a point.

  2. OT, my favorite Twain quote is about a dog, not a cat.

    “I wish I owned half of that dog.”
    “Why?” somebody asked.
    “Because I would kill my half.”
    Puddin Head Wilson

    On the other hand, that quote might be applicable to the life of this made up story too…

  3. One of the problems with any information system is purging errors after they have been introduced into the system. I can’t decide if the internet is better at this than deadtree media or worse.

    On one hand, the multitude of voices means that errors such as the Watt misquote get refuted nearly immediately. On the other hand, the original error gets rapidly duplicated and disseminated faster as well. Unless people develop the habit of double-checking every item from every source it is easy to innocently repeat an error.

    Once we add in the facts that (1) most lies are more interesting than the truth and (2) that many people don’t approach information that confirms their biases with skepticism or even good faith the situation just become worse.

    I reminded of the saying, “A lie can run a thousand miles before the truth can even get it boots on.”

  4. Response from SMH:

    Dear Mitchell,

    Recently you contacted ReaderLink. Your interest in the newspaper is appreciated.

    The following information outlines the Herald’s response:

    Thank you for notifying the Herald of the error in the opinion article yesterday. A correction was published today as follows:
    “In his column yesterday, Alan Ramsey quoted from a speech made by American journalist Bill Moyers, which alleged that James Watt, a former American secretary of the interior, told the US Congress: “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” Moyers has conceded that Watt never made that comment. ”

    Your ongoing feedback and opinions will help us publish a better newspaper.

    Please quote ###### if you wish to contact ReaderLink again regarding this matter.


    Nerida, Penny & Josh


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