The Tennessean

November 29, 1998
The Tennessean

Critic of Oak Ridge stories has an agenda

by
JOHN SEIGENTHALER
Tennessean Chairman Emeritus

The card with the printed signature of the Oak Ridge mayor arrived in the mail last week, suggesting that I read the enclosed article from the Nov. 12 Wall Street Journal. I was interested - even though I had already read the Journal opinion article.

I noted that the mayor's missive had not mentioned that the author of the article, Michael Fumento, identified by the Journal as "a science journalist" had begun his piece by relocating Oak Ridge in "western Tennessee."

Fumento's article, headlined, "A Newspaper Invents a Nuclear Health Scare," was an all-out assault on the extensive series of articles that have appeared in The Tennessean concerning "unexplained illnesses" that afflict 410 people who live in areas around nuclear plants in the nation. Unless you regularly read The American Spectator, the magazine that loves to hate Bill Clinton, The Washington Times, the Moonie-owned daily that loves to hate him more, or The National Review, or the Weekly Standard or Reason Magazine, or other publications bent to the right (a couple of them to the radical right), Michael Fumento will not be a byline you will recognize.

He is a man of multifarious titles. At diverse times, in addition to his identification as a "science journalist," he has also been called (or called himself) a "self syndicated columnist," a "former Reagan administration lawyer," a "medical writer," a "science journalist," an "environmental correspondent," a "national issues" reporter, a "legal affairs writer," a "Consumer Alert Fellow," an "American Enterprise Institute Fellow," a "Warren T. Brooks Fellow" (whatever that is), "a Burkean conservative" (whatever else that is), "an adviser to the Atlantic Legal Foundation," and "an editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News." The king of England at the power peak of the British colonial empire did not claim as many titles as this Fumento.

The one I found most fascinating was "former AIDS analyst for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission." It was a job, Forbes magazine reported, from which he was "banished to insipid fact-checking" because of his views. He also, incidentally, was fired from his job at the Rocky Mountain News after two and a half months- but, says Jay Ambrose, his former editor there, not because of his "ideological views." He has, indeed, written about AIDS. In July 1986, this appeared under a bylined book review in the National Review: "If AIDS is the plague of the 1980s, then homosexuals are the rats who are the carriers." That is not an absurd quote taken out of context. A reading of the entire article leaves no doubt that Fumento said what he meant and meant what he said. In the immediately preceding sentences, he asserted that the "proclivity" of homosexuals to anal sex and their "relative promiscuity" had given them what he called "their ignoble status as plague carriers." In this and other publications, he has emphasized his point that AIDS is no threat to the heterosexual community - even though he acknowledged that 27% of the population afflicted with the disease were not homosexuals. He criticized C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, whose warnings sought to alert both homosexuals and heterosexuals to the danger of AIDS. In 1989, Fumento published a book on the subject, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, in which he blamed the Center for Disease Control and AIDS activists for creating a "scare" about the disease.

A couple of comments by reviewers are worth mentioning. David Shaw, the media critic of The Los Angeles Times, wrote, "To hear Michael Fumento tell it, the notion of an impending AIDS epidemic in the general heterosexual community, is a colossal lie perpetrated on the public by a deliberately deceitful press ... self aggrandizing AIDS activists ... willfully negligent public health officials and morally bankrupt ideologues." Shaw wrote that Fumento's "callousness toward AIDS victims" was "most unfortunate.'

Patricia Cohen, in Washingtonian Monthly, said: "He's most certainly wrong. ... In fact, AIDS is alive and well and growing at a terrifying pace among heterosexuals - only they're poor and black." Even before the book was out, it created a storm of controversy. In the June issue of Forbes magazine, a reviewer praised the book, which led to massive protests by AIDS activists in front of the magazine's New York offices. The following month, the late Malcolm Forbes, not surprisingly, published a personal apology for the article, describing Fumento's views as "asinine." Fumento also claims to be an expert on diet and nutrition. His most recent book, The Fat of the Land, includes a harsh attack on Dr. Martin Katahn, the Nashville psychologist whose two diet books, published in 1986 and 1989, hit the top of The New York Times, best-seller list, one for six months and the other for three years.

Fumento calls the books "The Katahn Catastrophe" because it runs against his thesis that fat people must help themselves get thin- and not rely on diets like Katahn's. The theme of his book is pretty simple: He was traveling through Europe and noted that Europeans were thinner than Americans traveling in Europe - including himself. So he decided to take off the weight. And did, without any help from Katahn, thank you very much. He boldly asserts that he can save fat people from themselves. His bottom-line thesis seems to be that readers should buy his book and forget Katahn and other authors who agree with him.

Katahn has a policy of not responding to critics of his work. He would only say Fumento had never talked to him about his diet plans or theories, and that he has not read The Fat of the Land. It didn't sound as if he plans to do so.

While Fumento's "self syndicated" columns show up occasionally in some mainstream newspapers, most often the major theme of his writing is to attack the "news media" as The New Evil Empire. For example, on his favorite current subject, "fat people": "The media must stop glorifying obesity."

For another, he insisted in a Wall Street Journal article that the national concern over the wave of church burnings in the South was a "myth" created by the news media and the National Council of Churches. The Council created the scare to collect money, he said, not for church altars but to promote the cause of gays and feminists. "There was no epidemic" of church burnings, Fumento wrote. He asserted that only two churches were burned by Ku Klux Klan members. "That's it for the white supremacists," he said.

While there was no evidence of a national or regional plot to burn black churches in the south, a Justice Department report in June 1997 provided evidence that Fumento refused to accept: An investigation of 429 cases of arson revealed that four out of 10 were at black churches. Three-fourths of the churches were in the South. Law enforcement agencies had arrested 199 suspects -160 of them white - in connection with 150 of the arson cases. Seventy-five of those charged had been found guilty - including 14 who were charged specifically with civil rights violations - three of them in Nashville.

That Justice Department report did not include the fact that four Ku Klux Klan members pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for burning a black church in South Carolina. In Baton Rouge, La., a white man pleaded guilty to burning three African-American churches and confessed in open court that he was motivated by his dislike for black people. That's it for the media myth.

Here is what Fumento wrote in another article about reports of angry motorists traveling traffic-packed thoroughfares in congested cities: "There is no evidence that `road rage' or an aggressive driving `epidemic' is anything but a media invention, inspired primarily by something as simple as a powerful alliteration."

On news coverage of the militia movement: "Part of the reason the media hate the militia is because they have guns. God help them if they also smoke. But another factor is that the media fear what they don't understand. ... They can't possibly comprehend the thinking of people so very mistrustful of Big Government." He added that while "many militia members are downright paranoid ... that's hardly illegal." In fair ness, he wrote it before the tragedy in Oklahoma City.

On what he calls "Pink Propaganda" in women's magazines: "In addition to lipstick and tampons, they specialize in selling fear - and the notion that Big Government is almost always the solution."

As to his attack on The Tennessean, his column challenges the idea that the 410 cases of illness discovered by reporters Laura Frank and Susan Thomas were worthy of reporting to the public. There was, he said, no pattern. There were all sorts of ailments, ranging from dizziness to diabetes, muscle pain to memory loss, hives to heart disease ..." (Fumento by the way, seems inspired himself by alliteration.)

He challenges The Tennessean' statistics, its reporting, its characterization of the facts, and complain that other newspapers have picked up the story and created "fear." He provides his own statistics, facts and characterizations, and quotes his own selected studies, including one from Switzerland, to put down this series.

His basic complaint is that The Tennessean's series is another myth that creates fear - shades of new media reporting on AIDS, the militia movement, church arsons and "road rage."

And what does Fumento fear? (Alliteration can be contagious.): He states in the column that the federal government estimates that lawsuits from people who read or learn about the newspaper stories could result in $2.1 billion in legal costs. The 4l0 cases could become 41,000, he says. The series of stories, he worries, could endanger national defense "and could even threaten the nation's nuclear deterrent." Get serious.

For most of the years I was a journalist at The Tennessean, I accepted the government's assertion that the atomic bombs that ended World War II would be converted into "peaceful purposes." There was the Atomic Energy Commission's decades of indoctrination that nuclear plants would provide the power to drive the nation's industrial plants, heaters, coolers, make our lives comfortable. It would be safe. It would be efficient. We in Tennessee had reason to be proud of Oak Ridge and of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which came to take seriously the challenge to build nuclear plants that would fulfill the "peaceful purposes" promise of the AEC.

But gradually over three decades, the safety and cost of nuclear power became a national debate - and with Chernobyl, an international debate. Looking back on the news stories and editorials, it is clear that the news media should have asked more questions and demanded more answers much sooner.

During my years as reporter, editor and publisher of The Tennessean, I should have asked more questions and sought more answers. Once the media began to report on the dangers and the soaring costs of nuclear plants, and the disposal of their waste (the dangers are as real as AIDS or the militia movement), citizens began to express grave concerns. The questions the media raised were responsible, if late. It is also a vital responsibility of the media to give voice to citizens whose pleas are not heard anywhere else - not by the government, the medical community, the scientific community. While Fumento has twisted the thrust of the stories, as he twisted the words of reporters Thomas and Frank when he interviewed them (the articles in fact emphasized the problems of victims who suffered neurological or respiratory ailments or memory loss), that is where a pattern of illness raises questions.

While the series of articles has reached some conclusions, it has not been able to answer the questions-only to raise legitimate concerns. And the reporters have related the words of doctors they have interviewed who are mystified by their inability to diagnose either causes or cures for their patients. The illnesses, the paper has said, are "unexplained." It should be said that after The Tennessean indicated a willingness to listen to the victims and report their fears, low-level staff members of government agencies urged that the newspaper pursue the story. They were fearful that the Department of Energy studies had not dealt with the potential dangers adequately or thoroughly. Finally, representatives of government have begun to pay attention. Sen. Bill Frist, the only medical professional in the U.S. Senate, has shown an interest. So have other members of Congress whose constituents are suffering. Their response may finally promote answers to the questions that have been raised. That, contrary to Fumento, is no threat to national security or our nuclear deterrent.

Sure, there are some medical authorities and some scientists-highly qualified and distinguished - who don't think the plight of 410 people is worth much research and study. Without clear empirical evidence, they would not waste a minute researching these cases. That I understand, even expect. But a newspaper thought it was worth researching and studying. And it upset Michael Fumento, a man of many titles. Since retiring from an active role at The Tennessean, I have from time to time asked to write articles for these pages. I have refrained from commenting on, criticizing or defending the newspaper in anything I wrote, but this article is published at my request. Next week, I expect to receive another card from the Oak Ridge mayor, this one including a couple of Henry Walker's recent columns from The Nashville Scene, which have embraced Michael Fumento and his criticism of The Tennessean.

The mayor, like Walker, I guess, takes help wherever he can get it.

(Seigenthaler, a journalist of 50 years' experience, is chairman emeritus of The Tennessean.)