In an effort to resurrect the paper’s discredited charges that a ”mysterious pattern of illnesses“ afflicts people around nuclear facilities, The Tennessean published Sunday an unusually venomous attack by retired editor and publisher John Seigenthaler against one of the series’ harshest critics.
Using distorted, selectively edited quotations, Seigenthaler’s essay is largely an ad hominem diatribe against freelance science writer Michael Fumento, whose Nov. 12 column in The Wall Street Journal dismantled The Tennessean’s allegations and accused the paper of inventing a nuclear health scare.
Fumento’s column echoed criticisms of The Tennessean’s series made by local epidemiologists at Vanderbilt, a media watchdog group in Washington, D.C., and even the paper’s own medical columnist, Dr. John Sergent. All said the same thing: The paper’s reporters found no ”mysterious illnesses,“ just a hodgepodge of unrelated and unexceptional symptoms, and no comparative data whatsoever to indicate that these symptoms occur more often among people living near nuclear plants than in any other community.
But Seigenthaler largely left aside those critics, as well as their arguments, and focused his attack on Fumento, leaving readers to puzzle why the paper would devote 58 column-inches to attacking a story only half that long which, as yet,hasn’t appeared anywhere in Tennesseeexcept, of course, in The Oak Ridger.
Here’s how Seigenthaler did it, and an educated guess as to why:
Seigenthaler ridicules Fumento for writing a book which argues that the danger of AIDS is largely limited to homosexuals, and quotes from a review in The New York Times that said Fumento’s ”callousness toward AIDS victims“ was ”most unfortunate.“
But the very next sentence in the same review states, ”[Fumento’s shortcomings] severely undermine what is otherwise a legitimate and soundly reasoned thesis.“
And the review’s next sentence, printed on the cover of the paperback edition of Fumento’s book, reads, ”The arguments, statistics, and perceptions that [Fumento] addresses to support his position appear almost as irrefutable as they are controversial.“ Seigenthaler left those parts out.
Seigenthaler then quotes from another review, which said Fumento ”is almost certainly wrong.“ The same review also said that Fumento’s book is ”a mercilessthough often legitimateindictment of the purveyors of panic.“ Seigenthaler left that out.
To paint Fumento as homophobic, Seigenthaler quotes this sentence from an article Fumento wrote in National Review: ”If AIDS is the plague of the 1980’s, then homosexuals are the rats who are the carriers.“ Seigenthaler adds that this damning quotation is not ”taken out of context,“ and that a ”reading of the entire article leaves no doubt that Fumento said what he meant and meant what he said.“
The quotation is accurate. There’s no doubt, as Seigenthaler correctly pointed out, that Fumento stepped over the line. But later, in a book that Fumento wrote on the same subject, called The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, here’s how Fumento made his point: ”By asserting that AIDS is not a localized epidemic but one that, while hitting them first, was destined to hit everyone, homosexuals perhaps even INCREASED their stigma. For now not only were their sexual practices and lifestyles in general looked upon with suspicion or outright disgust; but indeed, they were setting themselves up as the rats and fleas of the new plague.“ That version puts Fumento’s argument in a different light; Seigenthaler picked the quotation that best served his purpose.
And then there are the small jabs. Seigenthaler lists five conservative magazines that have published Fumento’s articles, but never mentions other magazines for which he has written, such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, or Gannett’s own USA Weekend. And, like any freelancer, Fumento has been described at various times as a ”science journalist,“ an ”environmental correspondent,“ a ”legal affairs writer,“ a ”medical writer,“ and a ”former Reagan administration lawyer.“ So what? So, Seigenthaler mockingly writes, Fumento ”is a man of multifarious titles,“ and, ”The king of England at the power peak of the British colonial empire did not claim as many titles as this Fumento.“
And so it goes, for 2,500 words, only the last section of which discusses Fumento’s criticisms of The Tennessean. Most of that is Seigenthaler’s defense of his former paper for running the series and an explanation that he personally asked The Tennessean to publish this response to Fumento. He even adds a jab at the Scene for calling attention to Fumento’s column.
Why did Seigenthaler do it?
We’ll never know for sure, but one can guess it’s about winning prizes. Though the paper’s editor denies it, it would appear that The Tennessean is pursuing these unproven allegations to win journalism awards. But Fumento’s column, published in a nationally respected paper like The Wall Street Journal, could spoil everything. Judges for the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, look not only at stories themselves, but also at serious objections about the works in question.
That’s why, one suspects, The Tennessean set aside so much space in Sunday’s paper to demolish Fumento, and why, one reluctantly concludes, a respected journalist lent his name and prestige to a hatchet job.