Writer Michael Fumento believes that conservative-oriented investigative reporting is necessary to counter the mind-set of the liberal media. He maintains that too many media reports on scientific subjects are based on speculation and scare tactics.
Science reporter Fumento laments the fad that America spend millions of dollars every year frantically trying to solve small or non-existent problems while ignoring serious issues facing the nation.
Since that time the now 37-year-old Fumento, who likes to be known as a "scaremonger defeater," has taken on other so-called scares - such as allegedly deadly asbestos, and cellular phones as a cause of brain tumors - and shown them to be not very scary at all. The so-called epidemic of black-church burnings in the South, Fumento found to be a story manufactured by an American press all-too-ready to believe that the Ku Klux Klan was rising again and that the burned churches were its victims (not so).
Tooting his own horn, Fumento tells Insight. "I think being right is the best credential of all." We tend to agree. In his new book, Fumento takes a new tactic, this time identifying an epidemic he believes Americans ignore rather than overplay. The target is obesity. He calls his new book The Fat of the Land.
Insight. How did you happen to take up investigative reporting?
Michael Fumento: Because very few conservatives do investigative reporting. Mostly, our people are thumb-suckers, for want of a better term. They basically read clips by liberals. They pull a clip from the New York Times or the Washington Post, and then they will pontificate upon this clip.
The problem with that is, I dont care how good a pontificator you are - whether youre Bill Buckley, or even if youre Charles Krauthammer, who is fantastic - the problem is, you are limited by whatever your sources are. If the Post decided you didnt need to know about X, Y or Z, you probably dont know about it. Its that simple.
This is what I absolutely love to do! Dig and dig and dig. So I decided I was going to make my niche as a Young Turk not in pontificating, which is easier, but in investigative reporting. There are a zillion stories out there that simply werent getting covered.
Insight: Because the liberal press didnt want them covered?
MAF: In the extreme [instances]. More often, probably, they just werent part of their mind-set. It never even occurred to them to write them up!
One recent example is the church-burning incidents. I dont think it was so much a matter of liberal reporters getting together and saying, "We suspect black churches are burning at exactly the same rate theyve always burned and we suspect theres no KKK behind it, but lets conspire to keep this truth from the American public."
I dont think that happened at all. But it was in their mind-set that there could be an explosion in the number of black-church burnings. It was in their mind-set that if there is this sort of explosion, it has to be the result of some sort of organized conspiracy. The KKK is on the rise again! It never occurred to any of these people to ask the most basic questions which were: Are black churches burning at a higher rate and who is behind these black-church burnings?
Insight: A decade ago you were absolutely right about the AIDS epidemic not spreading to heterosexual Americans when many said it would, and soon.
MAF: Heterosexuals are going to be dying like flies! Once that was accepted, the only thing left to do was to speculate, and theres nothing the media love to do more than speculate.
If you havent got the facts, just speculate! Or you get juicy quotes. So rather than go out and show whether there is a big heterosexual AIDS problem, they decide we are going to assume that there is and were going to speculate as to how great its going to be. Is it going to wipe out our health-care system?
Insight: You have written vividly about how we get all shook up about the wrong plagues.
MAF: Africa has millions of tuberculosis deaths a year. Millions of malaria deaths a year. They get 200 Ebola cases and everybody flips out. Even in Africa, Ebola isnt Ebola! Even in Africa, AIDS isnt AIDS. AIDS will never approach the death level of malaria and TB in Africa, but nobody wants to hear that. It ruins their parade. Ebola is scary! AIDS is spreading!
Another thing: Nobody says, "This year, millions are dying of TB and malaria in Africa," so at some point down the road - three years, five years, 10 years - millions of Americans will die of TB and malaria as well. Ebola was just a game [the scaremongers] played, and virtually everyone bought into it. Today, Ebola in Africa; tomorrow, the United States.
Insight: Whats happened to our sense of proportion? Why do Americans respond so easily to every new scare that comes along?
MAF: There was a time, not too long ago, when if somebody died of cancer we said something like, "Well, you know, you have to go sometime," or we said something like, "Its Gods will."
Thats no longer good enough for anyone anymore. Now youve got to be able to blame somebody. So if my daughter gets a tumor. a rare tumor. at the age of 5, you dont say, "Well, its rare, but somebodys got to get it."
You say, "I live 500 feet from a power line!" Or 300 feet. You say, "They sprayed Melathion for medflies in my area," or you say, "I went to Vietnam or the [Persian] Gulf, and now my child has a tumor."
Environmentalists are in the position that if they dont create scares on a periodic basis, the environmental cause will disappear. Greenpeace is in a lot of trouble because theyve used up all their scares and they cant think of any new ones. Greenpeace has put all of its eggs in one basket - basically, its global warming and the ozone layer - and this just hasnt been sexy enough. They have to find a new one.
Insight: In your new book you take up obesity and say its a problem we should worry about.
MAF: Numerous sources tell us that 300,000 Americans are dying prematurely of obesity and nobody wants to hear about it! Why? Because theres nobody to blame but yourself I mean, if your daughter gets a tumor, you can blame Monsanto. You can blame San Diego Power and Light. You can blame the Persian Gulf War. The Vietnam War. Theres always someone to blame for these outside things. But when it comes to obesity, who are you going to blame? Theres nobody to blame but yourself, and nobody wants to hear about it.
I see no good evidence that herbicides are killing anyone in this country, that Agent Orange is killing anybody in this country. Obesity is killing 300,000 a year and nobody wants to hear about it because it is self-inflicted.
The problem isnt so much the foods themselves, its that this country has completely lost its sense of moderation. We dont eat small bags of Cheetos, we eat big bags of Cheetos. The food industry and many diet books tell people just exactly what people want to hear: You can eat 4,000 calories of food a day and not get fat. Well, you cant. The obesity epidemic is an epidemic that should cause us concern. Its something we should be dealing with personally. The AIDS book pulled me into medical reporting, which turned out to be a fortuitous move simply because as the population ages, as the baby boomers get more and more terrified of sickness and death, medical reporting is going to keep getting bigger and bigger.
Insight: So whats your next book?
MAF: A long time ago I began my next book, Epidemic of Fear, where I go back to some of my older stuff. The thesis is that were scaring ourselves to death in this country by worrying about the wrong things.
The idea of Epidemic of Fear is that when you overplay a small problem, or a nonexistent problem, youre doing a lot of horrible things. First of all, youre scaring people for no reason. Second, there are a lot of things out there that may be causing cancer but for which we dont have the money for the research. I dont think we should be using precious resources in dollars and precious resources in the form of epidemiologists and oncologists and whatever experts on very small or nonexistent problems that someone may mention, say, on the Larry King Show.
Cellular phones causing tumors. Wife abuse. The pitbull scare. The list is a long one and may include some real problems. My point is we go overboard. We dont see what our real problems are. We spend millions of dollars "solving" scares that arent real.
Is it possible that by concentrating so much attention and money on preventing small or unverifiable risks we divert attention from the real risks? Does the real assault [on the public] come from the media and environmental activists and bureaucrats?
Theres this tendency on the part of the media to believe that if youre pessimistic, youre probably telling the truth. This being America, these scared people call their lawyer. Thats what you do in America - you call your lawyer. The lawyer calls the media and, this being America, the media put it on page one. Suddenly theres a new bogeyman to terrify the uninformed.
Born: Jan. 4, 1960.
Military Service: Four years, sergeant, US. Army.
Education: Bachelors degree in political science, University of North Carolina at Fayetteville-Fort Bragg (1982); magna cum laude. Law degree, University of Illinois College of Law (1985).
Books: The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS (1990); Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment (1993); Polluted Science: The EPAs Efforts to Expand Clean Air Regulations (1997); The Fat of the Land The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves (1997).
Awards: American Council on Science and Healths Distinguished Science Journalist of 1993 for Science Under Siege.
Entertainment. "I really enjoy my work. I tend to work 12 hours a day, about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and I tend to work weekends. When I play, I try to play hard."