Public Comment

Of Mice and Newsmen

By Brian Frederick
Tuesday March 03, 2009 - 10:29:00 AM

The salt marsh harvest mouse is an endangered rodent that lives in the marshes around the San Francisco Bay. Because of development around the Bay Area, the tiny mouse’s existence as a species is now threatened. 

That’s the story of the salt marsh harvest mouse. 

The story of the story of the salt marsh harvest mouse, however, is much more interesting. It illustrates how the conservative noise machine works—and how some media play a far-too-willing role in abetting that noise machine. 

Republicans have been up in arms in recent weeks about using $30 million from the economic recovery act to save the salt marsh harvest mouse and its habitat. 

There’s just one problem: There is no money in the package for the salt marsh harvest mouse. Or its habitat. 

But that hasn’t stopped numerous media figures and outlets from baselessly asserting that there is. 

The mouse tale began with a House Republican staffer who circulated an e-mail charging that a federal agency said it planned to use stimulus money to save the mouse’s habitat. 

The following day, the conservative Washington Times ran a story headlined, “Pelosi’s mouse slated for $30M slice of cheese,” which reported that “House Republicans are challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that the massive stimulus spending bill contains no pet projects after uncovering in the bill more than $30 million for wetlands conservation in her San Francisco Bay Area district, including work she previously championed to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse.” But the bill didn’t include “$30 million for wetlands conservation” in the Bay Area, nor did it say anything about the mouse. 

That night on Fox News’ "Special Report," host Brett Baier cited the Washington Times story, claiming that “the stimulus contains $30 million for wetlands conservation in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's home district.” He added: “Some of that money goes for a past Pelosi project, protecting the salt marsh harvest mouse.” 

On "Fox & Friends," co-host Steve Doocy didn’t mention the wetlands conservation, simply claiming that the bill contained “something like $30 million for a little mouse in Nancy Pelosi's district.” 

In the hands of Glenn Beck on his new Fox News program, the talking point devolved even further into a baseless personal attack. Beck claimed that “Nancy Pelosi put $20 million into the stimulus package to preserve the salt marsh mouse.” 

Meanwhile, Fox Business News was overrun with the different versions of the mouse tale. "Happy Hour" co-host Rebecca Diamond stated that if “you look at the details” of the bill, “there’s millions of dollars there for a wetlands reservation area for a mouse,” and "Bulls & Bears" host Brenda Buttner stated, “[A] little mouse stirring up big controversy. It's getting 30 million in stimulus cash.” And Fox Business News even went through the trouble of finding a video of the salt marsh harvest mouse, but didn’t bother to check out whether or not any of the claims about the mouse were true. 

On the other hand, the day the Times report appeared, Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent contacted the Republican staffer who originally circulated the e-mail that started everything. The staffer conceded, “There is not specific language in the legislation for this project.” San Jose Mercury News writer Paul Rogers also did his job, reporting that the Times story was “incorrect.” 

The mouse made its way onto "Fox News Sunday," where Fox News Washington deputy managing editor Bill Sammon asserted that people look at the stimulus package and object to “some mouse being protected in Pelosi’s district.” Host Chris Wallace did not challenge Sammon. A week later, however, when a former Bush aide mentioned the salt marsh harvest mouse as evidence of a “pet project” in the stimulus bill, Wallace said, “Well, supposedly that’s been debunked.” 

Wallace’s acknowledgment was somewhat encouraging. 

Still, Fox News owes its viewers countless corrections for all of the falsehoods it aired invoking the salt marsh harvest mouse. 

To be fair, Fox News was not alone. The New York Times, The Hill, and CNN also aired various versions of the mouse tale. 

Journalists reporting on the president’s economic recovery act must be diligent when reporting on what it includes and not just regurgitate partisan allegations without checking them for accuracy. It is large and complex and allocates billions of dollars for all sorts of things, including transportation, housing, and energy projects. 

But unfortunately for the little salt marsh harvest mouse, there is no money set aside for him. 


Brian Frederick is a deputy editorial director at Media Matters for America (, a progressive media watchdog, research, and information center in Washington, D.C. He has a PhD in Communications from the University of Colorado.