In the April/May issue of SPECTRUM (HERE), a magazine for families and individuals with autism and developmental disabilities, Robert Kennedy Jr. describes what it's like dealing with the New York Times when the subject is autism. In the article, "RFK, Jr., His crusade
continues," by Sarah Bridges, Ph.D., we hear about a meeting that was supposed to include Kennedy and the editor of the Times to discuss Kennedy's editorial submission on vaccines and autism.
The meeting wasn't what Kennedy expected. He described it like this:
"I expected a discussion with the editor of the Times, but when I went in to meet, they had assembled a group of science editors that were so hostile and antagonistic, it was like talking to a brick wall." As far as the Times was concerned, the issue was closed. Kennedy said, "They were absolutely determined that there would be no public discussion in their paper about mercury and neurological disorders."
This was a striking example of the malaise when the subject is autism.
Kennedy summed it up well: "The unbelievable thing is how these children's stories are suppressed by the medical community, big Pharma and the American press. There is a total refusal to have the discussion and derision towards anyone who tries."
If anyone wants further proof of Kennedy's claim, all they have to do is look at recent coverage of the vaccine debate as covered in the Times.
On April 11 the AP story, "Gov't Seeks Help With Vaccine Questions,"
by Lauran Neergaard was out on the Internet. (HERE)
It seemed like a great example of real, fair and balanced reporting on the continuing battle over vaccines and autism. The focus was on the meeting on April 11 in Washington where, as we were told, "A government-appointed working group is charged with picking the most important safety questions for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research over the next five years." The group also wants to hear "significant public input in setting those priorities, an effort to ease skepticism that authorities hide or discount important information about vaccines."
Neergaard was careful to cite claims from both side in the debate.
Doctors in this piece admitted that there's a serious lack of confidence in the vaccine program. Neergaard made it clear that the issue is far from settled and she included information from the recent concession in the federal vaccine case involving Hannah Poling in Georgia. This was exciting coverage. The debate seemed to be presented honestly from both sides.
Imagine my surprise when I saw that the New York Times picked up this piece on April 13 and renamed it, "Vaccine Safety Panel to Include the Public in Setting Priorities." (HERE)
They could have had this meeting covered by Gardiner Harris who'd have given it the usual biased spin pitting parents against the medical establishment. It seemed to be a new day for autism coverage.
Not so fast. By chance, I looked through both stories to see if everything was there in the Times piece. Sadly, the coverage in the Times had some obvious omissions. Most noticeable was the fact that the Times piece was considerably shorter. The comments by Hannah Poling's mother at the meeting during public input were left out, along with those of Dr. Christopher Carlson concerning the absence of a study on revising the schedule.
This is what was missing:
But the mitochondria question is on the list of top research questions the CDC made public Friday.
And Hannah's mother joined other anti-autism advocates Friday in making a plea for that research to speed forward.
"We have a lead, a very strong lead. We need to look at the mitochondria," Terry Poling told the government panel. "We need to identify children at risk, and we need to learn how to immunize them safely. We need to develop methods and criteria to screen for susceptible children. Maybe we need to wait to vaccinate until critical developmental milestones have been met."
Mitochondria are energy factories for cells, and mitochondrial disease - estimated to affect about 1 in 5,000 births - can thus attack any organ, including the brain, by depriving it of energy. Scientists believe that stress such as an infection can set off that cascade of damage in people with underlying mitochondrial dysfunction, but whether a vaccine alone causes enough stress to do so isn't known.
A bigger question for some of the government's advisers Friday was what the CDC's proposed research agenda didn't include - the question of how many vaccines should be given in one visit, and if they're all really needed by age 2.
"We all have to have our kids vaccinated by the time they go into daycare or kindergarten, but ... does it all have to happen in the first two years?" asked panelist Dr. Christopher Carlson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, himself the father of a 9-year-old with a mild type of autism called Asperger's. "I'm not saying there's proof one way or the other. But the lack of options is a concern I think we should think about."
I told myself that this didn't mean anything. Maybe the Times lopped off the ending because of space constraints. But next I noticed several glaring alterations in the Times story. Dr. Andrew Pavia was quoted saying, "There's a need to engage as many voices as possible.
It's a chance to make sure the right questions are going to be asked,"
but we don't get read that he also said, "There's been a lot of anger and a lot of distrust over issues of vaccine safety."
In the original story, Neergaard also wrote, "Federal health officials said the work, being planned for two years, wasn't in response to that controversy, and encompasses many more questions than autism - from rare side effects of the new shingles vaccine to how to predict who's at risk for encephalopathy sometimes triggered by other inoculations."
In the Times version that was shortened to: "Federal health officials said the work was not in response to that controversy and included many more questions than autism, including rare side effects of the new shingles vaccine."
Finally, I noticed that Neergaard told us, "The newest question surfaced last month, with news that the government had agreed to pay the family of 9-year-old Hannah Poling for injuries linked to vaccines. Her family said Hannah was a healthy 19-month-old when she received five shots, encompassing nine vaccines."
The Times rewrote that as, "Her family said Hannah was a healthy 19-month-old when she received five shots."
What the Times left out were critical bits of information. They were ones that raise serious questions over vaccine safety. I'd love to ask Lauran Neergaard what she thinks of the Times version of her story.
Kennedy was right when he pointed out how the press is suppressing the facts in this issue. It seems that policy at the New York Times is that they'll tell a little bit of the truth, but not all the truth, because a little bit is better than none.
Anne Dachel is media edtior of Age of Autism.