Part I, "Science"Blogs: Seed Media's Aggressive Weed is HERE.
By Jake Crosby
In spite of Seed Media Group and subsequently “Science”Blogs’ obvious ties to the drug industry and its stance on the autism-vaccine controversy as a result, many questions remain unanswered. Such as, are there any posts that are actually critical of the drug industry? If so, what is the penalty for blogging unfavorably about drugs such as vaccines? What is the Blog’s connection to other online sources tied to pharma? What are the connections of the top people at Seed Media Group, including Adam Bly? And last but not least, has Seed Media ever represented this controversy even-handedly?
SEED: A Fair Magazine Once Upon A Time?
The short answer to that question is yes. Though Seed Media Group is clearly not without conflicts of interest; SEED Magazine to its credit did publish a 12-page cover story critical of thimerosal in vaccines called “The Rise Against Mercury,” by psychologist Dr. Sarah Bridges in 2004, the year before SMG was created. (HERE) The story included photos of Mark and David Geier, the only two outside researchers ever allowed any kind of access to the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink. The article was written by the mother of a son who suffers from seizures, mental retardation, and autism as a result of his DPT vaccine, and who is one of 1800 recognized by vaccine court as vaccine-damaged. In an email exchange with me, she suggested Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had some involvement with the magazine publishing the article. Ironically, RFK Jr. is now regularly bashed on “Science”Blogs as an “anti-vaccine crank.” But I was curious. So I sent a letter in the mail to Adam Bly because he does not post his own email address online. I asked what the reason was for Seed’s 180-degree shift in its coverage of the controversy, especially with the launching of “Science”Blogs. I referred him to the story his magazine ran five years ago, but Adam Bly did not reply.
Censorship at Work
That was the first and last article to run in a Seed publication, be it online or in print, that suggested a vaccine-autism connection even-handedly. What gained front-page coverage then, would be met with censorship by Seed today. On the German-speaking “Science”Blogs, co-managed by Seed Media Group and Hubert Burda Media, censorship is exactly what happened to Austrian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker Bert Ehgartner. He had been blogging for the German “Science”Blogs from August until December of 2008 when an entry by him stirred up a firestorm. The thread title was “"Aluminium muss raus aus Impfstoffen!"” which translates to “Aluminum must be eliminated from vaccines!” It featured an interview between Ehgartner and a vaccine safety researcher, Dr. Klaus Hartmann, who criticized the presence of aluminum salts in the HPV vaccine, and its inadequate safety trials. This quickly prompted a full-flung attack from the bloggers and readers of the US “Science”Blogs, calling Ehgartner an “anti-vaccinationist.”
Some, however, did defend Ehgartner, and were quick to call on the bashing as a smear campaign. Jessica Roccò, an editor of the German “Science”Blogs, said, “Ehgartner and our other medical bloggers are not Steiner freaks, Jenny McCarthies, anthroposophists, homeopaths or AIDS deniers, seriously!”
So anyone who shares an opinion even remotely similar to Jenny McCarthy on “Science”Blogs is quickly lumped in with freaks and AIDS deniers (ironic, since AIDS was probably caused by vaccines), despite never mentioning autism and only implicating one adjuvant, not vaccines in general. He would also be on the receiving end of the “anti-vax” gambit.
But that is not all. If the person himself posts for “Science”Blogs and voices criticism of a deadly neurotoxin present in vaccines without even mentioning autism, he gets the boot. That is exactly what happened to Bert Ehgartner. According to German “Science”Blogger, Christian Reinboth, the day after Ehgartner’s last post, “Aluminum – Die Evidenz” – “Ehrgartner has been fired from ScienceBlogs already due to the outrage over his aluminum article.” Ehgartner responded sarcastically, “It must be pretty exciting to work on controversial scientific issues like the vaccine or the hiv/aids field in such an open-minded academic atmosphere,” but then hit the nail on the head, “Seems to me that you saved some good portion McCarthy spirit from last century.” Critical of government? Communist. Critical of the vaccine industry? Anti-Vaccinationist. That is the extent of a typical “Science”Blogger’s argumentative skills.
How to Look Critical of the Drug Industry, Without Being Critical
“Science”Blogs’ pathetic attempt to pose as a scientific source however does not end with undisclosed conflicts and inclusion of the word “Science” in its name. Even though its magazine counterpart will no longer publish articles such as the one by Sarah Bridges and “Science”Blogs itself will banish bloggers like Bert Ehgartner for writing threads critical of a dangerous drug adjuvant, it still tries to make itself look neutral. As a result, it will on rare occasion publish a few critical-looking token threads of the drug companies that it is tied in with.
For example, a number of “Science”Bloggers wrote critical entries on drug company Merck in early May. The topic was the recent update of a scandal dating back a few years ago when Merck published its own fake journal through Elsevier, but the “Science”Bloggers were in friendly territory. These threads came days after Merck issued a statement basically admitting its role in the publication of the fake journal. In the statement, Merck denied that the articles published in its journal were ghost written. The bloggers did rightly say that since the journal contained articles reprinted from other journals while peppered with Merck ads, it was therefore advertising deceptively posing as a throw away journal. However, they did not challenge anything the company had written in its official statement or question whether or not any of it was even true. They also acknowledged that the incident was from 6 years ago, far from current news.
There are no controversial topics on “Science”Blogs (that I have seen), which take a critical position of the pharmaceutical giant, or any other pharmaceutical company for that matter.
There was also a “Science”Blogs entry covering the recent issue of Sanofi-Aventis cheating Medicaid by unnecessarily raising the prices of its nasal-sprays to the poor, which led to the company having to pay $100 million in compensation. Initially, the “Science”Blogger, who wrote anonymously, merely copied and pasted sections of the story from another news source, but then gave his own interpretation, which was a little more controversial. In spite of this thread having been written entirely written about a resolved controversy, as was the case with the fake journal published by Merck, the blogger then questioned the wisdom of the U.S. government in his own analysis of the situation for also ordering a vaccine from that very same company for stealing by the overcharging of its nasal-sprays, even though they were not vaccines. Despite this being based purely on speculation, this was apparently pushing the limit for “Science”Blogs. Another “Science”Blogger wrote in response to this, “Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick. The antivaccine nuts will have a field day with this,” as if the reputation of a pharmaceutical company that manufactures vaccines is more important than the fact that it cheated the poor on a national scale.
More recently, another thread on “Science”Blogs was written about the recent ghostwriting of review papers supporting the effectiveness of Hormone Replacement Therapy. Wyeth, HRT manufacturer, hired a communications group called “DesignWrite” to write dozens of review papers endorsing their hormonal drugs while gaining signatures from doctors. In an attempt to isolate the vaccine controversy from this issue, the “Science”Blogger wrote, “Not surprisingly, the anti-vaccine quack apologists over at Age of Autism have already jumped all over this as being somehow "vindication" and evidence that the studies failing to find a link behind vaccines and autism are similarly tainted. Never mind that the HRT papers were review articles and not primary studies.” Apparently, he feels that drug companies should disclose their involvement in review articles, but not actual studies. He also seems to take no issue with Wyeth’s current position that the review articles were “scientifically sound.”
For “Science”Blogs, being critical of the drug industry ends with criticizing it on past controversies for which it already admitted fault. Hence, it is difficult to understand the point of such pseudo-controversial threads other than pretending to be even-handed, even though “Science”Blogs is anything but.
The Fish Rots From the Head
A Russian proverb says, “The fish rots from the head” (or perhaps in this case, the weed sprouts from the seed). In more concrete terms, if the heads of an organization are corrupt, the entire organization is corrupt. Perhaps this could explain “Science”Blogs universal stance on vaccines and autism, and the dramatic shift in SEED Magazine’s reporting of the controversy since Seed Media Group’s founding. Every member of SMG’s Board of Directors has ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Dennis Hersch, for example, had a history of pharma experience according to his Businessweek bio, saying, “Mr. Hersch served as outside counsel to Pharmaceutical Partners for Better Healthcare, a non-profit organization whose Members are the world's leading research-based pharmaceutical companies.”
Two others on Seed’s board of directors, James Gould and Frederic Mayerson, also have pharmaceutical ties through a mutual fund. Among their investments are Nelson Communications, for which Merck serves as a major client. Another is MedSite, which describes itself as “The leader in e-pharma marketing, providing online marketing solutions to pharmaceutical companies for reaching MedSite's customer base of nearly 450,000 physicians.”
Other board members include Neil Raymond and Jamie Macintosh, leaders of Innovium Capital, another mutual fund that invests in a company heavily involved with the pharmaceutical industry. One of their investments, RxRite, in 2005 partnered with a subsidiary of the Ramp Corporation called “HealthRamp,” whose “products enable communication of value-added healthcare information among physician offices, pharmacies, hospitals, pharmacy benefit managers, health management organizations, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies,” according to a memo authored by Raymond and Macintosh. (HERE)
Seed Media Group’s most recent addition to the board, David Peterson, previously worked for NM Rothschild, an investment-banking firm. It’s not clear how long he worked there, but in 2004, Rothschild served as financial advisory company to Aventis when was it was bought out for 54.5 billion euros by Sanofi-Synthelabo, creating French pharmaceutical giant, Sanofi-Aventis.
As for the Chairman and CEO himself, Adam Bly is a member of the Communications Committee for the National Academy of Sciences, the parent organization for the IOM. The IOM was responsible for the report paid for by the CDC that rejects a causal association between thimerosal and the MMR vaccine and autism. The transcript and notes of closed meetings suggest that the panelists came to a predetermined conclusion well before they received any evidence for review.
Bly also has direct associations with the drug industry. In Toronto in 2006, Bly attended the “Global Connect Conference” hosted by obscure non-profits CONNECT and MaRS, where his “Science”Blogs won the award of “Best Science to Speak.” The affiliations of the other panelists were quite telling. (HERE)
Accompanying Bly were Mary Walshok, co-founder of CONNECT, Peter Brenders, President and CEO of BIOTECanada and Natalie Dakers, CEO of the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD). BIOTECanada is the Industrial Biotechnology Association of Canada. Its members include Merck Frosst, Canadian research division of Merck, and Eli Lilly Canada. In other words, BIOTECanada is the lobby group for the Canadian biotechnology industry, including the pharmaceutical industry, much like the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Adam Bly, himself a Canadian by birth, sat on a panel with the head of a corporate lobby, most of its member companies representing the pharmaceutical industry..
Then there are the groups that hosted this event where Adam Bly’s “Science”Blogs won the award; the groups were CONNECT and MaRS. CONNECT’s co-founder sat on the panel with Bly. Among the list of “industry/capital providers” for CONNECT, a non-profit group promoting entrepreneurship, are representatives from Merck, Pfizer, and Amylin Pharmaceutical Companies. Amylin is in a partnership with Eli Lilly, and among former members of Amylin’s board of directors is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. MaRS, another such organization, credits some of its founding contributions to Eli Lilly Canada. And yet, Adam Bly sat on a panel with pharmaceutical industry reps, at a pharmaceutical industry-sponsored conference where his pharmaceutical industry-sponsored “Science”Blogs that spews pharmaceutical-industry propaganda won an award. However, this all took place in 2006, only a few months after “Science”Blogs had even been launched.
Intricate Roots of Connections
The outcome of SEED’s 180-degree shift in the reporting of this controversy was its ties to other sources sympathetic to the pharmaceutical industry. An interesting connection I found was the link between Adam Bly’s “Science”Blogs and another collection of blogs, “Science”BasedMedicine. Both blogs share some bloggers and views on the vaccine-autism controversy. Some bloggers who typically use pseudonyms on “Science”Blogs go by their real names on “Science”BasedMedicine, as if to give the impression that there are more bloggers posting with this position than there actually are. The person who founded “Science”BasedMedicine, Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale who specializes in injecting Botox, is also a Scientific Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).
The ACSH is noted for its connections to the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and was an outgrowth of a project assigned to its founder, Elizabeth Whelan, from Pfizer. Nicolas Martin, a former ACSH employee, recounts, “ACSH has no credibility since it is primarily, as critics charge, a front for industry. I have seen it directly.” While the Obama Administration takes a stance against pesticides, the ACSH takes a strong stance against organic foods, jokes Samantha Bee of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (HERE)
Even more suspicious than the ties between “Science”Blogs and its apparent duplicate “Science”BasedMedicine is the positive press the former has been getting from the mainstream media, especially since Adam Bly is at best a fallen prodigy making a name for himself in a different line of work. Doing so, however, involves reaching out for sponsorship from pharmaceutical corporations such as Schering-Plough, to increase readership of his magazine, launch his blog and expand his media horizons. So far, it seems to be working. A March review of “Science”Blogs by “The Times of London” shortly after its senior executive, James Murdoch, joined the board of GlaxoSmithKline, named it among the 100 best blogs, lauding, "This feisty portal hosts a 75-strong army of witty and qualified practitioners fighting at the front line of idiocy, bigotry and ignorance to achieve a science-savvy citizenry.” That ideal citizenry would only be savvy to the “science” fronting for corporate interests. This can be seen as GSK indirectly complementing Merck on its lobbying efforts, which are also in line with GSK’s interests.
Another magazine known for its bias, Discover, also has connections to Seed Media. Discover is owned by TIME Magazine, often filled with pharmaceutical ads. A typical TIME issue contains ads for a variety of pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, Wyeth, Eli Lilly, Sanofi-Aventis, and GlaxoSmithKline. Recently, Chris Mooney wrote a major article for Discover Magazine portraying the vaccine-autism controversy as dead. Numerous experts including those in public health see it as anything but. These experts were referred to Chris Mooney by David Kirby to help him with his investigation, but Mooney ignored him.
Mooney is also contributing editor for the “Skeptical Inquirer,” the magazine of the “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,” a non-profit group that includes psychiatrist and pharma-front group ACSH advisor Stephen Barrett among its senior fellows. Barrett is also founder “Quackwatch” an organization that started out as the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud, an offshoot of the AMA’s committee on quackery, originally set up in an attempt to discredit chiropractors. Steven Novella is also a contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer. On CSI’s website, it states that Mooney is also Washington correspondent for SEED Magazine, his Discover article on the vaccine-autism controversy being linked from “Science”Blogs. Since March, Chris Mooney has been blogging for Discover Blogs, but before that, he had been a “Science”Blogger himself since the launching of “Science”Blogs in 2006. So much for David Kirby trying to help him lead an even-handed investigation into the vaccine-autism controversy.
“Science”Blogs’ Loyal NDs
Industry influence aside, Seed Media’s bias has also come in line with the interests of Neurodiversity proponents (NDs) - people who oppose a search for an autism cure and deny the epidemic – and who frequent “Science”Blogs. In fact, they seem to leave the majority of comments on most topics related to autism, vaccines, and mercury poisoning. They love the blog so much they will link to it from their own blogs and vice versa, and their favors to the blog do not go unacknowledged. “Science”Blogs is as grateful to the NDs as the NDs are to “Science”Blogs.
Some “Science”Blogs entries even pander directly to NDs’ interests, with the NDs writing threads themselves. After Kristina Chew launched a blog on a website easily confused with President Obama’s transition website, ND breast cancer surgeon and “Science”Blogger “Orac” said, “Personally, I'd be overjoyed if the Obama Transition Team hired Kristina to do a "National Autism Blog."” “Orac,” also known as David Gorski, was a member of a group of “Quack”busters led by Stephen Barrett who called themselves “The Rag Tag Posse of Snake-Oil Vigilantes,” defending silicone breast implants, before “Science”Blogging. Just recently, he was given a “seat at the table” by none other than the ACSH for criticizing the policies of Senator Harkin on “Science”Blogs because they are unfavorable to the drug industry. Gorski now uses a picture of what looks like a child’s play toy to represent himself, and still uses the same fake name from science fiction. Go figure.
More prominent NDs, including Kristina Chew, have written multiple glowing reviews of Paul Offit’s book, “Autism’s False Prophets” for “Science”Blogs as guest bloggers. In fact, multi-million-dollar vaccine profiteer Paul Offit blogged with them on “Science”Blogs in early October, promoting the release of his book. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that Paul Offit labeled some of the NDs autism’s “true prophets,” to whom he dedicated his book. For eight days at the beginning of that month, he authored threads in which he would answer questions posed to him in the comment section of his blogs instead of going on a book tour which he said he would not do because of all the supposed death threats he was getting. However, in 2008 alone he has traveled to cities such as Memphis, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, New York City, Washington DC and even Honolulu where he was invited to give lectures. Curiously, just ten months later, he told Asperger Women’s Association radio that he no longer receives any death threats, but instead letters from parents thanking him. This was only nine months after he dramatically complained about death threats on MSNBC to sympathetic interviewer and former Johnson & Johnson VP Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Just recently, he went onto Dateline NBC with Matt Lauer, and again hashed out the tired old mention of receiving death threats. Apparently, Paul Offit can never keep his story straight.
Perhaps most absurd was the publicity “Science”Blogs gave to a collection of ridiculous online Public Service Announcements. The “Science”Blogs entry linked to an ND website called “rethinking autism,” where the PSAs were displayed. They featured an attractive, semi-nude model, with words appearing alongside her that pandered to the NDs. The words appearing around the model read like a personal ad in one video ending with “When I’m alone, I slip on something comfortable and read the many reputable studies that show no link between vaccines and autism.”
“Science”Blogs: Another Pharma Weed Posing as a Legit Source
While “Science”Blogs may be a goldmine of new online allies for the NDs as well as pharma, the man benefiting from this the most is probably Adam Bly, whose drug (including vaccine) industry ties have helped him expand his media network. In return, Bly has made it possible for public health agencies and pharmaceutical corporations at the center of this controversy to launch a smear campaign without getting their own hands dirty. His hunger for publicity apparently feeds this, judging by the trite and pretentious statements desperately trying to sound scientific to describe SMG’s “premise” on its own website. Bly is often described as “ambitious,” so ambitious he will present his blogs as a scientific source instead of what they truly are: one of many outlets of the pharmaceutical industry. Never mind that it is at the expense of a whole generation of children developing autism and other disorders at epidemic proportions. And why not? The previous actions of the pharmaceutical companies themselves have shown that all is fair in love and business. It is no wonder the media they sponsor sprouts some weeds, too, like Newsweek’s hatchet job on Oprah Winfrey. Such is the case with Seed Media Group, a seed that sprouted one giant weed: a 69-pod kudzu vine of “Science”Bloggers.
Jake Crosby is a history student with an autism spectrum disorder at Brandeis University, and a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.