During CNN’s lynching of Andy Wakefield, I was talking to one of Anderson Cooper’s producers, and she mentioned Seth Mnookin and his recent book The Panic Virus, and how it seemed to support the worldview that Andy was a bad guy and all of us parents are crazy and looking for someone or something to blame for our child’s autism. The conversation went something like this:
Me: What the hell does Seth Mnookin know? He’s a former garden-variety junkie turned writer with a book that simply repeats all of Paul Offit’s talking points?
Her: Seth has credibility with the New York media because he is really one of us, he’s an insider--so his words carry some weight.
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Thinking back to that day and those comments, I have a simple game for you, I’m calling it, “Find the Trustworthy Journalist.” By the end of this game, we’ll have a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for you, I’ve stacked the decks in my favor: You get Seth Mnookin. I’ll take Robert MacNeil. On autism’s cause, we’re going journalist vs. journalist.
Let’s start with Robert MacNeil. Mr. MacNeil, age 80, has been a journalist for more than 50 years, having worked for ITV, Reuters, NBC, the BBC, and, most famously, PBS, where he won an Emmy for his coverage of Watergate. In 1975, he began hosting the Robert MacNeil Report, later renamed the world-famous MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, perhaps the most respected news broaccast in the history of television.
Mr. MacNeil is the author of 11 books. He is also Canadian and in 1997 he received Canada’s highest civilian honor when he became an Officer of the Order of Canada for being, “one of the most respected journalists of our time.”
Seth Mnookin, age 38, has been writing professionally since the age of 26, or roughly 12 years, in which time he has written three books, including one about the Boston Red Sox, one about the Jason Blair scandal at the New York Times, and the aforementioned book about vaccines and autism.
Before becoming a writer, Mr. Mnookin was fired from a “gopher gig” at Office Depot, worked as a day laborer digging ditches, and also worked at a coffee shop, a liquor store, and several bookstores “never lasting at any job for more than a couple of weeks,” according to Mr. Mnookin.
Soon after graduating from Harvard, Mr. Mnookin became a heroin addict, as he recounts:
“It had been three years since I first tried heroin, snorting a bag by myself on a brisk Sunday morning the fall after I graduated from college. I was living in New York City, and within weeks I was using every day. It had been two years since I had moved back to Boston, ran out of money, and began shooting up…Now, after about a dozen hospitalizations, a handful of overdoses, more than $10,000 in credit card cash advances, and thousands of dollars stolen from my friends and lovers and family, I was cashing in my last remaining chip. My parents agreed to front the money for the Renaissance Institute, a hard-core treatment center in Boca Raton that specialized in intractable addicts. I knew it was the last chance I'd get to try to start over and that if I didn't take it, I'd die.”
As Mr. Mnookin explains about his early career, “I was 25 and had spent the years since I graduated from college focusing all of my desperate energy on my career as an intravenous drug addict…At one point, I gave confused, occasionally incoherent English lessons to Japanese academics visiting Harvard…I hadn't done any real writing in years.”
His stay at the Renaissance Institute? It ended poorly:
“A little less than four months later, I was thrown out of Renaissance for having sex with an 18-year-old from Alabama who worked her doctor for prescription pain pills and her parents for second chances. I was given two black Hefty bags filled with my clothes and told I had 10 minutes to get off the property. I had no money, no credit cards, no place to live.”
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Alright, I may be belaboring my point here, I admit it. Sure, some of you will criticize me for an “ad hominem attack” on poor Seth Mnookin. Shouldn’t we celebrate that Mr. Mnookin claims to be sober? Sure we should. Beating a heroin addiction is a laudable outcome. That being said, I sure wouldn’t hire Mr. Mnookin in one of my companies, let him watch my kids, or go to him for parenting advice. He was a garden-variety junkie who stole money from friends and family, sorry.
Does the messenger matter in the debate about autism? I sure think so.
So, what does Seth Mnookin have to say about Robert MacNeil, an Officer of the Order of Canada? He says:
“Robert MacNeil, however, is not a parent of a child he believes is vaccine-injured–and if PBS is going to let him commandeer a news program, both he and the network have an obligation to make sure he acts like a journalist. His work so far in ‘Autism Now,’ has been reckless and irresponsible–and any claim that he’s just presenting information and not at least tacitly endorsing his daughter’s views is preposterous…If it turns out to be MacNeil’s swan song, it’ll be an embarrassing coda to his career.”
Hmm…have you been watching the PBS Series? I sure have. It’s riveting. Particularly riveting for all the scientists MacNeil is welcoming onto the screen. Scientists who I have referred journalists to umpteen times, but never seem to appear in the stories we all get forced to watch, scientists who say things like this:
DR. DAVID AMARAL: … not to say, however, that there is a small subset of children who may be particularly vulnerable to vaccines if the child was ill, if the child had a precondition, like a mitochondrial defect. Vaccinations for those children actually may be the environmental factor that tipped them over the edge of autism. And I think it's -- it is incredibly important still to try and figure out what, if any, vulnerabilities in a small subset of children might make them at risk for having certain vaccinations.
DR. MARTHA HERBERT: I think it's possible that you could have a genetic subgroup. You also might have an immune subgroup. There are a variety of subgroups. But the problem with the population studies is they don't they aren't necessarily designed to have the statistical power to find subgroups like that if the subgroups are small.
DR. DAVID AMARAL: I think more importantly what the whole vaccine issue has done is has opened our eyes again to the idea that the immune system is an important component of autism.
DR. MARTHA HERBERT: The brain and the immune system and the gut are intimately related. The cells in those systems have common features. They work together seamlessly, and when you disregulate one, you disregulate all the others. And systems biology is a way of looking at how we work as an integrated whole. I think that's 21st century biology. Is the brain miswired, or is it misregulated? And I've come to think the brain is misregulated. And there are several reasons for that. Short-term, dramatic changes in the functional level of people with autism. One of them is the improvements you see with fever. A child who gets a fever will start to make eye contact, be interactive, will relate. A child who would have been really out of touch will become connected, and then it will go away.
DR. DAVID AMARAL: …I don't think there's enough research on environmental factors. Frankly, I think it's very expensive. It's difficult research to do.
DR. MARTHA HERBERT: When we were having this explosion of our chemical revolution, we didn't have any way of knowing the subtle impacts on cellular function. We thought if it doesn't kill you, it's probably okay. But now we're learning that it can alter your regulation way before it kills you.
How does Seth Mnookin respond to all these scientists? In the only way a shill, who happens to be a former heroin addict, would:
“Robert MacNeil opened himself (and Newshour) to charges that he’s actually promoting a scientifically disproven (and dangerous) theory. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this in the days to come.”
He goes on to critique Martha Herbert:
“Herbert fires off a number terms that all sound impressive — endocrine disruption, neurotransmitters, energy factories in our cells — and then alights on two of Andrew Wakefield’s favorite argument of the past several years: 1. The number of children ‘vulnerable’ to vaccines might be so small that it’s literally impossible to study, and 2. The brain, the immune system, and the GI system operate in unison and when you ‘disregulate’ one, all of the others fall out of whack.”
For the record, Seth, Ms. Herbert’s words don’t sound “impressive” to me. As the parent of a child with autism, her words sound “horrifying,” and thank God Martha Herbert, a Harvard professor, is willing to speak up.
Critiquing MacNeil again, Seth writes, “he shouldn’t have come out of retirement. The series has been an embarrassment.” It has been an embarrassment, Seth. An embarrassment for you and the ridiculous book you wrote.
Thinking back to the CNN producers quick to identify Seth Mnookin as one of their own, his heroin-chic background somehow a stamp of street-cred in an oddly P.C. world, I really wonder how they are absorbing a true lion of the journalism world, Robert MacNeil, and his expertly-produced series.
Perhaps the journalists will do with MacNeil what they have done with the rest of us – write him off as a desperate, gullible grandparent, eager to believe anything his depressed daughter tells him about his beloved grandson? In his desperation in looking for an answer, MacNeil’s somehow lost 50 years of journalistic integrity and jumped on the crazies bandwagon with the rest of us!
Either that, or MacNeil knows what he’s talking about and Seth Mnookin’s book will end up rumpled in the corner of one of the bookstores or coffee shops where he used to go to get high.
Which journalist should parents believe? My game is over, this is real life, and Robert MacNeil is doing our kids an enormously good turn.
Author’s Note: Here’s the Panic Virus current ranking at Amazon and Barnes & Noble: 4,986 and 22,221, respectively (I guess Merck doesn’t buy books at B&N) – I’m thinking Seth Mnookin is experiencing the “How do I pay my New York City rent?” panic virus right about now.
J.B. Handley is co-founder of Generation Rescue and a Contributor to Age of Autism.