On Friday, October 5 UK reporter Brian Deer gave his second presentation at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, on “Stiletto Journalism: Busting the Vaccine Scare.” Ostensibly a primer on his coverage of the fallout from the 1998 Lancet MMR case series of Andrew Wakefield et al., in reality the presentation was part vanity schtick, argumentum ad hominem, and careful deception.
Seated in the unfilled room were students given credit to attend, and faculty positioned as if anticipating disruption. A muscular bald man sat in front facing the crowd, rather than the podium. Dr. Thomas Pribek, an assistant professor of English whose tweedy appearance came right out of central casting, mentioned having Deer in class the day before. In introducing the speaker, Pribek pontificated that stories garnering an “emotional response dissipate in the fog” but “facts remain in the light of day.”
Perhaps advised about the threatening implication of his chosen title, Deer stated that his use of the word “stiletto” only meant applying great force to a narrow area; he said journalists should use narrow focus rather than broad. The diminutive Brit claimed to have received intimidating emails at times in his career, and he used AIDS denialists as an example of zealotry over public health issues.
Deer announced to his audience that he had uncovered a “secret network of businesses” that would profit from Wakefield’s actions, including the affiliated University. All the information, he said, was “waiting in the public domain,” and took years to unfold because “you have to wait… not dump information.” (Later a student asked whether anyone else would ever have uncovered the MMR/autism story; Deer replied “No.”)
In a puzzling contradiction for someone seeking credibility, Deer quoted his aunt’s advice: “Believe nothing you hear, and hardly anything you see.”
The pejoratives and machismo began early, with Deer describing Andrew Wakefield as “this strange person” and using intimidating imagery – describing a scene from the movie A Bronx Tale in which a mobster beats a Hell’s Angel. Deer took obvious delight in listing the penalties against Wakefield onscreen and verbally, and boasted, “That was a result of journalism.”
Displaying a 2004 photo of Wakefield and Deer, the reporter
admitted he “pursued Dr. Wakefield at Indianapolis.” To the laughter of the
audience, he animatedly asserted that Wakefield covered the camera lens and
ran, adding for humorous effect, “It was all very Edwardian.” Deer claimed
Wakefield “called on parents to boycott the MMR vaccine” and “started the
(Below is a video of parental experience at an event in protest of the Deer appearance.)
At times the balding presenter used risqué language on the young audience, saying there are only two things he likes: “One is sex and the other is reading my name in the newspaper.” Deer said that after the BMJ ran its January 2011 article on Wakefield, a Harris poll showed that 145 million Americans “knew the fundamentals of the story” and his work had “a massive impact on public opinion.” Knowing that newspaper presses across the U.S. were running his story, he “felt a great honor at the time.”
(On a related note, students of journalism should look up which U.K. and U.S. newspapers once promoted a false link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.)
Next came comments discrediting the UK parents. Onscreen appeared a photo of Isabella Thomas and her two boys; according to Deer, who is not a medical professional, “neither had autism… it turned out they didn’t have it.” He said he filmed Jodie Marchant, and discussed her daughter’s digestion problems in repulsive detail. Marchant, he said, had made allegations against a doctor and a nurse; he noted without a touch of irony, “You can’t broadcast anybody’s unsupported allegations against anybody.”
Then Deer moved from parents to professionals. Dr. Richard Halvorson was maligned for selling single vaccines. Journalist Lucy Johnston was criticized for writing articles that provided Wakefield’s point of view (along with quotes from another MMR researcher, Dr. Vijendra Singh). Again, Deer seemed unaware of the self-incriminating implications when he proffered, “Newspaper [reporters] believe they have to climb on board and become public relations people.”
Swapping his stiletto for a broad brush, Deer blasted Tony Blair for not disclosing his son’s vaccination status, and opined that the UK’s Daily Mail was a “conservative biased newspaper” because it had criticized Deer and printed articles that included Wakefield’s input. Showing no sympathy for the former doctor’s losses of career, reputation and country, the pugnacious reporter insisted, “His stand on MMR didn’t cost his job; he refused to replicate his study.”
Pacing and gesticulating, the rumpled reporter turned back at the UK parents: Jackie Fletcher, described as an “anti-MMR campaign group organiser,” and Rosemary Kessick, mother of William, a sick boy whose photo was shown. Deer admitted to withholding his true identity from Mrs. Kessick, telling the audience of future reporters, “You are entitled to mislead the public” if it’s in the public interest. “It’s in the best traditions of journalism… It wasn’t dishonest,” he said. “I wanted her to have no preconceptions.”
Here is how Deer detailed his interview with Mrs. Kessick: “She kept going off on something else, and I would bring her back.” (On Internet sites, Mrs. Kessick’s descriptions of her six-hour “grilling” stand in sharp contrast to Deer’s; “Mrs. Kessick hates me,” he admitted.) The reporter insisted that William Kessick’s autism onset came 5 months after the MMR, not within weeks.
When the Lancet case series was retracted, that was “a big accomplishment for journalism,” according to Deer. He told his audience that Wakefield had been working for lawyers and had a patent for a measles vaccine – financial incentives. (Though the 1998 Lancet paper had a dozen other coauthors, only Dr. John Walker-Smith was mentioned later with a cherry-picked quote from Mr Justice Mitting.)
Grudgingly Deer admitted receiving criticism about his previous night’s performance: “The presentation wasn’t technical enough.” So he went into a marginally comprehensible lecture on immunohistochemistry and PCR testing to detect specific proteins, and displayed line charts showing that MMR vaccination rates had rebounded from a 2004 low.
The presentation wound down with an expansive, self-indulgent retelling of Wakefield’s 2005 lawsuit against the Sunday Times, Channel 4, and Brian Deer’s website. “If what I’d said wasn’t true, he would take everything away from me – my clothes, home, left me bankrupt,” Deer lamented. Wakefield, he said, was using a vexatious lawsuit to play for time. “We got the court to order him to sue us,” he said, adding that Mr Justice Eady (“I think he’s a god”) ordered Wakefield to turn over the medical records of the Lancet children (“The game was up”). Playing for laughs, Deer relished telling how Wakefield’s attorneys rushed through traffic attempting to halt access to the patients’ private medical records.
Deer glossed over the current defamation lawsuit making its way through U.S. courts: “Neither I or BMJ knew Wakefield was in Texas,” he said. According to Deer, the district judges usually are Democrats and the appellate judges are Republicans – so if the district ruling gets overturned, it’s politically based. Then he concluded his hour-long talk with an analogy about the paleological “Piltdown manoeuvre” a century ago.
After applause, microbiology professor and chair of the organizing committee Michael Winfrey gave Deer a plaque bearing an image of a LaCrosse icon, “The World’s Largest Six-Pack.” (Of note to vaccine safety advocates: Winfrey’s University web page states that his research interest is in microbial transformations of mercury.)
For that day’s Q&A session, no questions written on index cards – the muscular bald man who looked like a bouncer would bring a microphone to the speaker.
Microbiology associate professor Bernadette Taylor, who’d introduced Deer the previous day, told the audience Deer flew coach so any conspiracy theory about pharmaceutical company funding was ironic. “I was the only guy in journalism who policed the drug companies,” Deer replied. “The idea that I’m working for the drug companies – he [Wakefield] just knows I’m not… it’s ridiculous… completely absurd.”
Winfrey stated that scientists are sensitive about integrity, theirs and others’. Deer’s answers about Wakefield’s motivation? “He could make good money as an expert witness.” He then expounded on research misconduct, and being told that “a gentleman wouldn’t do that kind of thing.” But, he averred, “Scientists are not more honest than judges” and other people.
Audience misinformation about vaccines included a middle-aged woman asking about mercury in the MMR vaccine, and a female student who brought up rising pertussis rates – unaware of the CDC’s admission that low vaccine efficacy caused outbreaks in vaccinated populations. The student said her parents were primary care physicians who found dealing with questions about vaccines and autism “enormously frustrating” and asked, “Why does that myth persist?”
Vaccine safety advocates have used a school bus analogy to describe public health programs that benefit some people at the risk of others. Deer co-opted that imagery to illustrate his idea of people who refuse vaccines – “a car hitting somebody else’s kid.”
Other answers include:
Deer’s pandering to liberal academics became clear when a student asked what he’d like his next big story to be; facetiously he replied, “I would like to show that Mitt Romney is a sex offender.”
An infectious disease specialist from Marshfield brought up researchers who’ve been intimidated by members of the public disputing the science, specifically one from Tufts who has security due to death threats. “People want to believe things without being experts,” he said. “People had a need to believe, even if it’s the wrong thing.”
A faculty member mentioned hostile comments at an article on Deer and Wakefield, saying “The trolls are out.” Deer had an axiom for that: “Sometimes your reputation is made by the people who hate you.”
After 40 minutes of questions the audience had thinned considerably. After some patter about the Lancet editors who approved the 1998 case series for publication (“they tried to cover up,” “looking for a cheap sensation,” “on the skids,” “old boy network”), a student asked about journalism’s future. “The future for investigative journalism is very bleak,” Deer replied.
After witnessing Deer’s unprofessional sideshow, noting its uncritical acceptance by university students and faculty, and watching ten years of atrocious copy-and-paste vaccine/autism media coverage, this AOA reporter heartily agrees.