WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 -- One of the best journalism movies ever is called "Shattered Glass." It's about the serial fabrications that a young, ambitious New Republic writer named Stephen Glass foisted off on his editors, and subsequently his readers. One too-good-to-be-true story after another made him into a minor celebrity in the DC-media-darling world until a reporter at Forbes Digital started making inquiries about a software startup Glass wrote about called Jukt Micronics. The Forbes reporter, chewed out by his boss for being scooped on his own beat, tried to do a follow-up story but couldn't find any evidence that Jukt even existed.
Glass dissembled, deflected and denied when his bosses tried to get the truth, but ultimately his little empire of evasions came tumbling down -- no Jukt. In fact, there was no basis to many, many of his best stories. All that remains of the Stephen Glass legend now is a new definition of journalistic deceit and the embarrassment of some top-flight editors who, star-struck and unable to believe they'd been had, and had again, failed to catch him until Forbes asked a devastatingly simple question.
I thought of Jukt yesterday after getting off a conference call with CDC officials about their latest dubious study on thimerosal and the agency's transparently desperate efforts to spin it into something close to a mercury-is-good-for-kids report. More on Jukt in a minute, but first, the basics of the CDC report and its spin cycle.
Shortly after 1 p.m., journalists dialing in to a conference call got a briefing from CDC officials. According to the CDC's transcript, the briefing began this way:
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CENTER FOR IMMUNIZATION AND RESPIRATORY DISEASES, CDC: "Hi. Today we′re going to talk about the results of a study that looked at early thimerosal exposure and outcomes in children seven to 10 years of age. The findings of this study are reassuring about the safety of vaccines. We already have great information about the incredible effectiveness of vaccines in the routine childhood program."
As the King of Siam would say, "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." In fact, the strangest thing to me is why the CDC continues to study thimerosal at all, having spent taxpayer money for the famous Institute of Medicine study in 2004 that said no more taxpayer money should be spent to study the thimerosal issue. You'd think they'd quit spending taxpayer money while they're ahead.
The briefers then took questions from reporters. Here is how the first question began: "Thank you for the press conference and for taking questions."
Now, why would a reporter for a major metropolitan daily, as this person was, thank a public agency for holding a press conference and taking questions? I'm all for civility, but must we prostrate ourselves before the authorities before we dare speak?
Second question: "Hello, thanks for having the conference."
My turn came. From the transcript:
DAN OLMSTED, RESCUEPOST.COM: "Hi. I saw that you had a few never vaccinated kids in there, I think, 16, and my question is why didn′t you just compare a cohort of never vaccinated kids with those with high thimerosal exposure? I mean it seems to me that that′s the question that parents keep asking and the CDC keeps not answering. "
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: "You know, I′ll begin the answer, and then I′m going to let our lead scientist continue. You know, the way this study was done tried to overcome biases that can be introduced through enrollment of children. So this study took several managed care organizations' entire enrolled populations and did not seek one kid but not another kid, but instead used a systematic computer way to identify children as eligible for the study.
"This actually helps you control for potential biases in why a person might be getting into the study. It was also very important to have the same kind of time period in terms of the exposures because we were looking at children seven to 10 years of age. And we needed to be able to find them, bring them in and do all of this testing. And if you do something like a historical control period and take kids who were born in a different time period there are many, many factors that change over time. So it was important to enroll children born around the same time and then evaluated around the same time as development at the seven to 10 year of age.
"So imagine if there was some kind of problem with cell phones or some kind of problem with computers, things that have changed quite a bit over time, there could be big problems with looking – enrolling children from an earlier time period and comparing them with children from a later time period."
DR. WILLIAM THOMPSON: "Yes, and so I′ll just add – this is Bill Thompson, in addition to that, there were very few lower exposure or no exposure kids to sample from. So the study couldn′t be easily designed to have a low exposure group. We essentially sampled all of the low exposure kids that were available in the study."
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: "Yes, and then the other issue is, for example, if you try to look at a group like a group of Amish children or a group of children who are living in a very different way, only one of the factors being that they don′t have their children vaccinated, you could lead to misleading conclusions. So the idea here was to have a very systematic way of identifying eligible children without knowing what kind of vaccines they got. And then very carefully quantify how much they were exposed to and you saw in the paper this range from zero to higher amounts. And then very systematically measure their performance on these standardized tests where the performance and the observations was scored without knowledge of how much thimerosal they had been exposed to."
At that point I began to say, "I guess what I just don't understand is ..." But they'd cut off my mike.
CDC MODERATOR: "Next question, please."
A couple of questions later, though, another reporter did something amazing -- he pestered the big shots about the same question I raised: "So I was just wondering in a follow up question about why not compare to unvaccinated kids. And you – if I understand right, you included all children from several managed care organizations in order to enroll?"
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: "(INAUDIBLE) totally unvaccinated they would be in this, and in fact, there were some that were not vaccinated. So yes, so this was – we didn′t enroll all. We basically identified a time period and did a sample and then offered enrollment. I think, it′s also important to say not everyone who was offered enrollment accepted to participate in the study. So the study did not reach a high enrollment proportion. There were many who didn′t want to be part of the study, primarily because of time."
DR. WILLIAM THOMPSON: "And I would follow up with that, that among the HMO populations it′s very unusual to have children that aren′t vaccinated."
DR. ANNE SCHUCHAT: "And I guess, I′ll just follow up with, in the United States we′re very fortunate to have immunization coverage and (in) our national surveys of two year olds, 0.3 percent of children have no vaccines – have received no vaccines at all. So one of the reasons that we have such low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases in this country is because we have high acceptance of vaccines and usage by parents and providers.
"So basically there are not a lot of unvaccinated children out there."
CDC MODERATOR: "Next question, please."
This is the indecipherable palaver I've been hearing for more than two years from the CDC whenever I ask this question -- what it comes down to is they didn't, can't and won't look at never-vaccinated kids because there weren't, aren't and won't be enough, and if there were, they'd be too weird. Next question, please.
This despite the fact that ten thousand or so are part of one medical practice in Chicago that says it has virtually no autism or asthma among its never-vaccinated, home-birthed children. Despite the fact that homeschooled kids have a significantly lower vaccination rate and, according to one doctor who treats them, almost no autism. Despite the fact that the Amish ... oh, never mind.
By now I'm used to this answer and the fact that almost none of my colleagues seem to think it's a big deal. But as I looked through the transcript, I realized that the follow-up questioner, the one who pestered them for a real answer rather than indecipherable palaver, was a guy named Matthew Herper (according to the transcript). And he's from -- of all places -- Forbes.
That's when I started thinking about "Shattered Glass" and Jukt and how if you keep asking the right question the whole thing can come tumbling down.
So thank you for asking the question, Matthew (and thanks for not thanking them for the privilege). I hope more and more journalists will snap out of their hero-worship of the public health authorities and take a more critical approach to the most basic questions that their readers and viewers want answered. Meanwhile, I consider the CDC Jukt.
Dan Olmsted wrote The Age of Autism series for UPI. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.