Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) Was For Free Speech Before They Were Against It
Editor's Note: Yesterday, Anne Dachel took apart the recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review that trashed "balanced" coverage of the autism-vaccines link. Back in 2005, they were much more tolerant of that hoary old first amendment thingee -- "Both sides in the debate make convincing arguments to support their cases," they wrote then, and, “With science left to be done and scientists eager to do it, it seems too soon for the press to shut the door on the debate." Now, for whatever reason, that story, called "Drug Test" is not accessible on their site. So as a reader service to all you unbalanced Age of Autism types, here it is. In addition, they ran an article in 2008 (see below) that attacked their own 2005 article, and that link is still live in their site. - -- Dan Olmsted
WayBack Machine CJR "Drug Test"
By Daniel Schulman
On May 18, 2004, the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the prestigious National Academies, delivered its eighth and final report on vaccine safety, seeking to end a scientific controversy that had built to a slow boil over the previous five years: whether a mercury-containing vaccine preservative called thimerosal was to blame for an alarming spike in autism cases among a generation of children. After three years of reviewing this and other immunization safety questions on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the institute’s fourteen-member panel rejected the thimerosal link, and, in a powerful policy statement, recommended that research funding in this area be shifted toward other, more promising lines of inquiry. Under headlines such as this one from The Washington Post, EXPERTS FIND NO VACCINE-AUTISM LINK; PANEL SAYS MORE RESEARCH ON POSSIBLE CONNECTION MAY NOT BE WORTHWHILE, the press dutifully reported the IOM’s conclusions, perhaps as eager to lay the question to rest as the IOM panel itself.
For a time it appeared the controversy over thimerosal would end there. It didn’t. Over the past seven months, it has gained traction again, leaving journalists in an awkward position. The thimerosal question — scientifically, politically, and emotionally complex — is proving to be a test for journalism, and the successes and failures are evident in the coverage.
David Kirby, a Brooklyn-based writer, jumpstarted the debate in April with the publication of his book, Evidence of Harm, which lays out a compelling case for a connection between thimerosal and autism. Then, in June, Robert Kennedy Jr. followed with a more pointed — some say over-the-top — article, co-published by Rolling Stone and Salon.com, that alleges what amounts to a government cover-up of the harmful properties of thimerosal in the interest of buffering vaccine manufacturers from a cascade of lawsuits and maintaining public confidence in the national immunization program.
Still, the bulk of the scientific establishment denies the autism link, citing the conclusions of the IOM panel, and views believers as crackpots, conspiracy theorists, or zealots — a perspective many medical experts barely conceal in conversations with reporters. In an interview with Myron Levin of the Los Angeles Times after the publication of the IOM report, Dr. Stephen Cochi, the head of the CDC’s national immunization program, dismissed supporters of the thimerosal theory as “junk scientists and charlatans.” If so, then such universities as Harvard and Columbia, among others, employ charlatans — scientists who believe that a link between mercury exposure and autism is plausible. Even so, the perception that only distraught, activist parents and disreputable scientists back the thimerosal theory has seeped into the collective consciousness of the news media, which, in general, have been reluctant to cover the controversy.
Both sides in the debate make convincing arguments to support their cases, and in the cacophony of competing claims each is guilty of using data selectively. What is known is this: Since the late 1980s the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased sixty-fold, from one in every 10,000 in 1987 to one in every 166 in 2003. Much of this spike overlaps with a period when, due to recommendations by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, the number of suggested immunizations on the childhood vaccination schedule more than doubled, raising the doses of mercury that some children received to levels that far surpassed federal standards for mercury exposure. (The standards were based on methylmercury, the type emitted by coal-burning power plants. Ethylmercury, which makes up nearly half of thimerosal by weight, is a closely related compound. To date, ethylmercury has received far less study, and scientists disagree on whether it’s as harmful as methylmercury, though both are considered neurotoxins.) Until the late 1990s, health officials were unaware of the total amount of mercury children were receiving in their vaccinations. It’s not unreasonable to ask how this went unnoticed, and unreported, for so long. The answer is simple: no one had ever done the arithmetic. When scientists did, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that vaccine manufacturers phase out thimerosal from children’s vaccines in 1999 as a precaution. It was careful to note, however, that “there are no data or evidence of any harm.” As it stands, the preservative, which allowed drug manufacturers to supply vaccines in multidose vials (the thimerosal-free, single-dose versions are costlier), has been eliminated from most immunizations, excluding some flu and tetanus shots. During 1999 and 2000, the thimerosal link was quietly under study by the CDC, and, as shown in internal memos and meeting minutes, health officials were deeply concerned about what they might find.
Thimerosal activists point to this history: In June 2000, the CDC convened a closed meeting at the Simpsonwood Convention Center in Norcross, Georgia, to discuss, among other things, preliminary findings on thimerosal. In addition to the health officials, researchers, and vaccine experts in attendance were representatives from GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth, and Aventis Pasteur, the vaccine manufacturers who had the most to lose if an autism link were proven. During one session of the two-day meeting, the CDC epidemiologist Thomas Verstraeten presented the results of an analysis of the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink, a database that contains the vaccination histories of more than seven million Americans. His study, at least at that stage, appeared to support a connection between thimerosal and neurodevelopmental disorders, showing what Verstraeten described as “statistically significant relationships between exposures and outcomes.” The presentation caused one physician in attendance to remark, “the medical legal findings in this study, causal or not, are horrendous.” Attendees were instructed that what they’d heard that day was to be considered “embargoed.”
Known as the Simpsonwood transcripts, the minutes of this meeting are widely available on the Internet thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the autism advocacy group SafeMinds. Some advocates of the thimerosal theory point to Simpsonwood as proof that the government buried evidence of an autism link. In the minds of some supporters of the theory, the perception of conspiracy was heightened when Verstraeten’s study, published three years later, no longer indicated an association between thimerosal and neurological maladies, including autism. Adding to their suspicion is the fact that in the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, Verstraeten was listed as a CDC researcher, when in fact he had been hired away by GlaxoSmithKline two years earlier. (Nor did they find it any less suspicious when a midnight rider turned up in a 2002 bill creating the Department of Homeland Security that sought to protect vaccine manufactures from thimerosal-related lawsuits. The measure was eventually removed.)
But Simpsonwood is not a smoking gun. Nor are other documents that purport to be, including the transcript of a private session of the Institute of Medicine’s Immunization Safety Review Committee from 2001, in which the committee’s chairwoman, Dr. Marie McCormick, referring to the vaccine-thimerosal issue, says that the CDC “wants us to declare, well, these things are pretty safe on a population basis.” It is a statement that indicates to some that the IOM had already decided where it was going to come down on thimerosal. If transcripts of both meetings are not damning, the comments of some attendees are striking, particularly when they are quick to note the legal ramifications should a connection be established. As McCormick makes plain during the 2001 meeting, attendees were aware of the conclusion that the CDC wanted them to reach, but that isn’t proof that the institute manipulated data to reach that end, as some allege.
When the IOM panel released its final report in 2004, it had analyzed more than 200 studies and based its conclusions largely on five recent epidemiological papers that appeared to debunk the autism connection, including Verstraeten’s and one from Denmark that shows autism cases rising after thimerosal was removed from that country’s vaccine supply. Excluded was much of the biological research that supports a link, which the IOM deemed speculative.
Those are the facts, though they are interpreted in radically different ways by each side. Even the question of whether the nation is currently experiencing an autism epidemic is subject to debate. Detractors posit that the increase in cases is a red herring, that the numbers reflect changes in how autism is diagnosed and reported. As for the IOM report — the nail in the coffin for the autism link as far as many scientists are concerned — believers hold that the studies that the panel relied on were flawed. For example, as David Kirby reports in Evidence of Harm, the researchers on the Danish study examined autism cases both before and after 1992, when thimerosal was removed, but used two different data sets in doing so, tallying inpatient cases through 1994 and adding outpatient cases to their count thereafter, a factor that could explain the increase they observed. According to Kirby, even the study’s authors conceded, in their own words, that they “may have spuriously increased the apparent number of autism cases.” Verstraeten, for his part, seemed to grow tired of how his findings were being interpreted by both sides. In an April 2004 letter to Pediatrics, he wrote that his study “does not state that we found evidence against an association, as a negative study would. It does state, on the contrary, that additional study is recommended, which is the conclusion to which a neutral study must come.” He went on to call allegations of a potential conflict of interest an “insult,” saying that he remained on the study only in an advisory capacity after he went to work for Glaxo. “Did the CDC water down the original results? It did not.”
Steeped in controversy and intrigue, the thimerosal debate has all the makings of a compelling news story, yet it has been approached with caution by the news media, which, more often than not, don’t portray it as a legitimate scientific debate. “I’m putting my faith . . . in the Institute of Medicine,” ABC’s medical editor, Dr. Timothy Johnson, told viewers during a segment on thimerosal in July. At the conclusion of an NBC report on the debate last winter, the science correspondent Robert Bazell was careful to note that “if we stop vaccinating our children, we run the risk of having these horrible diseases come back . . . . And the evidence right now is that vaccines do not cause autism.”
There is a very real fear that taking the thimerosal theory seriously will prompt antivaccine blowback. Myron Levin, the Los Angeles Times reporter, said that some journalists have been cowed by the notion that “by the mere act of covering this, they will instill panic in the vaccination-getting public, or feed mindless phobias that cause people to refuse to let their kids get shots.” That concern is reflected in the coverage and has implications for how deeply the story is reported. “I think many news organizations have held back and given the story short shrift,” Levin said.
On June 25, The New York Times addressed the thimerosal controversy in a front-page article, the product of five months of reporting by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O’Connor. Appearing less than two weeks after Robert Kennedy’s piece, which would later have a list of corrections and clarifications appended to it, the Times article had been eagerly awaited by proponents of the thimerosal link, some of whom had been communicating regularly with the Times reporters over the previous months. Believing that the heft of the paper’s reputation would help to propel their cause into the mainstream, they expected a proper airing of both sides of the question — that, after all, was the impression O’Connor gave at least one of his sources, the mother of an autistic child and a member of an autism advocacy organization, when he approached her in late January. “I’m thinking of a 2,000-word story, essentially saying that an array of studies over the years (the Institute of Medicine report, I would think, being the most prominent) were intended to settle the issue of autism and vaccines once and for all,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Yet it seems that the question is still very much open . . . and evidence for the case against vaccines has been mounting, despite many researchers’ insistence that the issue is dead. I think, for now at least, I’d like to just present the evidence on both sides and let the readers decide.”
The result was much more one-sided. Headlined ON AUTISM'S CAUSE, IT'S PARENTS VS. RESEARCH, the story cast the thimerosal connection as a fringe theory, without scientific merit, held aloft by angry, desperate parents. The notion that supporters of the theory were disregarding irrefutable scientific findings was an underlying theme, drilled home several times. “It’s really terrifying, the scientific illiteracy that supports these suspicions,” Dr. Marie McCormick told the Times. Readers were left with little option but to believe that the case against thimerosal was scientifically unsound.
The piece did note the work of Mark and David Geier, a father-son research team who believe that mercury exposure is linked to autism. The Geiers’s research has been a lightning rod for criticism, and their methodology has been called into question by some in the scientific community. But before the reporters even discussed the Geiers’s science, they had already painted the researchers as eccentric outsiders: “He and his son live and work in a two-story house in suburban Maryland. Past the kitchen and down the stairs is a room with cast-off, unplugged laboratory equipment, wall-to-wall carpeting and faux wood paneling that Dr. Geier calls ‘a world-class lab — every bit as good as anything at N.I.H.’” Omitted from the story was the work of Dr. Mady Hornig, a Columbia University epidemiologist; Richard Deth, a Northeastern University pharmacologist; Jill James, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas; and others whose work suggests that thimerosal may cause neurodevelopmental disorders in a subset of susceptible children (those who are not able to eliminate mercury from the body in the ways that most people do). The story alluded to Boyd Haley, chairman of the department of chemistry at the University of Kentucky and an ally of thimerosal activists, in the same sentence as a Louisiana physician who believes “that God spoke to her through an 87-year-old priest and told her that vaccines caused autism” — leaving Haley, it would seem, guilty by association of lunacy. Several reporters I spoke with who have covered the thimerosal controversy described the Times story as a smear. One called it a “hit piece.”
The Times’s O’Connor told me he had looked at the research linking thimerosal with autism, including the work of Hornig, Deth, and James, but ultimately found the epidemiological studies cited by the IOM more persuasive. “The larger scientific community has rejected a link between thimerosal and autism,” he said. “You do have some scientists who are convinced that there’s a link, but then you have the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization — it’s not a stretch to say that the scientific community has rejected this link.”
The article prompted a massive reader response. One organization, known as A-Champ (Advocates for Children’s Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning), organized an e-mail campaign directed at top editors at the Times, as well as the public editor, Byron Calame. O’Connor personally received dozens of e-mails and letters. “There were a couple that were threatening. There were some that were pretty harsh and others saying that I was part of the conspiracy. A lot of people responded saying there must be some link between the Times and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Responding to the complaints of one group, Calame wrote: “I have carefully reviewed your e-mail and spent several hours with the editors and reporters who prepared the article . . . . This has left me convinced that the article isn’t intellectually dishonest. Nor are the omissions staggering. Nor is there a pervasive editorial bias. I find the article fair and accurate.”
As it turned out, the story had angered members of the epidemiology department at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, including the department’s chair, Dr. Ezra Susser. Since some of their work, including that of Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a highly regarded neurologist, and Mady Hornig, explored the connection between environmental mercury exposure and autism, including exposure through thimerosal-carrying vaccines, they felt that they had been lumped into the category of scientific illiterates. Responding to the article in a June 28 letter to the Times (never published), signed by Susser, Lipkin, Hornig, and the epidemiologist Michaeline Bresnahan, the researchers wrote that “scientists pursuing research on mercury and autism are caricaturized as immune to the ‘correct’ interpretation of existing studies. Researchers rejecting a link are depicted as the sole voices of reason . . . . Whether mercury in any form (or any of several factors recently introduced to our environment) has anything to do with autism can and should be resolved with rigorous studies and respectful discourse, not moral indictments and denunciations.”
Journalists agree that the thimerosal story is one of the most explosive they’ve ever encountered. In addition to the vitriolic response Anahad O’Connor drew from readers, he also said he received a number of e-mails praising him and Harris from fellow reporters who had been interested in covering the thimerosal controversy, but had “gotten scared away from really tackling the subject . . . they were afraid of getting hate mail.”
Some reporters who have portrayed this as an ongoing scientific controversy have been discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly “career-ending” and described butting heads with superiors who believed that the reporter’s coverage — in treating the issue as a two-sided debate — legitimized a crackpot theory and risked influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments for their autistic sons and daughters. The reporter has decided against pursuing stories on thimerosal, at least for the time being. “For some reason giving any sort of credence to the side that says there’s a legitimate question here — I don’t know how it becomes this untouchable story, I mean that’s what we do, so I don’t understand why this story is more touchy than any story I’ve ever done.”
Pursuing this story is unattractive for other reasons, too. The issue is exceedingly complex and easily oversimplified. “It took me two and a half years and four hundred pages to tell this story, and I’m sure I made some mistakes,” David Kirby told me, adding that the complexity convinced him to write a book.
The fact that the bulk of the public health establishment dismisses the thimerosal theory is also daunting, particularly for science reporters who rely on the same pool of medical experts and health officials regularly. “They depend on these people in this symbiotic relationship that they have,” said Steve Wilson, an investigative reporter for the local ABC affiliate in Detroit, WXYZ, whose three-part series on thimerosal won an Emmy. “They’ve come to trust them and respect them and to believe when they tell them, ‘Look, you’re barking up the wrong tree here; these parents are just looking for somebody to blame.’”
Some of the most enterprising journalistic contributions to the thimerosal debate have come from the once prestigious, now flagging news wire United Press International, which is owned, along with the Washington Times, by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. On my desk, UPI senior editor Dan Olmsted’s “Age of Autism” series, which he began late last winter, occupies a file that at this writing is more than an inch thick and growing. He averages two columns a week on the topic. Aside from the Washington Times, though, not a single U.S. paper that Olmsted knows of has run any part of the series. It has, however, been widely disseminated on the Internet.
Olmsted, a former assistant national editor at USA Today, found his way into thimerosal through another medical side-effect story. It involved an antimalarial drug called Lariam, which was prescribed to Peace Corps volunteers, travelers to third-world countries, and more recently to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Olmsted and his UPI colleague Mark Benjamin (now a national correspondent at Salon.com) detailed in an investigation that spanned more than two years, starting in 2002, Lariam, which had been approved by the FDA and recommended by the CDC, also appeared strongly linked to psychosis, including homicidal and suicidal behavior. Partly because of their reporting, the effects of Lariam are now under study by the Pentagon. “If it hadn’t been for Lariam, I don’t think I would have ever thought twice about autism,” Olmsted told me. “With Lariam, CDC officials said many times that there’s absolutely no problem with side effects from this drug, it’s extraordinarily safe. That’s just not true.”
Instead of wading directly into the thimerosal controversy, Olmsted approached it, as he puts it, “sideways.” By this he means that after reading what had been written on autism and noticing a relative dearth of material about its origins, he set out to write a natural history of the disorder.
Eventually, Olmsted began thinking of ways to test the thimerosal theory. He wondered whether researchers had ever examined the prevalence of autism in an unvaccinated population, such as the Amish. That, it would seem, would be the most likely way to determine whether the vaccine link held water. If the number of autism cases among the unvaccinated mirrored the national average, then it would seem that thimerosal played no role. Olmsted found that though researchers had discussed such a study, none had ever been done. “That’s an expensive study,” he said, “but for a journalist all you have to do is get on the phone and start asking.” After spending weeks searching for cases among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, he managed to find three children with autism, two of whom had been vaccinated, a rarity in that community. “The cases among the Amish that I’ve identified over the past several weeks appear to have at least one link — a link made of mercury,” Olmsted wrote in a column on May 20, referring to the vaccinated children. “That’s not something I expected to encounter.” Looking at other large Amish populations in the Midwest, such as those in Middlefield, Ohio, and Goshen, Indiana, Olmsted found similarly low autism rates. He admits that his findings are not scientific. “I could be getting a completely wrong impression from what I’m finding, but it’s interesting,” Olmsted told me. Interesting enough to get the attention of members of Congress, including Representative Dave Weldon of Florida and Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut; officials at the Department of Health and Human Services; and researchers, including Mady Hornig, the Columbia epidemiologist, who now hopes to devise a study looking at the Amish.
Privately, two reporters told me that, while intriguing, Olmsted’s reporting on the Amish is misguided, since it may simply reflect genetic differences among an isolated gene pool (Hornig, however, said that a study on the Amish may still be valuable should the prevalence of autism in that community indeed be low, allowing researchers to study the genetics of people who are not susceptible to the disorder). Both reporters believed that Olmsted has made up his mind on the question and is reporting the facts that support his conclusions.
“I’ve just tried to find a way to get into this that adds something to the debate and is original,” Olmsted said.
Among major newspapers, the Los Angeles Times’s coverage of thimerosal stands out. It has taken the story seriously and devoted significant coverage to it, partly because through the summer and fall of 2004 a bill to ban thimerosal from all vaccines given to infants and pregnant women was making its way through the California legislature. Strongly opposed by the vaccine manufacturer Aventis Pasteur and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the measure was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in late September of that year.
The reporter Myron Levin entered the fray in April 2004 with a piece that revealed that while the CDC would add flu shots to its list of suggested vaccines for children, it would not recommend that parents seek the available thimerosal-free version. He followed in August with a long feature on the attempts of parents who believed their children’s autism was caused by mercury-containing shots to win compensation through a little known branch of federal claims court for the exorbitant costs of caring for their kids. (This “vaccine court,” which pays out claims from a federal trust funded by revenue from a vaccine surcharge, was established during the mid-1980s as a means to protect drug companies from civil suits.) It was while covering this story, in which Levin captured both sides of the debate, as well as the devastating realities of raising a child with autism, that the CDC’s Stephen Cochi referred to supporters of the thimerosal link as “junk scientists and charlatans.”
Cochi’s lack of diplomacy stunned Levin. “When government officials talk to reporters, they are usually beyond cautious and it can be really hard getting them to opine on anything,” he told me. “To attack opponents in those terms shows the raw emotion that has infused this whole issue.”
From his introduction to the thimerosal issue toward the end of 2003, Levin found it striking that a neurotoxin had ever been put into vaccines given to infants, even newborns. He wondered how health officials had failed for so long to consider the repercussions of injecting children with mercury-carrying vaccines.
As Levin reported last winter, the question of whether children were receiving too much mercury from their inoculations had been considered by Merck in the early 1990s. The front-page story — which reverberated through autism circles but drew little attention from the rest of the press — reported the contents of a leaked memo written by Dr. Maurice Hilleman, then the president of Merck’s vaccine division. While public health officials had yet to recognize the total mercury load infants would receive from all of their suggested immunizations, Hilleman had done the math. “When viewed in this way, the mercury load appears rather large,” he wrote in the 1991 memo, suggesting that thimerosal should probably be removed from vaccines administered to young children when possible. Levin kept the heat on Merck, reporting in March that the company had likely misled the public when it assured consumers in 1999 that its “infant vaccine line . . . is free of all preservatives.” Merck had in fact continued supplying vaccines containing thimerosal until the fall of 2001.
Interestingly, this scoop had first been offered to The New York Times in February by a source who provided evidence to back up the claim. Gardiner Harris, then working on the story that turned out to be dismissive of the thimerosal debate that would run in June, blew off the tip, signing off his e-mailed response to the source, “I’ll let Myron bite this apple.”
Levin’s reporting has drawn the ire of some in the pharmaceutical industry. Wyeth officials met with Levin and his editor in late July. “They have said there are problems with the tone, and that we seem to take too seriously an idea that they say is absurd and has been disproved by the IOM,” Levin told me. (Douglas Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman who attended the meeting along with two lawyers who represent the firm, declined to discuss the particulars of the conversation.)
In late August, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the death of a five-year-old boy whose heart seized while he underwent an unproven autism treatment known as “chelation.” Used for purging the body of heavy metals, particularly in cases of acute lead poisoning, it can prove damaging to internal organs by leeching certain necessary elements, such as calcium, from the system. While chelation has been embraced by some supporters of the thimerosal theory, who report that their children’s conditions have improved as mercury was drawn from their bodies, the medical establishment has cautioned against it as a means of treating autism. To journalists, for whom the perils of covering thimerosal have been purely theoretical, this incident could only underscore the potential dangers of lending any credibility to the autism link.
The day the boy’s death was reported, Craig Westover, a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who writes frequently about thimerosal, received acid comments from readers on his blog. One reader, writing under the name Credenza, wrote, “They finally did it Mr. Westover, they killed a little boy trying to get that satanic mercury out of his little body. You have some blood on your hands. Like it or not you do. There has been no autism epidemic and thimerosal doesn’t cause autism . . . . I hope the parents of this boy point the finger at you and scream murder.”
“I really do try to walk a middle line on this,” Westover told me that day, as he mulled his response to the reader. “You have to go out and investigate this and be able to come to some sort of conclusion. Not definitely that thimerosal does or does not cause autism, but you have to come to the question of whether this theory is plausible or not. Otherwise, I think you’re doing a disservice to your reader.” The evidence has led Westover to believe that a connection is possible. He realizes, moreover, that what he writes may influence others to believe the same.
To the reader who blamed him for the boy’s death, Westover ultimately wrote, “That is the risk of a sin of commission, and one I considered long and hard before I wrote my first article on this topic . . . . I will stand on what I believe and accept the risk and the consequences if I am wrong.”
Whether the thimerosal theory is proved right or wrong, there will be consequences — for the public health apparatus and vaccine manufacturers, for parents and their children, even for journalists. But with science left to be done and scientists eager to do it, it seems too soon for the press to shut the door on the debate.
Daniel Schulman is an assistant editor at CJR.
Here is an excerpt of the 2008 story that attacked "Drug Test" The Wrong Debate Over Autism Why focusing on thimerosal misses a larger story By Russ Juskalian
in 2005, CJR published a story by Daniel Schulman about media coverage
of “whether a mercury-containing vaccine” preservative called thimerosal
was to blame for an alarming spike in autism cases among a generation
of children. Last summer, yet another study was released that showed no
link between autism and vaccinations, and last week came news of a
lawsuit settlement that required a girl’s medical costs to be covered by
the government after she was diagnosed with a rare mitchochondria
disorder and autistic symptoms related to receiving nine vaccinations in
one day. Clearly, the debate rages on, so we decided to take another
look at the press-coverage landscape.
Schulman concluded in his piece that the media had been too quick to close the door on the potential link between thimerosal and autism. “[W]ith science left to be done and scientists eager to do it, it seems too soon for the press to shut the door on the debate,” he wrote. He cited stories like a New York Times piece by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O’Connor in June of the same year, with the headline: “On Autism’s Cause, It’s Parents vs. Research”.
Schulman, now an editor at Mother Jones, noted that while the vast majority of studies appeared to disprove a vaccine link to autism, there were serious researchers (notably Dr. Mady Hornig and Dr. Ezra Susser, both epidemiologists at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; Richard Deth, a Northeastern University pharmacologist; and Jill James, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas) who supported the possibility that environmental factors—and perhaps thimerosal in vaccinations—could at least be triggers for autism in predisposed populations that might otherwise not have developed the disorder...
The vaccine and no vaccine camps are heavily polarized and it's only getting worse. The problem is that the doctors favor one camp and so the unvaccinated children who do get those "old fashioned" diseases have to be home treated or face backlash in the medical world. Fortunately chicken pox and mumps aren't too bad, but treating measles requires some know how--like a darkened room to protect the eyes. As more parents decide to forego vaccines then more of the children having these diseases will be outside medical care. Consequently, the parents have to be doctors as in pioneer days .
You could say that the no vaccine camp is immunized against influence from publications that promote the pro-vaccine cause. The way I feel about it is that Columbia has just gone over to the dark side, which I lump with the forces that are targeting children for mass poisoning. I know it sounds extreme and it is, but then so is the complete lack of compassion for the vaccine injured--a lack that demotes the injured to non-existence. In most cases the injured receive no monetary compensation, no medical treatment, no insurance coverage, and no human interest stories in mass media.
Posted by: Kapoore | May 17, 2013 at 11:13 AM
re: Brainard "...as there was never any proof that the vaccination schedule was unsafe to begin with."
So - silly question - was there (is there) any proof that the (current) vaccination schedule was (is) safe, to begin with...?
Perhaps I'm being naive, but the question has been asked here before, and I haven't seen a response (here) before. Assuming that this site gets a "few" visits from vaccine schedule proponents, can any of you please provide references to any research that has tested the safety of the schedule, as a whole? I realize that it may be a difficult undertaking, but I'm not asking for anyone to rationalize the absence of such work, or provide any cute Latin phrases, etc. - just offer up some evidence that the schedule has been tested in its entirety. If the schedule hasn't been tested, in it's entirety, then the schedule can't be declared to be either safe or unsafe "to begin with".
Seems to me the CSJ not only subscribes to "Bizarro" journalistic ethics now (apologies for the crusty old Superman reference), but they also fail to recognize (or at least acknowledge) that the current vaccine schedule is an experiment in and of itself, and therefore requires the greatest degree of (present and prospective) journalistic scrutiny and integrity possible. "Yawns" don't cut it.
Posted by: Shiny Happy Person | May 17, 2013 at 11:08 AM
Jeez, you'd almost think that our "free" media is being told what to say.....
And that its been happening a lot longer than most people would like to believe.
Posted by: Barry | May 17, 2013 at 07:15 AM
State censorship of a State poisoning . BBC ... UK\US
Its a cull . That is what they mean by the "greater good" , ie for the elite's benefit , and the media is doing what its told to do from the top down .
But it is in our power to resist this vaccine tyranny .
There was life before newspapers and TV .
and let them close the internet down , we have word of mouth , once the fire takes hold , there will be no stopping it .
Posted by: Farmer Geddon | May 17, 2013 at 04:47 AM
In 2005, I found this article frustrating, because I knew this was not enough "balance" to wake some people up to a real and devastating danger, and this was about as good as it got (and here CJR is giving more evidence that things are only worse in the media today). This article might lead a person to better sources of information if they wanted to seek out the truth that much. I really had this belief coming into 2005 that if something as devastating as the vaccine injury epidemics occurred, however it came about, there was no way it wouldn't be all over the news so practically no one would miss it.
From what I see today--maybe this is a likely outcome of deception researchers will also want to waste more time and public funds studying for those who want to know how to "best" channel "the herd" for their "greater good"--the internet reveals disturbing glimpses of huge, globally impacting stories all over the spectrum of life that in the U.S., if not everywhere, are under-reported, selectively reported, sometimes completely not reported, and all too often blatantly misreported if you take the time to look further.
So now, this part of Brainard's article just makes me mad:
"The US media greeted the reports with a collective yawn. In some sense, the media’s apathy is welcome, as there was never any proof that the vaccination schedule was unsafe to begin with. But it would be unfortunate if part of the autism story’s legacy is that reporters and editors are wary of tackling any story about vaccine safety. Because there are rare, but genuine, safety issues with vaccines that the public needs to know about."
It's like a call to never mind the danger of conflicting ethics and certain agendas in reporting on vaccine issues. Just bravely keep up the 4th pillar illusion folks, that's our job.
That's how it sounds to me now, anyway.
Posted by: Jeannette Bishop | May 16, 2013 at 05:20 PM
What kind of journalism publication scrubs its own website of reason? One funded by a University with pharma ties and a profit motive. After all, what's a little 1984-style revisionism here and there when there's so much money to be made by damaging infants under the guise of progress?
Cross-posted from Anne's article below:
Brainard seems to like Mnookin, who is inexplicably co-director of the science writing grad program at MIT (where Brainard has been a guest speaker to the fellowship program). Clique-tastic!
A quick search of patents online shows that the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York are the assignees of 221 patents and/or patent applications regarding vaccines.
Columbia University Medical Center is part of Pfizer's industry-academe partnership, Centers for Therapeutic Innovation.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology is assignee of 283 vaccine related patents.
MIT and Pfizer have a joint venture wherein Pfizer is leasing almost 200,000 square feet and constructing buildings to house a new center in Cambridge that is due to open at the end of this year. At the time of the groundbreaking ceremony:
" Pfizer has supported MIT research for more than a decade, and we are convinced that establishing their new research facility right next door will accelerate the cycle of discovery and innovation. Connecting MIT’s pioneering research with Pfizer’s commitment to delivering real-world solutions for patients is a potent formula for impact,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield.
Someone's bread is being buttered, but it sure ain't ours...
Posted by: Garbo | May 16, 2013 at 05:18 PM
"What kind of journalism journal quietly scrubs articles from its own archives?" Well said, Arthur James. So much so that it bears repeating. Really incredible, practically.
Sometimes I wonder have any of these people ever looked at simple things like how does logic suggest giving a one day old baby a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease that wears off by the time the child would be sexually active? Why is that a standard practice? Once you realize the "science" behind that one you can go from there. Also, is it really credible that no one "did the arithmetic" and added up the thimerosal in the complete vaccine schedule? If scientists are this dumb, why should we take their advice at all? And, again, simply: why has the lion's share of money for autism research been spent on looking for a genetic cause when there has never been a genetic epidemic of anything? Where is the "science" here? This issue is really disturbing because many children's lives are being catastrophically impacted. This is no place for kowtowing and cowardly sucking up to authority figures. Do your job, journalists.
Posted by: Lisa | May 16, 2013 at 02:02 PM
It is stunning to read the original "fair and balanced" comments published in the Columbia Journal Review by Daniel Schulman and compare them to the words published by Curtis Brainard .. seeking to ban "balance" on the continuing questions regarding the safety and efficiency of vaccines. Unfortunately, Brainard not only squandered his own credibility as an "unbiased editor" .. but .. at the same time has damaged the credibility of the once prestigious Columbia Journal Review.
In my humble opinion .. the characteristic traits required for a truly professional "unbiased journalist" .. especially editors .. are .. trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, fortitude, resolve, perseverance, diligence, tenacity .. and .. most of all .. courage to pursue truth.
Unfortunately, there are far too many "journalists" .. Curtis Brainard being just one of many more .. who not only lack most of those desired traits .. they appear to be collectively paralyzed by the one trait they all have in common .. professional cowardice.
Hunkered down in their professional foxholes .. they would rather hurl names ... "crackpots, conspiracy theorists, zealots, etc" .. at anyone who dares question the safety of vaccines and the policies by which those vaccines are recommended, approved and administered .. rather then having the courage to demand public health officials conduct the research that EVERYONE knows remains undone after all these years
When all is said and done .. and .. rest assured that day will come ... the media will have to be held accountable for the professional cowardice that allowed this tragedy to continue for such a long time. Shame on them ..
Posted by: Bob Moffitt | May 16, 2013 at 01:51 PM
I wonder if any of the graduates from the prestigious school would be interested in knowing what type of "balanced" journalism their donations are now supporting?
Posted by: Jenny | May 16, 2013 at 01:25 PM
"A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly “career-ending”.
This line in the original Schulman article has been loosely referenced / paraphrased on several occasions. I once chatted with a reported who left the job on principle, and because of the fallout from having the "audacity" to actually look at this issue from all sides.
Wouldn't it be interesting to be able to treat everyone, including all the "case closed" folks, as a hostile witness for 24 hours, and to pose 2 simple questions to which all must respond with either a "yes" or a "no":
Do vaccines carry risk including risk of injury or death?
Do you agree that any individual should be sacrificed for the "greater good"?
No diatribes. No censorship. No anonymity. No statistics. No abstainers. All responses available for public consumption after the 24 hours are up. At that point, anyone could (and should) feel free to further explain, complain, clarify, expand, obfuscate, argue, whatever. But for one day, everyone who wishes to participate in the discussion has to put their "human heart" out there on their sleeve, and nobody gets to hide their ideologies behind words like "science". Nobody gets to use rank or pedigree to quell the noise or soften the edges around the uncomfortable questions above, especially without actually answering them first. "Yes" or "No". What's it gonna be?
As Peter Hitchens articulated nicely in a May 16 MailOnline blog entry (http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2013/04/the-mmr-a-reply-to-some-critics.html): "I yield absolutely to scientists on matters in which they are expert. But I see no reason why they should have special privileges in any argument which can be expressed in unspecialised terms. They have no special powers of logic, and their facts are just as easily examined as anyone else’s. And it seems to me that, in matters of the human heart, I know a good deal more than my critic has managed to pick up in all his ‘scientific’ life."
For those who might think this whole idea is just totally silly or irresponsible, I also defer to another of Hitchens' comments: "Freedom is irresponsible, by its nature. That is why Thomas Jefferson wrote it into the American Bill of Rights, because he knew that the cold, marble minds of the governing class could never grasp this."
Is it the inability to grasp this that also extends to other "cold, marble minds" such as Brainard, or is it the institutional clamps, as per John Stone's comment. Maybe a little of both? Or maybe just the fear of allowing the kinds of soul-bearing questions above to become more pervasive?
Posted by: Shiny Happy Person | May 16, 2013 at 01:02 PM
Recently I talked about prosecutions of the guilty for vaccine crimes against humanity .
Well in my opinion everyone without exception who attented the SimpsonWood 2000 conference should face prosecution .
Posted by: Farmer Geddon | May 16, 2013 at 12:45 PM
Let's listen to Verstraeten discuss some of his findings at the Simpsonwood meeting:
"There is DTP and HIB [that exists] in a combination. It's called Tetramune. This vaccine contains 25 micrograms of ethylmercury, so it's only half of what the children get than when they get DTP and HIB separate [50 micrograms]....This combination [DTP-HIB] was used only in one HMO, at Northern California Kaiser. In Group Health they don't use it. In Northern California Kaiser, the large majority of children received the combination vaccine....This is what happens when we separate the two HMOs. What is important to notice is first of all, the overall incidence rates between the two HMOs differ substantially for some of the outcomes. We have a much higher rate of speed [speech delay] at Group Health compared to Northern California Kaiser. For attention deficit disorder, that number is not as high.....However, among prematures that becomes significant and we get relative risks up to two and three whereby the ones who got more Thimerosal are at higher risk than the ones who got the combination vaccines, so about 25 micrograms less Thimerosal. However the number of children in this analysis is quite small and that result is quite sensitive to small numbers."
A relative risk of two means twice the risk so the premature babies who received an additional 25 micrograms of ethylmercury had two or three times the risk of suffering an adverse outcome. And just to hammer home the point, a small number of children at Northern California Kaiser received separate vaccines and thus the larger amount of ethyl mercury and they also had a disproportionate amount of adverse outcomes according to Dr. Rhodes, a statistican for the National Immunization Program: "The other thing that happens at NCK is that even a year or two years after the policy change has been made and all the kids are supposedly receiving the combination [DTP-HIB], there is an odd, small group of kids that supposedly receives separate DTP and Hib and an unusually high percentage of those kids are [adverse] outcomes."
Posted by: Carol | May 16, 2013 at 12:24 PM
What kind of journalism journal quietly scrubs articles from its own archives? I don't remember reading that one in the Canons of Journalism.
It certainly is not in the last canon, decency. Decency means that journalists should avoid “deliberate pandering to vicious instincts.” This means that journalists should not write something just because they do not like someone or something, and everyone deserves equal treatment.
Posted by: Arthur James | May 16, 2013 at 12:00 PM
Pharmocracy .....great word ! love it .
Posted by: Farmer Geddon | May 16, 2013 at 11:21 AM
I had to laugh at the free speech thingey and had a good laugh at how they lay it to rest-- again. Okay they laid it to rest - again.
Okay, really they laid it to rest for the final time.
Untill they were up to 8 times.
This is a good lesson for me for now on with anytime, on subjects with a lot of spin around them.
The numbers of the 1980s are wrong. The 1980s the 1 out of 10,000 -and then rose.
Even back in 1978 -- is when professors that also worked for SmithBeechamKine started pounding the message home in the universities that all was safe - because they just were - to nursing students and potential doctors. --- And AA degree nurses working on BS degrees were reporting (with a lot of bravery by the way- since the professor was giving the grades) that there were lots of reactions.
Posted by: Benedetta | May 16, 2013 at 10:01 AM
Vaccines haven't got safer, the institutional clamps have got tighter and the only article you are likely to get these days is a pusillanimous one like Brainard's. Pharmocracy is new brand totalitarianism.
Posted by: John Stone | May 16, 2013 at 09:18 AM