Last month, the Toronto Star ran a perfectly reasonable article titled “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side,” about adverse events following the HPV vaccine Gardasil. It wasn’t long before the paper and its editor, Michael Cooke, were set on by the raving pack of hyenas that attacks anyone who dares suggest that vaccines are not pure as the driven snow.
One critic, Julia Belluz, writes for an online publication called Vox, which I first encountered this year when they did a Q&A with me headlined, not very nicely, “Understanding the fear of vaccines: an activist explains why he buys a debunked idea.” They are reflexive, relentless and nasty vaccine zealots – that’s what zealotry is.
The Star’s Cooke didn’t much like Vox’s predictable and unjustified criticism. He sent Ms. Belluz this: "Stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub." He told another critic via Twitter: “Try not to be an idiot.”
To which I say – you tell her, bro! Editors need a certain Ben Bradlee-style “bite me” attitude toward unjustified critics, rather than cowering in the corner once attacks start. Unfortunately, Cooke’s moxie was short-lived. Under a barrage of criticism, on February 20 the publisher – his boss -- announced that “the Gardasil story package of Feb. 5 will be removed from our website.”
In explaining the article’s removal, the publisher wrote: “The weight of the photographs, video, headlines and anecdotes led many readers to conclude the Star believed its investigation had uncovered a direct connection between a large variety of ailments and the vaccine.”
Well yeah, it kind of did lead readers to conclude that – and the conclusion was more than justified, as readers of our own coverage of the vaccine will know. But “we have concluded that in this case our story treatment led to confusion between anecdotes and evidence,” the publisher said, and so it was pulled. (The Wall Street Journal got it right in a blog post headlined: “A Win for Merck? Paper Removes Investigation of Gardasil Side Effects.”)
This is just the latest example of a disturbing and, frankly, un-American (in the case of the Toronto Star, un-North American) trend: self-censorship and craven caving to criticism. Salon pulling Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s piece on the CDC’s cover-up of thimerosal's damage in vaccines was among the first and foremost.
It’s not just pulling published journalism that is suppressing urgently needed debate. Google is reported to be talking about ranking its search results not just by relevance and popularity but by deciding which sites are most “accurate.” So if you humans don't cause global warming or do cause autism, you can expect to show up lower and later because, as we all know already and need not discuss any further, you are not accurate!
The New York Times and other publications explicitly forbid what they call false balance – giving any credence or even coverage to what they consider “anti-vaccine” cranks. If you think that vaccine reactions are more frequent and more serious than the drug companies and government say – the heart of our argument and, again, a perfectly reasonable policy debate -- and that those reactions include autism, you are a tinfoil-hat type.
“It can be important to state both sides of an argument — but only when both sides are legitimate,” Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, wrote in 2013 in regard to the vaccine debate in an article headlined “Just the Facts – No False Balance Wanted Here.” She was carrying the book-burning torch lit by former Executive Editor Bill Keller, who told Time in 2009: “I don't think fairness means that you give equal time to every point of view no matter how marginal. You weigh the sides, you do some truth-testing, you apply judgment to them. We don't treat creationism as science. Likewise in the autism-vaccine debate, our reporting shows pretty clearly which side the science is on.”
Creationism and vaccine-induced autism – what a moral equivalency! The real equivalency is between the Times warmongering coverage of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and its smug certainty that vaccines don’t cause autism – the most important international, and the most important domestic, issues of our time, both muffled and missed by the Times. Some institutions have no memory or ability to learn from their mistakes.
When Mark Blaxill and I were promoting our book The Age of Autism in 2010, we were invited to speak at the Brown University Bookstore, which provoked an article in the student paper titled “Inviting Ignorance”:
“Research is a highly generous word to use to describe what the authors have done. Essentially, they repackaged the last decade’s worth of claims that mercury causes autism, disregarding the actual research that shows those claims to be utterly false. Study after study has shown that autism is not caused by mercury in vaccines.
“To state it briefly, the authors of ‘The Age of Autism’ make demonstrably false claims that lead to parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Falling vaccination rates lead in turn to the reemergence of diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. The bookstore should not have hosted the Olmsted and Blaxill.”
And of course original research has also been suppressed, from Andy Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet “early report” on autism and the MMR to Brian Hooker’s recent work on the CDC’s cover-up of its own findings on autism and the MMR (I detect a trend!). Rather than report that many parents since 1998 have seen just what Andy was talking about – and much research has confirmed it – journalists talk about a retracted and discredited study. Rather than talk about William Thompson’s own direct statement that the CDC covered up a link, they can put it all on Brian Hooker and the fact his study was pulled.
As I’ve said before, people who use phrases like “Science has spoken” or “Experts say” or “Study after study shows” remind me of children who say things like “Teacher says” -- one word, proper noun, capitalized, impersonal, indisputable – the voice, more or less, of God, an adult speaking to an awestruck child.
This appeal to medical and scientific "authority" in the absence of original thinking is equally infantile. As a journalism book I admire puts it, at its heart the craft involves not just being fair and accurate and objective – those are good and necessary foul lines -- but verifying the truth by getting as close to primary sources as possible. How many reporters who claim Wakefield has been debunked or Thompson misquoted have bothered to verify this by examining the evidence for themselves? How many have read Wakefield’s paper or looked up Thompson in the Atlanta phone book and dialed his number? Saying they’re too busy or “Experts agree” just doesn’t cut it, and won’t save them from the harsh judgment history will pass on their slovenly body of work. (When Michael Cooke eventually arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter is going to say, “You should have left it at ‘Stop gargling our bathwater.’ That really cracked God up.”)
Why is all this un-American? Because as Al Smith used to say, “Nothing un-American can live in the sunlight.” Yet we're burying the truth. And Louis Brandeis agreed: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Recently I came across another example of this syndrome that really galls me. I’ll write about it in Part 2.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.