The loss of our friend and colleague Dan Olmsted has left many voids, emotional and professional. One useful way Age of Autism readers can honor him is to take up his fallen pen and write as he would. In our complex and stressed world, there’s no shortage of material.
Writing about Dan himself in the past tense seems so inaccurate – a glaring error to correct with the ubiquitous red editor’s pen. Friends’ fond memories of Dan are still fresh, his videos and photos are shared online, and the myriad words he wrote live on in books, articles, comments and emails.
For a decade I’ve admired Dan’s firm command of the principles and practices of fair and objective journalism. And I’ve envied his rich life experiences. He was a Yale man. A founding reporter at USA Today. UPI investigative journalist. Educated, worldly, informed.
Me? I’m a state university gal. Co-founder of a student publication. Community newspaper reporter. A home-focused autism mom.
Yet my humbler writing background didn’t really matter to Dan. An egalitarian, he truly cared what others had to say about the world we shared. He respected the school of experience, and encouraged my writing for AOA. I’ve kept some of his thoughtful emails (which, Dan, I’ve capitalized per AP style!): “We always love having your work, Nancy… I always look forward to your pieces… When I see your comments or Facebook things I always stop and read carefully and I’m always rewarded.”
During three of Dan’s Minnesota visits I enjoyed his lively conversations: the breaking news and clever strategies mixed with astute observations and witty humor. His AOA coverage lent gravitas to families’ empirical observations of their children’s post-vaccination regressions. He was fearless, tenacious, ethical, inquisitive, analytical, insightful, pragmatic, considerate, compassionate, righteously indignant, acerbic, entertaining, eloquent.
After years of reporting Capitol issues, Dan knew how Washington, D.C. operated politically and financially. He translated bureaucratic doublespeak, revealing cronyism and corruption that mainstream media feared to publish. Though ample evidence shows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is an edifice of statistical artifice unresponsive to consumers’ vaccine safety concerns, any wider reporting on that betrayal of public trust has failed to gain much traction.
In recent years the career Dan loved – journalism – deteriorated into a volatile digital Wild West. Computer-democratized mass communications platforms spawned torrents of unregulated babble, stoked by corporate media tropes of sectarian animus and polarization. Old-school investigative reporting has all but vanished, crowded out by popular culture.
For many seasoned reporters, mass media’s shift from traditional news reporting toward advocacy journalism comes hard. The formal distant language of the impartial observer gives way very reluctantly to the more biased and sometimes emotional language of a news witness or participant. But Dan had a deft way of showing writers how to move past self-imposed rhetorical limits, understanding one’s audience in order to maximize an article’s impact on readers.
Dan understood the vagaries of human nature… how emotions drive our strengths and weaknesses. He recognized when American consumers, and even reporters, acted as mindless mouthpieces influenced and controlled by corporate/government spin. Dan curated readers’ varied psychological responses to emotionally loaded linguistics’ context and connotation. He worked to help readers pull back their reflexive mental filters so they could see their country’s immunization program for the corrupt medical failure it had become.
Inevitably as Dan struggled to educate an increasingly misinformed and often apathetic populace, he came under fire from people and organizations that leveraged power and money to protect themselves. But he handled detractors with aplomb, dousing superheated Internet rhetoric with buckets of cold reality. Dan’s fact-based content and logical reasoning put Age of Autism on the cultural map. His writings’ clarity and urgency were an equal match for the weighty responsibility of warning consumers about vaccine-induced autism as a multifaceted and relentlessly growing worldwide catastrophe.
As this new year began, many AOA readers were looking forward to reading Dan’s coverage of a controversial new president, volatile fledgling administration, and just-announced vaccine safety commission under the helm of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. But sadly Dan was cheated out of that opportunity.
Still, autism parents were blessed to cross paths with Dan years back at our shared nexus of ethical values about health care rights. Dan was uniquely qualified to editorialize on the emerging medical minority of people struggling with vaccine-induced autism, and the families supporting them. As a gay man, he understood oppression firsthand; for most of his life he was deprived of the right to marry the person he loved. Knowing that the same new Presidential administration that could possibly end the autism epidemic might also roll back gay rights had to be, to him and others, a very bitter pill.
But to achieve one’s social justice goals, giving up is not an option. One myth sometimes voiced within autism advocacy communities is that political action is controlled by a small group of elites, for better or worse. On the contrary: that hard-fought shared progress is shaped in myriad ways, by everyone who simply shows up – perhaps to attend an advocacy meeting, lobby day or march – or even organize them, as one’s busy life allows.
Dan Olmsted’s 1/7/2017 Weekly Wrap proclaimed this is “A New Year of Books and Blogs and Big Ideas.” But no longer can he give his firm, articulate voice to countless autism families’ challenges, injustices and pain. So what can we do to honor Dan? By doing what he loved: Writing.
We can all “Dan up” by:
- posting an informative comment or rebuttal of vaccine/autism misinformation at media websites;
- writing letters to the editor of local papers listing links to investigative articles or research studies;
- writing letters to state and national legislators concisely detailing autism issues and your desired actions;
- creating slogans and memes to post on social media;
- reporting on local and national meetings, events, and breaking news;
- starting a blog or writing a book to document the Age of Autism for posterity.
Even small gestures amongst the few can create a wider ripple effect. A kind word, a festive note or a timely suggestion can provide much-needed moral support to someone in our various communities, who then feels empowered to move forward with some constructive advocacy project.
Dan was unforgettable, but he would not want us to think of him as irreplaceable. He would want us to carry on his work as best we can. On New Year’s Eve Dan wrote, “If you say what you think and stick to your guns and you are right, like my pediatrician and many of you who read AOA every week, sometimes even the president of the United States will come around to agreeing with you.”
If Dan Olmsted were still alive, he’d tell you that your help is needed, your ideas are wanted, and we always look forward to hearing from you. And he would thank you.
Age of Autism and the world look forward to hearing from you. I thank you.
Nancy Hokkanen is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.