This prescient article was brought to our attention this week: Dan identified already how vaccine critics were being crudely branded as public enemies. It was written 10 years ago by Dan for the now out of print Spectrum Magazine. We thought it deserved a home here.
by Dan Olmsted, March 9, 2009
And why are they making me want to vomit?
Recently I received an email with the rather provocative subject line: "I may vomit - NPR segment." The body of the email was simply an NPR segment on vaccines and autism by Jon Hamilton. After listening to it, I felt kind of sick to my stomach, too.
"Defending Vaccines: Actress Dispels Link To Autism" is the headline on the NPR website story summarizing the segment. The actress in question is Amanda Peet, who has become the anti-Jenny McCarthy of the celebrity duel over whether vaccines are safe.
"A movie star and a prominent scientist have teamed up to reassure the public that childhood vaccines are safe and do not cause autism," the article begins. The prominent scientist is Paul Offit, who tutored Peet on the fact that an autism-vaccine link has been disproven by "more than a dozen large scientific studies," as Hamilton puts it. In the segment, Offit bemoans the fact that the media still calls the issue "controversial."
We've heard all this before, of course, but what turns my stomach is the source: my beloved National Public Radio. This piece is part of a pattern pointed out by many parents and others involved in the environmental-biomedical approach to autism. Some even say NPR is the single most hostile news organization to the whole question of vaccines and autism.
The hostility is obvious from the intro to the segment on Morning Edition: "Today in Your Health, scientific studies show that childhood vaccines are remarkably safe (the last two words emphasized for effect) but a lot of parents do not agree." One reason, the announcer goes on to say, is all the celebrities pounding on the poor pitiful vaccines.
Actually, that's not a reason. Jenny McCarthy would have no platform if it were not for the parents who decided for themselves, based on their eyewitness experience, that vaccines caused their children to regress into autism. Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institutes of Health, made waves this year by saying the vaccine-autism question had not been answered and officials were avoiding doing the studies that would provide the answer. NPR's entire premise is skewed, and everything that follows is similarly twisted.
All my adult life, NPR been a beacon on the radio dial, and I am sure I am not alone. I remember driving beside the frozen cornfields of Illinois in the 1970s at 7 a.m. on my way to work at my hometown newspaper, listening to WILL in Champaign-Urbana and feeling literate, informed, part of a far-flung community of like-minded Americans, and much more cosmopolitan than my actual life experience justified.
Implicitly, NPR was the progressive alternative to the religious stations and top 40 outlets that clogged the heartland dial. The soft, unhurried, cultured tones of the announcers - Susan Stamberg being the example par excellence - made it seem as though reason and right thinking might actually carry the day. I did a mind-meld with NPR.
Besides the terse "I may vomit" email, I got a longer one from another parent. Her name is Meredith Hodge, and she's worth listening to, so to speak. Think of this as an NPR segment with the sounds of a busy household in the background:
"We live in Marietta, Ga., (a northern suburb of Atlanta) and my daughter, Delaney, is 4 1/2 and was diagnosed with ASD about a year ago. We also have a NT son, Charlie, who is 7. I'm a real estate attorney and my husband is a high school math and special education teacher.
"I've listened to NPR in the mornings or the drive home from work for the past 10 years as my "treat" because there were no animated characters and it was a good source of information that you don't typically hear on the evening news. Since I've been working from home, my opportunity to listen has decreased to about 15 minutes, 2 to 3 days a week, after I drop my daughter off at school.
"In that tiny little window in the past couple of months, I have heard no less than 4 stories about the benefits of vaccines and the dangerous people who avoid them. If they presented a differing opinion or speculated about a link to autism, it was quickly dismissed as radical and irresponsible. At least one or two stories were on Gardasil (one of which had an interesting twist about how shocking it is that nurses wouldn't get their daughters vaccinated ... tsk, tsk).
"The one that really made me irate was the profile on Every Child By Two. They actually used the term "herd," as in, "we must protect the..." I detest the word "herd."
"I've always thought of NPR as an unbiased, hard-hitting model of journalistic integrity. It was a window on the world of which I wanted to learn more. Now, if I turn to NPR in the mornings, I always first think, "what crock will I hear about today."
"I never thought that their reporting would be so one-sided but their position, as it is indeed a position, on vaccinations has made me discount every other story I've heard from them. In my opinion, the entire network has been tainted. I'll now only be listening to Car Talk and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."
How did we get to this point, where loyal listeners like Meredith and me are treated like lunatics by our alter ego? I'm the same guy, with the same values, as that young man listening to NPR 25 years ago. But now I find my former oasis on the dial as hostile and unwelcoming as ... well, as The New York Times, my other anchor of sanity in the news business that has also become a parrot on the shoulder of Big Pharma, the AAP and the CDC.
How we got here, I think, is through a process I will call CUB - the Creation of Unconscious Bias. NPR, like the Times, has always been progressive, and that's always suited me to a tee. But like every ideology or worldview, there are unspoken assumptions and potential excesses implicit in its principles. Progressives, for example, want to "fix" things; you might say conservatives by contrast generally want to conserve what's already working. Fixing things is a good idea overall, in my view; I went into journalism because it is one of democracy's fundamental mechanisms for self-correction, especially when government itself has fallen down on the job (like right now).
But fixing things can go too far, just as clinging to the status quo can lead to stagnation. A number of years ago a publication in Washington wrote a cover story about how NPR had an obsession with, of all things, raising taxes. I was very protective of my favorite radio outlet and started reading the article with a skeptical mindset. But the author was right. He cited segment after segment in which the announcer or reporter drew the conclusion that the problem at hand would require more money - more taxpayer money. It got to be funny as the writer went instance by instance. More taxes appeared to be the solution to everything. And of, course, more taxes means more government. It's like that guy on Saturday Night Live ranting about the financial meltdown: "Fix it!"
Now, NPR was not part of any cabal to raise our taxes or swell the size of government, nor did it have an explicit position on the issue. No, this was an unconscious bias that sprang from its progressive and journalistic roots. Who knows, they may well have been right, but they needed to bring that bias out in the sunlight (which is called advocacy journalism, the kind I openly engage in) or get rid of it.
This process, I suspect, explains NPR's current groveling before the forces of proven-safe, absolutely necessary, government-mandated universal vaccination. Good government and modern medicine and smart scientists are "fixing" things - in this case, diseases and epidemics and sick children. Yay! Untutored parents, non-mainstream journalists and former Playmates (not our kind of people, don't you know?) are ganging up on beacons of public health and smart scientists like Paul Offit. Boo!
More recently, another source of unconscious bias has become part of the NPR equation: drug money. NPR's 2005 annual report acknowledges $3 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (think Johnson & Johnson), and between $100k and $250k from the Lilly Endowment. NPR also runs those annoying blurbs about who's sponsoring programs ("and by...and by...and by..."), and those include Merck.
Studies of cigarette advertising have shown time and again that magazines that accepted such ads were far less likely to write articles about the dangers of cigarettes than those that did not. Duh!
Recently as I listened to NPR list the donors for one of its regular news programs, I practically ran into a ditch. The sponsor was Bayer Crop Science. As some of you may know, my reporting on the natural history of autism has led me to conclude that newly commercialized ethyl mercury compounds in the 1930s triggered the first cases of autism. The two compounds in which ethyl mercury was first used were vaccines and fungicides. Case 2 in Leo Kanner's landmark 1943 paper was the son of a plant pathologist working with the new ethyl mercury fungicide Ceresan when his son was born. Case 3 was the son of a forestry professor with the same plausible exposure.
And who made Ceresan? It was a joint venture between the crop science division of Bayer, a German company, and DuPont in the United States. (The companies never answered my queries about this and sent me to a trade association that didn't respond, either.)
So if you want to look at it this way (and I do) NPR is brought to you by the folks responsible for the first autism cases (Bayer), the people who triggered the epidemic when their ethyl mercury preservative was used in more and more vaccines (Lilly), and the company that's perpetuating the problem with the dreadful MMR shot at age 1 (Merck).
So I think I understand how unconscious bias has infected what was once my favorite source of news and information. All things considered, it's sickening.
Dan Olmsted is editor of AgeofAutism.com. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on the natural history of autism with Mark Blaxill.