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Taking Tips, Chasing Leads, Solving Problems

November 15th, 2007 · 6 Comments · anecdotes, Careless sourcing, Junk science

When I was a mere lad growing up in Michigan, I started my early morning Detroit Free Press paper route reading “Action Line”, a page-long column found daily on the left side of the front page. Readers mailed or phoned in complaints, mostly consumer related, and the noble and wise Action Line staff righted whatever wrong came its way. The stories were brief and satisfying, and confirmed my belief that justice always won out in the end.

Action Line’s “public investigator” role was, and still is a staple of large news organizations everywhere. It shows that media outlets are “on our side”, looking out for the little guy. The genre has one foot planted firmly in the the heyday of big city journalism when media barons famously comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Done well, they read like compact morality tales where the charlatan gets his comeuppance, and the world is made whole again.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lets us know that its own Public Investigator feature is “taking tips, chasing leads, and solving problems”, as it shames crooked contractors and exposes goldbricking civil servants. The stories are longer than Action Line’s were, and less frequent. But they’re still a fun read and can fill an important public service function.

Except when they don’t. Two days ago, the Public Investigator’s tip apparently came from a source with a suspicious agenda. The news leads included some of the anti-vax movements nuttiest personalities. And the column ended up adding to, rather than solving a problem.

Raquel Rutledge ‘s article, Most flu shots contain mercury, but few know it reads more like a Generation Rescue press release than serious journalism. The intent was laudable – to explain and put into context the science behind flu vaccine campaigns, so parents can make more informed choices. Unfortunately, Rutledge left out the science.

The integrity of the nation’s vaccine programs is a legitimate national health issue, and any reporter who investigates this subject better come armed with more than a news tip. Vaccines have saved untold millions of lives, and have sent common killers such as whooping cough, small pox, and diphtheria swirling down the memory hole. Just ask anyone over 75 about the classmates lost to childhood diseases.

But Rutledge plows ahead, cutting and pasting discredited talking points from as many fringe websites as she could Google. To wit:

A typical 0.5 milliliter flu shot contains 25 micrograms – or 50,000 parts per billion – of mercury. The EPA classifies a liquid with 200 parts per billion of mercury as hazardous waste. The limit for drinking water is 2 parts per billion.

This red herring has been flopping around for a few years now, and a thoughtful science writer would have caught on right away. The numbers look scary, but in reality, it’s the amount ingested at once that matters. You could have water that measures 500 million parts per billion mercury, but if you only drink 2 micrograms, then you’ve ingested 1 microgram of mercury, way less than you’d find in a tuna fish sandwich.

Put another way, you could dilute 25 micrograms of mercury in every five gallon jug of water that you drink for the rest of your life, and still be well within EPA guidelines.

A sharp science writer would know that “dose makes the poison”. Virtually all substances are dangerous at one dose and/or concentration, and safe at another. Pure oxygen will blind a newborn, but too little will kill it. A mere 60 mg of nicotine can kill the same adult who chews nicotine gum every day. Mercury has been used in thimerosal since 1933 and there is not one shred of solid evidence that it causes any, let alone widespread neurological damage.

This exposé, disguised as a public service, only serves to agitate parents who hold onto a myth that has been dismissed time and time again by the scientific community. If vaccines are a problem, it’s because scientists have to deal with carelessly written news accounts and misinformed advocates who phone tips to credulous reporters. But among the respected researchers who publish in the top journals and work at the top universities, the thimerosal issue is dead.

The citizen advocacy groups Rutledge sources advocate their beliefs without any credible evidence. Take Dr. David Ayoub, MD, a radiologist from Springfield, Ill., and medical director of FAIR – the Foundation for Autism Information and Research. Ayoub was Rutledge’s go-to guy to criticize a 1973 study that says vaccination is safe for pregnant women. “It’s ridiculous,” said Ayoub. “It’s a big, big deception.”

But David Ayoub couldn’t make a sandwich without seeing big, big deceptions. Here he is telling gasping conspiracy groupies that the World Health Organization uses vaccines to control human populations in third world countries. He explains that Bill Gates and the Rockefellers are in on the plot.

Turning to Ayoub for informed comment about vaccines is like asking Lyndon LaRouche to explain Federal Reserve policy.

Rutledge correctly notes that thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 2001. But she fails to tell us that the autism rate for today’s 3-5 year olds is no lower than it was 10 years ago. If thimerosal causes autism, then why no decline?

But facts will never dissuade the anti-vaccination folks who return Rutledge’s phone calls. They made up their minds long ago about thimerosal, and have been cherry picking evidence and waving away inconvenient facts ever since. Scientists meanwhile, burdened by a quaint respect for evidence, struggle to have their messages heard.

Investigation suggests something has been researched, that a great wrong will be exposed and subsequently righted. But Rutledge’s “investigation” is nothing more than a bullhorn for dozens of screeching, agenda driven anti-science groups that troll the web. No problem was solved, other than how to fill Tuesday’s front page.

Oddly enough, there is a great news story about vaccines. But it has nothing to do with government coverups and illuminati, or a generation of doomed children. It’s a story of parents who are grieving the loss of the perfect child, and what happens when grieving, ill-informed parents connect in cyberspace, or are drawn to opportunistic fundraising groups led by self-aggrandizing men and women.

It’s a great story, and one day a great newspaper will write about it.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ms. Clark // Nov 15, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    “But David Ayoub couldn’t make a sandwich without seeing big, big deceptions. ” I hear there’s mercury in mayonnaise. No really.

    Thank you for exposing the utter ignorance of this “reporter” from the Millwaukee Journal Sentinel. Do they just have no interest in fact checking at all? Maybe we could send the editor a copy of the “Fact Checker’s Bible.”

  • 2 isles // Nov 15, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    I used to read the Journal Sentinel and thought it was a pretty good paper. Guess their standards have fallen considerably.

    It’s really disappointing when a person can graduate from college and get a job writing for a newspaper without having acquired even the most rudimentary BS detector. It’s as if they stumble onto some misinformation, do no further research, and think it’s a huge find that’s going to win them a Pulitzer, never realizing the real story is how an urban legend came to have such regrettably durable legs.

    And even worse that they never stop to consider what the probable effect of this kind of story will be on readers.

  • 3 HCN // Nov 25, 2007 at 10:15 am

    An editorial comment that was published today:
    http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=689336

  • 4 Dr. Norman Edison Jr. // Mar 10, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    You wrote:
    “Rutledge correctly notes that thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 2001. But she fails to tell us that the autism rate for today’s 3-5 year olds is no lower than it was 10 years ago. If thimerosal causes autism, then why no decline?”

    And the answer is:
    They made batches without thimerosal available but they had to be specially ordered. Meaning the buyer for the hospital had to know there was such a thing and order it specially. Just ordering the vaccine would still get you a product containing thimerosal! To make maters worse it was much more expensive and very little of it was ordered. The “news” was distributed to doctors and nurses that thimerosal had been taken out however reading the insert accompanying every vile clearly showed that thimerosal was still present!

    You said:
    “But David Ayoub couldn’t make a sandwich without seeing big, big deceptions. Here he is telling gasping conspiracy groupies that the World Health Organization uses vaccines to control human populations in third world countries. He explains that Bill Gates and the Rockefellers are in on the plot.”

    Give me a month in court and I can prove beyond any reasonable doubt to any reasonable person that these accusations are indeed founded on legitimate evidence. In such time I will be able to trace Mr. Gates nazi eugenic affiliations and beliefs back through IBM and to an active participation in the German lead holocaust during world war two. The direct and indirect evidence linking the Rockefeller foundations, banking institutions and several active family members to the same nazi perpetrated crimes against humanity are far more copious!

    In conclusion David Ayoub, M.D. is beyond reproach in his accusatory nuances suggested in his lectures.

  • 5 Prometheus // Mar 14, 2008 at 11:23 am

    As “Dr.” Edison should know (were he a physician), thimerosal was taken out of childhood vaccines rather abruptly. It was not a matter of only making “special batches” without thimerosal.

    Prior to 2001, most (but not all) children’s vaccines were available in a single-dose, thimerosal-free (‘cuz they don’t need thimerosal if they’re only single-dose) form. The exception was the hepatitis B vaccine, which is why there was no hepatitis B vaccine available for about six months while the manufacturers “whipped up” a thimerosal-free batch (and while they waited for FDA approval – even taking something out of a vaccine means you have to go through the whole process again).

    Of course, there’s really no point in addressing “Dr.” Edison’s delusional raving about Bill Gates’ “nazi [sic] eugenic affiliations” or the libelous statements he makes about IBM and the Rockefeller Foundation. Perhaps he should start taking his medicine again.

    Prometheus

  • 6 More editors think disease is bad | MNH Kids Camp.com – Ideas & Advice on Child Autism // Jan 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    [...] or editorial opinion, like a looming catastrophe. Editors at the Milwaukee Journal are finally over their Jenny McCarthy crush,  using words like “myth makers” to describe vaccine rejectionists. Good for them. [...]

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