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Olbermann caves to anti-vaccine lobby

February 12th, 2009 · 51 Comments · Careless sourcing

It happens to the best of them. Keith Olbermann, my hero, the heir apparent to Edward R. Murrow,  and the only reason left to watch cable TV, has been played by the anti-vaccine lobby.

A few nights ago, Olbermann called much-needed attention to the UK physician who kicked off the decade-long wave of mass hysteria known as the anti-vaccine movement. During the Countdown segment, Andrew Wakefield, or “Wakers” to his diminishing fan base,  was named The Worst Person in the World.

Anti-vaccine activists went on quicksilver alert, and besieged MSNBC with emails, faxes, phone calls and much  gnashing of teeth. Olbermann caved, or rather bent over and grabbed his ankles. It could have been a phone call from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Arriana Huffington, or any number of dwarf stars in the anti-vaccine firmament. Whatever. Olbermann was pwned by the same barking loons who think the Amish don’t vaccinate, and that measles leads to all-you-can-eat ice cream binges. Without evidence or cause, Olbermann repeated vaccine rejectionist talking points, and unfairly attacked the journalist who exposed Wakefield’s malfeasance.

Watch it here:

Brian Deer, the freelance investigative journalist whose reporting helped bring Wakefield to justice, is guilty of – investigative journalism. Or, as Olbermann puts it:

The Times of London did not bother to mention that the British investigation into whether or not Wakefield did that was the result of a complaint by… Brian Deer.

The guy who wrote the article about the investigation never mentioned he was the complainant who precipitated the investigation.

The word “complaint” needs to be unpacked. In an administration-speak, a “complaint” is a formal action, documented, and assigned to a party. But Olbermann conflates the dry, boring definition of complaint with the vernacular, which is “an expression of displeasure”. Deer’s reporting is a complaint, but only if you stand way back and squint your eyes, imagine how documenting the activity of an out-of-control doctor might trigger an expression of displeasure, which in turn sets off waves of hand-wringing in the British medical establishment, thus resulting in the filing of a formal complaint. In this case, the complaint was brought by the General Medical Council with the encouragement of … Andrew Wakefield!

IN February 2004, after a Sunday Times investigation, Wakefield declared that he would welcome an inquiry as an opportunity to clear his name.

In fact, he insisted on an investigation!

Dr Wakefield said that he would insist on a full GMC inquiry after it was suggested by John Reid, the Health Secretary, on Friday.

And if MSNBC can tolerate facts, Deer has proof that he is not “a complainant”:

I have a letter from the GMC’s lawyers, which was also supplied to Wakefield, stating that I am not the complainant, but that I am an “informant”, like, say, a health authority.

Yet according to Olbermann, Deer is guilty of “a vast conflict of interest”.

The truth about the doctor’s research may be in doubt here, but not Deer’s vast conflict of interest nor the Times of London’s journalistic malfeasance. The paper is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and it’s my bad for forgetting his new motto: “We have never been a company that tolerates facts.”

To recap:

Brian Deer, an investigative reporter, wrote about Wakefield’s shady research and obvious conflicts of interest.

Wakefield invited, nay,  insisted upon a full investigation of the allegations outlined in Deer’s articles.

The UK medical board obliged Wakefield by filing a formal complaint and commencing the investigation for which Wakefield longed.

Deer continued to investigate and report the story.

That Keith Olbermann was lured and skewered by a mendacious vaccine rejectionist press release speaks to Rovian levels of media manipulation. “Olbermann’s team fell for it hook, line, and sinker,” notes Orac, to continue the fishing metaphor. “Nor did they consider that the U.K. has some of the most plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the world, so much so that some plaintiffs indulge in libel tourism there. If Deer’s reporting was not true, he would have been at serious risk of being sued and losing.”

Keith, I love ya man, but you really screwed the pooch this time.

This is far from over. Keith’s enemies in the right wing news and entertainment media are legion, and now he’s open  to serious and valid criticism. If this latest skirmish in the autism wars results in a ratcheting up of coverage, Olbermann may be forced to retract once again, or bury his head and wait for the dust to settle.

Good night and good luck with that one.


Brain Deer’s response to Olbermann can be seen at Orac’s blog. The money quote:

You were apparently supplied with your baseless allegations by a New York-based freelance journalist, David Kirby, who has made substantial sums of money through attacking childhood vaccines, and who is an advisor to Wakefield. Extraordinarily, you even supplied Kirby with a copy of the script of your attack on me, prior to broadcast, and thus appear to have acted in cahoots with him.  Kirby was sufficiently motivated, and stupid, to publish your script on a website before the item was aired.

Your defamation of me has been taken up by others, and you are plainly responsible for this.  You have no possible defence, since your claims are simply false.  They were fabricated and placed with you by antivaccine campaigners and cranks. You can argue no privilege or free speech right to make such false allegations, not least since you published them with complete disregard for their truth or falsity. NBC’s lawyers will no doubt explain to you the particular difficulties of such conduct in the UK jurisdiction.

Grab some popcorn. This is going to be good.



51 responses so far ↓

  • 1 autblog // Mar 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Excellent comment, Chris. Thank you.

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