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Frontline plays what isn’t there

April 29th, 2010 · 18 Comments · Kudos, Narrative

False balance is the scourge of science reporting, and in The Vaccine Wars, we see how it’s possible to represent both sides without misleading viewers. The Frontline documentary, which first aired Tuesday, devotes about 60% of its time to the researchers and experts who are best qualified to speak. That leaves about 22 minutes for vaccine rejectionists to convince viewers how misguided and poorly informed they truly are. It was more than enough.

But what the reality-based community sees as a virtue is also the biggest complaint that anti-vaccine activists have about the show – that writer/producer Jon Palfreman ignored their “experts”, and falsely portrayed the story as scientists versus parents. “Where are the doctors and scientists who support our community and support the idea that vaccines may be a trigger for autism?” opined Jenny McCarthy the very next day in Huffington Post, “In Frontline’s world, they don’t exist.”

McCarthy’s science adviser, Dr. Jay Gordon chimed in: “You interviewed me, you spent hours with Dr. Robert Sears of the deservedly-illustrious Sears family and you spoke to other doctors who support parents in their desire to find out what went wrong and why it’s going wrong and what we might do to prevent this true epidemic.” Gordon reportedly sat at McCarthy’s side during her interview, slightly out of frame. His absence was both poignant and illuminating.

Reading the breathless complaints from McCarthy and others of her angry mob reminded me of something that jazz great Miles Davis once said: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”

With enough practice, most of us can keep a beat or carry a tune, but it takes an artist to play what isn’t there. The silence that bookends a note reveals as much, if not more, than the sound that you hear, the difference between noise and music. For a writer, recognizing what does and does not belong is the difference between stenography and journalism. Only a flack cares about including every voice in equal measure, with no regards for what is being said. To truly inform, some voices are best unheard.

It’s not always about what you put in. It’s also about what you leave out.



18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 KWombles // Apr 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Wonderful post. :-)

  • 2 Prometheus // Apr 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Jay Gordon should be thanking the Frontline editors for cutting his interview from their piece. From what I’ve seen, they weren’t likely to let his particular variety of nonsense go unanswered by the real experts. “Dr. Jay” was spared a nationwide prime-time humiliation.

    Of course, he doesn’t see it that way.

    Here’s a helpful tip for the good doctor:

    The press appear to have gotten over their need to present “both sides” equally, as if there was some parity between the data-free ramblings of a general pediatrician and the data-supported opinions of real experts in autism, epidemiology, immunology, toxicology, etc. This appears to be a long-term change – hopefully permanent.

    This might be a good time for “Dr. Jay” to reconsider his high-profile anti-vaccination position; it is likely to come back and bite him on the posterior. When the next measles outbreak kills a bunch of kids, the press may be able to forgive Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey for their “too many, too soon” and “green our vaccines” nonsense, but they will be all over a board-certified pediatrician who discourages the routine vaccination of healthy children.

    Just a hint, “Dr. Jay”. How will you answer the reporters camped on your lawn when they ask you, “So, doctor, what do you think about your advice about vaccines now?”

    You might want to prepare an answer to that question now.


  • 3 Sullivan // May 1, 2010 at 7:14 am

    But, the vaccine-causation groups are so good at providing balance that they have the moral high ground, right?

    It isn’t like they use the retracted Wakefield paper to help convince parents, while ignoring the Hornig paper that clearly refutes much of Wakefield’s work.

    No, they wouldn’t do that.

    It isn’t like they use the “Rain Mouse” study, but not the MIND Institute study that clearly refutes “Rain Mouse”.

    No, they wouldn’t do that.

    One could go on and on with the attempts at clearly one-sided arguments the vaccine-causation groups depend upon.

    Besides, what is their argument now? That the parents who run the “Parent founded, Parent led” organizations don’t know what they are talking about (as in, they need a coach off screen) or don’t have the credibility to carry off their arguments?

  • 4 Sullivan // May 1, 2010 at 7:17 am

    It is worth noting as well–

    JB Handley and Jenny McCarthy pressured the producers of “The Doctors” TV show to keep any opposing views off the air.

    The hypocrisy of their complaints against Frontline is astounding. Frontline *did* give both sides. Frontline *did* get input from people like Dr. Jay.

  • 5 Harold L Doherty // May 3, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Terrible post. Absolutely terrible.

    I am not an anti-vaxxer. My children have received all recommended vaccine shots. I have not concluded that my son’s Autistic Disorder was triggered or caused by any vaccine but I do question the science which has allegedly “disproved” and “debunked” any vaccine autism connection.

    You mention the usual names but fail to mention Dr. Healy and Dr. Gerberding who have said that comparative autism studies of existing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations could and should be done.

    You also fail to mention Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto who has stated that the autism thimerosal studies are flawed and there is a need for stronger science on that issue.

    Autism News Beat as an evidence based resource for journalists? If only.

  • 6 Dedj // May 3, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Again Harold, you fail to provide any form of reasoning as to why:

    The numerous people that disagree with your sources should be ignored.
    The numerous people that your sources disagree with should be ignored.
    Why and how HP’s criticism of the current science is notable, given that several of the studies and study authours recognised and reported weakenesses themselves.

    Until you can do this minimal work, you, Sir, are in no posistion to go around bad mouthing anyone else.

    You still have unanswered concerns over at Respectful Insolence as well as numerous other discussions that you have been in. Your persistant attempts to dodge meeeting the standards of arguementation that you demand of others has been noted, and you are hereby notified that this behaviour is both rude and hypocritical. Your persistant belief that everyone is ignorant and stupid if they disagree with you is certainly not the behaviour one would expect of a ‘award winning’ autism ‘advocate’.

    Nothing you can respond with will change the fact that you come across like a self-referencing, self-righteous pillock. Have a good day, Sir.

  • 7 ANB // May 3, 2010 at 10:52 am

    dedj is right, Harold. Your comments are adding very little if anything to the discussion.

  • 8 Dedj // May 3, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Indeed ANB, Harold not only wrongly assumes people don’t know what he knows (hence why he once told an experienced autism advocate and lay director of an autism charity that he was a ‘do nothing, know nothing’, and once told a autism lecturer who has published ABA research that she ‘knew nothing about ABA’) but he merely repeats what they say without providing any form of arguementation to go with it.

    He may as well cut and paste. If anything, that is all his contributions amount to. If he can’t tell us his rationale for believing those sources above and beyond the multiple teams of sources that say or indicate otherwise, then he is not engaging in reasoned debate, he is merely shouting his (second hand) opnion in the hope it will be mistaken for informed opinion.

  • 9 ANB // May 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    An assertion made without evidence can also be rejected without evidence.

  • 10 Dedj // May 3, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Unfortunetly, Harold seems to think assertions become evidence depending on who is making them.

    But that’s enough about that. We all know he doesn’t respond to mere mortals like us.

  • 11 ANB // May 3, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Against such arrogance, even the Gods contend in vain.

  • 12 Harold L Doherty // May 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    No offence intended but your hands and wrists must get sore from patting each other on the back in this very, very small club.

    You all comment endlessly about Jenny McCarthy and a few other favorite targets but when other credible names are offered you engage in the usual slew of personal insults.

    You really should get out more.

  • 13 Dedj // May 3, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Wow, Harold actually deigned to respond.

    Shame he repeated the very same behaviour he was criticised for. Odd that. We weren’t exactly unclear on where he is going wrong.

    Harold – why do you assume people don’t know what you know? Why do you assume that we haven’t heard of these people and their arguements?

    It’s sheer arrogance to assume that people don’t agree with you because they don’t know what you know. Healy et al have certainly not been underreported in the autism media. You have no basis for your assumption.

    You need to start telling us why we should listen to you.

    Second hand cut and pastes simply won’t cut it Harold.

    If you want to go around bad mouthing others without looking like a clueless jerk, then you best start living up to your own standards.

  • 14 Dedj // May 3, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    You can call it patting ourselves on the back if you want Harold, but your repeated demands that people must answer your questions, otherwise they are ignorant know-nothings unlike your special little self, is the height of self-congratulatory egotism.

    This is just like the ‘Smiling and Autism’ debacle all over again.

    You never did get round to providing any scientific evidence for your beliefs back then either.

  • 15 Sullivan // May 4, 2010 at 8:09 am

    in a post about false balance, Mr Doherty calls for false balance.

  • 16 Joseph // May 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I am not an anti-vaxxer…
    You mention the usual names but fail to mention Dr. Healy and Dr. Gerberding

    @Harold: You sound like a broken record.

  • 17 SpinProctor // May 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Nobody spins records anymore. Harold sounds like a digital remix of Jenny McCarthy’s greatest hits.

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