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Salon retracts 2005 RFK, Jr. article

January 16th, 2011 · 10 Comments · Kudos


In the holy trinity of anti-vaccine publications, Robert F. Kennedy’s 2005 Rolling Stone article, “Deadly Immunity”, is the Holy Ghost. Its rare combination of political star power, conspiracy mongering, and junk science helped define the cultural zeitgeist of the anti-vaccine movement in ways few other press accounts have.

Now which co-published Kennedy’s article, has purged the article from its website, with this explanation:

“I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link,” says former Salon editor in chief Joan Walsh, now editor at large. “But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do.” The story’s original URL now links to our autism topics page, which we believe now offers a strong record of clear thinking and skeptical coverage we’re proud of — including the critical pursuit of others who continue to propagate the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.

Kennedy made the now familiar claim that thimerosal was responsible an epidemic of childhood developmental problems. He helped introduce the word “Simpsonwood” to the anti-vaccine lexicon, which inevitably became shorthand for an incomprehensible criminal conspiracy of drug companies, bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, physicians, researchers and others who deliberately poisoned millions of children, then kept it a secret. Any chance that public confidence in vaccines would rise and fall on the science, after years of internet fear mongering, was dashed by Kennedy, and his largely fact-free spin.

Soul searching does not come easily to America’s news and entertainment industry. It took five years for Salon’s editors to realize what the scientific community figured out before RFK mailed off his first query letters. In its long overdue mea culpa, Salon credited investigative journalist Seth Mnookin, who wrote critically of Kennedy and other media darlings in the just published The Panic Virus, for the retraction.

Have we reached a tipping point in the long tottering vaccine/autism media coverage? Will the news media’s keepers of the anti-vaccine flame fall one by one as science takes back the field of honor? Will Fox News reassign  Alyson Camerota to its Dog of the Week desk, as penance for her execrable anti-vaccine rants? Will Sharyl Attkisson be doing morning traffic reports in her native Sarasota? Will Don Imus just stop?

Or perhaps the ability to think critically and evaluate evidence will become a new litmus test for news media. Serious journalists can distinguish themselves by calling out the dangerous nonsense that passes for medical reporting, starting but not ending with Andrew Wakefield’s debunked research linking vaccines to autism. Journalists who fell off the “evidence-based” wagon can restore their credibility by apologizing and setting the record straight.

There is no shortage of sinners. Even the venerable Columbia Journalism Review showed poor judgment in 2005 when it published Drug Test, and Daniel Schulman, who currently hangs his hat at Mother Jones Magazine, worried that too many journalists were letting best available science influence their reporting on vaccines:

In an interview with Myron Levin of the Los Angeles Times… Dr. Stephen Cochi, the head of the CDC s national immunization program, dismissed supporters of the thimerosa! theory as “junk scientists and charlatans.’ If so. then such universities as Harvard and Columbia,a mong others, employ charlatans — scientists who believe that a link between mercury exposure and autism is plausible. Even so, the perception that only distraught, activist parents and disreputable scientists back the thimerosal theory has seeped into the collective consciousness of the news media, which, in general, have been reluctant to cover the controversy.

I’ve spoken twice with Schulman in the last couple years, to ask him if his views on vaccine reporting have changed in light of new scientific evidence. Both times he told me that he hadn’t been keeping up on the latest research, and would have to get back to me. I’m still waiting.

It will be informative to see how RFK, Jr. responds to Salon’s retraction. Will he double down with more wild accusations and appeals to faded authority, or will be heed the words of his father, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Sr., who once said “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 KWombles // Jan 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Great post. I bet he doubles down, though. Did you see that Wakefield will be on Good Morning America tomorrow? Will he be there in person or on Skype? Hmmmm.

  • 2 Liz Ditz // Jan 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    1. Let’s give some credit to Seth Mnookin & The Panic Virus; chapter 16 (“A Conspiracy of Dunces”) details how Kennedy cherry-picked quotes and distorted meanings, and kept repeating falsehoods even after several rounds of corrections by both Rolling Stone and

    2. Kudos to for being forthright and leaving the link to the article up, now pointing to reliable information about autism; a sneer in the direction of Rolling Stone, which just silently scrubbed the article out of existence:

    Wasn’t there a word for that when the Kremlin did so by doctoring photographs?

    3.”Deadly Immunity” is still up at:

    Alex Jone’s Infowars site (not surprising);

    RFKjr’s site (also not surprising)

    Jay Gordon MD’s site

    and several hundred more.

    Wonder how long it will take “Dr. Jay” to remove the paper?

  • 3 autblog // Jan 16, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks, Liz. I was wondering what happened at . I was looking for a link.

    Seth’s critique was the best I’ve seen.

  • 4 lisa // Jan 16, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    WTF?? just wishing for a little stability in this “autism world” of ours…


  • 5 Savanarola // Jan 19, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Huffpo first put out an article reporting that the claim of a link between autism and vaccines had been formally called fraud, even if they had spent YEARS publishing the most horrific woo on the topic. I thought perhaps I was going to be able to read their site again. . . but no, they promptly then followed up with an article by a certain buxom former playboy bunny who thinks she can cure autism and thinks (using her extensive scientific expertise) that the vaccine schedule should be changed. I only wish that the lie was on its way out, I fear it is only morphing to another deadly form – not unlike a virus.

  • 6 Ross Coe // Apr 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Another dishonest story meant to cover up the issue, deflect blame from Pharma. Makes it sound like the Wakefield kangaroo court. Remove damaging stories, don’t let the public read it, it may give them ideas. Control the media, control the public.

  • 7 Julian Frost // Apr 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    @ Ross Coe:

    evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link

    Given that, how is this story dishonest?

  • 8 Darwy // Apr 8, 2011 at 7:03 am

    Because it’s not the evidence he wishes to see, therefore it must be dishonest.

  • 9 Agent Minivann // Apr 20, 2011 at 12:26 am

    This news kind of saddens me. I have thought about for some time writing an essay examining just how truly awful that “Deadly Immuity” article is. Now it will be more trouble than it’s worth just to find a copy of the original article. I read it when it first came out after my sister-in-law sent a link in a mass email. Then I read the actual transcript to get the quotes in context. Holy cow, that is a prime example of bad journalism, even without the junk science angle. He has misattributed quotes, out of context quotes (some required backtracking around a hundred pages to get the context), and quotes that are just completely misrepresented. I quickly understood that RFK jr was either trying to force his agenda on us, or he was a ridiculously sloppy journalist. Either scenario is not good.

  • 10 Chris // Apr 20, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Agent Minivan:

    he was a ridiculously sloppy journalist.

    What makes it worse it that he is a lawyer!

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