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 Salon.com. 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.”