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2009 Ashley Awards

December 28th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Careless sourcing, Housecleaning

News and entertainment media coverage of autism and vaccines in 2009 will be remembered best for some outstanding works of investigative journalism. The Chicago Tribune schooled the moribund newspaper industry with two blockbuster exposés on autism quackery and child abuse. In May the paper introduced America to two physicians who rake in big bucks by chemically castrating autistic children. In November the dynamic reporting duo of Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan exposed the junk science behind chelation therapy and other quack treatments for autism.

In October, Wired Magazine showed us what science writing looks like when stripped of false balance. In Epidemic of Fear, veteran writer Amy Wallace showed readers how the “controversy” over vaccines exists solely in fluff news articles and on fringe, conspiracy-oriented websites. She couldn’t be more right.

But 2009 also had its share of  poorly sourced, regurgitated press releases disguised as journalism, the raison d’être for our Ashley Award for Credulity in Science Journalism. The eponymous award is named after the hapless producer of Combating Autism from Within, a multi-part series aired on KOMU-TV in late 2007, noted for its daring combination of pseudoscientific claptrap, cheap voyeurism, cheesy production values, and nauseating self-congratulation.

The envelopes please.

Fox News is synonymous with bad journalism, and it is with no little shame that we reach for its low hanging fruit for the Worst Medical Reporting Ever Award. But we have to agree with Orac at Respectful Insolence who called this Fox 5 segment on the Desiree Jenning’s case hoax “the single worst example of medical reporting for 2009,” and possibly “the single worst example of medical reporting of the decade.”

Jennings was the Washington Redskins cheerleader who claimed that the H1N1 vaccine made her walk backwards. Since that claim by itself wasn’t absurd enough, she also claims she was cured by Dr. Rashid Buttar, a North Carolina alternative medical practitioner reviled by his profession, who allegedly removed the vaccine’s toxins from her body. The Fox News anchors reported the story with a straight face, and practically sneered at the skeptics who pointed out how unlikely it was that Jennings was vaccine injured. The case quickly became a cause celibré for vaccine rejectionist groups, and celebrity vectors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey lent their support with promises of medical treatment for the disambulatory Miss Jennings. There was even a website where Jennings gave her fans updates on her miraculous recovery.

What Fox News didn’t tell us:

  • A VAERS report, apparently belonging to Jennings, shows her symptoms were most likely psychogenic, and not due to dystonia as she claimed.
  • Jenning’s doctor, Rashid Buttar, was charged with unprofessional conduct by his state medical board 18 months earlier.

Bonus points:

  • Jenning’s website,, was taken down about a month after it was put up.
  • Inside Edition’s coverage is even worse
  • Talk radio loon and vaccine rejectionist Robert Scott Bell milked the Jenning’s case for all it was worth, interviewing Buttar several times.

*  *  *

Two television stations share the Bungled Business Reporting Award for their uncritical interviews with an autism treatment clinic owner who was later raided and shut down for suspected insurance fraud. Austin’s Fox News affiliate KVET invited CARE Clinic founder, Kazuko Grace Curtin, onto its morning show for what sounds like an infomercial for quack medicine. At one point Curtin defines autism as “a multi-factorial bio-medical disorder with psychiatric symptoms,” a claim that went unchallenged. Tampa’s WTSP also fell for Curtin’s spiel, as the station focused on “a new business in the bay area that puts treatment, research and services for autistic children under one roof.” A phone call to a qualified physician or researcher would likely have revealed that CARE Clinics treatments are not evidence-based, that the research is questionable and most likely aimed at producing a desired result, and that the services included unreliable and unnecessary lab tests.

What they didn’t tell us:

  • CARE Clinics billed for genetics testing that has never been shown to work.
  • WTSP never followed up to let viewers know that an autism treatment clinic was raided and shut down for suspected insurance fraud

Bonus Points:

  • The Fox News segment was fawning enough to be repurposed as a promotional video on Curtin’s website.

*  *  *

Fox News is shaping up to be the Meryl Streep of bad reporting award winners, netting this year’s When Bad Things Happen to Good Sentences Award, for publishing the following line:

“. ..the rate of increase of autism disorders in children is 4 to 5 percent higher in boys than it is in girls.”

The reporter, Marrecca Fiore, should have written that the autism rate for boys is 4.5 times higher than it is for girls, but obviously became confused with she heard the phrase “rate of increase” used in an entirely different context. The result is a sciency-sounding mash up of words, much like the verbiage that causes reporters to assume scientists are at odds over whether vaccines cause autism, when in fact the matter has been settled for years.

What they didn’t tell us

  • The rate of increase for Fox News’s descent into the seventh circle of journalism hell is 100 times greater than CNN’s.
  • An anagram for  Marrecca Fiore is Career Coma Fir

Bonus points

  • Fiore quoted the director of the notorious anti-vaccine group SAFEMINDS saying “we’re not anti-vaccination”,  which is like PETA saying “we are not anti-fur.”



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michelle Dawson // Dec 29, 2009 at 10:43 am

    There should be a prize for LB/RB, which is on Google News and should be considered mainstream media.

    This year, LB/RB claimed that I promote and support FC. This claim is as accurate, and as ethical, as claiming that Paul Offit promotes and supports Defeat Autism Now! protocols.

    In my view, it’s very important that Dr Offit, who is not an autism researcher, not be misrepresented on the most important and influential autism blog. Also in my view (not one shared by LB/RB), the same importance should be attached to not misrepresenting autism researchers, whether we are or are not autistic.

    When I politely objected to being grossly misrepresented as a researcher, I was berated and banned (abitrarily moderated, which is the autism advocacy way of banning polite relevant comments). In fact any mention of me was banned from LB/RB.

    In my view, this deserves a prize.

  • 2 Club 166 // Dec 29, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    In May the paper introduced America to two physicians who rake in big bucks by chemically castrating autistic children.

    Small correction. Only the father is a physician. The son has all of a bachelor of arts degree.


  • 3 autblog // Dec 30, 2009 at 10:00 am

    I should have been more clear. The other physician was Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, who uses Lupron in his Chicago-area clinics.

  • 4 isles // Dec 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Honorable mention to Mary Ann Roser of the Austin American-Statesman for her fearless reporting on the litigation-happy Thoughtful House.

    Really, what is it about these autism quackeroos? They live to sue. It’s like they get petulant when things aren’t going their way and mentally revert back to their playground days when they could get their moms to call and bug the moms of kids who weren’t nice to them. Except now it’s their lawyers instead of their moms. Unchanged: the fact that this still makes them contemptible.

  • 5 isles // Dec 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I should say, honorable mention on the good side – she is right up there with the Amy Wallaces and Trine Tsouderoses of the journalism world.

  • 6 David N. Brown // Dec 31, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    “They live to sue. It’s like they get petulant when things aren’t going their way and mentally revert back to their playground days when they could get their moms to call and bug the moms of kids who weren’t nice to them. ”

    I think the more appropriate analogy would be bullies who report victims to the teacher for fighting back!

  • 7 autblog // Dec 31, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Or a liar who complains about being called a liar.

  • 8 David N. Brown // Jan 2, 2010 at 2:52 am

    Or someone who sues someone for reporting his threat to sue someone else…

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