Vaccines, Autism and the “Liberal Media Conspiracy”

In a media release dated November 11, the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) accused CBS Evening News, and singling out its lead anchor Katie Couric, for leading a witch hunt against vaccine makers and perpetuating a myth that there is a link between vaccines and autism. According to the CMPI, “CBS Evening News has aired six stories over the past two-and-a-half years that included extremist views of vaccines and autism.” The Center’s President and Director of Programs, Dr. Robert Goldberg, also alleges that CBS intentionally ignored an announcement by the California Department of Public Health that cited a lack of peer-reviewed scientific evidence supporting the link between thimerosal (a preservative found in vaccines that are commonly given to children) and autism. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 5,000 U.S. families have filed claims through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program alleging autism was caused by vaccines containing thimerosal; the majority of these claims are still pending.

There are several noteworthy observations to be made here, but I’ll restrict myself to three: 

First, there is no question that the national media in the United States has given considerable attention to claims that vaccines may be linked to autism, whether in fact there is unquestioned scientific evidence to support their claims or not (since when has media coverage of health issues ever been based on the principles of science!). Although autism advocates and parents of autistic children have long crusaded for more media publicity and federal resources to better understand autism and provide meaningful supports to autistic children and their families, it took Jenny McCarthy, a mother of an autistic child, but also a former playboy bunny, actress and now best-selling author, to thrust the issue into the media spotlight. The clip below is an excerpt from McCarthy’s interview on CNN’s American Morning, but was part of a much bigger media tour in which she also appeared in a 20-minute spot on Oprah, Larry King Live, WWE Smackdown (a professional wrestling show) and several other high profile news programs. 

McCarthy was and remains an effective advocate not just because of her lived experiences but also because of her status and reach as a Hollywood celebrity. She joins a long list of tinseltowners who have leveraged their access and appeal to both political elites and citizens to influence public opinion and policy. But while the moral commitments of some celebs have been questionable, those with the capacity and willingness to engage in the cut and thrust of political argumentation have succeeded in not only keeping the issue alive but in actually influencing hearts and minds. This is the case whether they are correct or wholly inaccurate in their claims making activities. McCarthy’s appearances have included not just media but also medical and associational conferences.

Second, CMPI’s accusations of a liberal media bias against news corporations is nothing new, certainly not to communication researchers. In 1986, political scientists Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter published their seminal book The Media Elite: America’s New Power Brokers, which reported survey data about the political leanings of journalists at such national media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and New York Times, plus several broadcast networks (including CBS Evening News). A review of the book can be found here. In general terms, Lichter et al. found that most journalists were Democratic voters whose attitudes were well to the left of the general public on a variety of topics, including abortion, affirmative action and gay rights. The researchers then compared the journalists’ reported attitudes to their coverage of controversial issues such as the safety of nuclear power, school busing to promote racial integration, and the energy crisis of the 1970s, and found that coverage of controversial issues reflected the personal attitudes or reporters, and because political liberals were dominant in newsrooms that helped to explain why news coverage tilted in a leftist/liberal direction. The study was embraced mainly by conservative columnists and politicians, who adopted the findings as scientific proof of liberal media bias. It’s clear from the recent election campaign in the U.S. that many Republicans still believe these results to be true, or at least feel that their base believes this to be true (for similar findings in a Canadian context, see Barry Cooper’s Sins of Omission: Shaping the News at CBC TV (U of T Press, 1994) and Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper’s Hidden Agendas: How Journalists Influence the News (UBC Press, 2003)).

And third, those who have tended to pitch accusations of a liberal media bias or conspiracy tend to operate from a position of political or material self-interest. Canadian political scientist Barry Cooper is reported to have deep ties to the Conservative movement in Canada and its financiers in western Canada’s oil and gas sector. Conservatives and those in the fossil fuels industry have consistently maintained that Canada’s liberal media (led by the state-supported CBC) is driven ideologically by a socialist agenda to steal hard-earned money from the western provinces to subsidize the myriad social engineering projects (e.g., Kyoto Protocol) supported by the vote-rich regions of Ontario and Quebec. In Cooper and Miljan (not to mention many others) they have the institutional credibility and legitimacy that academe sometimes affords.

Lichter and Lichter parlayed their academic careers into a business of providing research and consulting support for some of the most influential conservative organizations in the United States when they founded the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). According to Media Transparency, CMPA received 55 grants totaling almost $3 million between 1986 and 2005, the majority of which came from three donors all with deep ties to the religious right in the U.S. 

The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, finally, describes itself on its website as committed to discussing, debating and demonstrating how “exponential and accelerating technological progress coupled with smart public policy will enhance and advance 21st century health care by predicting, preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease with greater speed, more precision, and less cost.” This may very well be true; yet, according to PBS News, it is funded by some of the biggest pharmaceutical corporations in the world, many of which make the very vaccines it has recently come out publicly to defend. This too shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that CMPI was established by The Pacific Institute, a think tank founded in 1979 whose mandate is the promotion of “the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility … through policies that emphasize a free economy, private initiative, and limited government.” 

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest may have a compelling case for media bias. The news and entertainment media in the U.S. may very well be guilty of providing insufficient attention to the scientific debate about autism. On these grounds many advocates and parents of autistic children, and public health advocates in general, may actually find some common ground. Nevertheless, when an organization like CMPI sets out to accuse media organizations of supporting what it describes as extremist and partisan views it will need to open its own practices and positions on issues to similar scrutiny.


Update: See this New York Times editorial (13 February 2009) exonerating the medical and pharmaceutical establishment from the claims by McCarthy and others of a causal connection between vaccines and autism


1 Comment

Filed under Health Issues, Public Relations

One response to “Vaccines, Autism and the “Liberal Media Conspiracy”

  1. nhokkanen

    Thanks for writing this column. Funny, until 2008 I felt that the “liberal media” had utterly blacklisted any mention of the vaccine/autism causal link. No mention of the thousands of vaccine injury reports to the Federal Omnibus Autism Proceedings, to the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System, to the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink.

    In Congress earlier in this decade, two Republicans led the charge for investigative hearings: Rep. Dan Burton, and Rep. Dave Weldon, MD (recently retired). They and the Libertarians were far more open-minded about parents’ reports of vaccine-injured children. No good Democrat wants to see his/her public health entitlements criticized.

    One of the biggest challenges in building public trust is getting well-intentioned public health administrators to realize that their product intended to improve health is having the opposite effect in a subset of the population. As the “autism” rate rises (a misnomer for neuro-immune damage) the critical mass of parents will no longer put up with institutional denial. With lab tests in hand, they increasingly will be storming legislators’ offices. The media cannot help but notice then.

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