Salon withdraws infamous vaccine article

Ordinarily I’d say, better late than never. In this case, though, all the damage has already been done.

I’m referring to the decision of Salon.com to withdraw its infamous 2005 piece written by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and alleging that thimerosol in vaccines had caused neurological damage in children and that a vast conspiracy had covered it up.

Why did they withdraw the article? Because it was flat out false, had been flat out false at the time it was written, represented the unsubstantiated musings of a celebrity who was in no way qualified to analyze vaccine safety, … and oh, by the way, one of their former writers has just published a book containing an entire chapter on the fact that Salon.com had broken just about every rule of professional journalism in publishing it.

Unfortunately, Salon.com continues to offer weasel words in its defense:

The piece was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine — they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running “Deadly Immunity,” we amended the story with five corrections … that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book “The Panic Virus,” further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.

They fact checked it? If by fact checking they mean making sure the spelling of all the big words was correct, perhaps they did. But if they mean checking to see whether there was any factual basis for the claims in the piece, no one did any fact checking. The entire piece was a series of false empirical claims that could easily be debunked by any vaccine expert.

Author Seth Mnookin is far more critical in the interview he did with Salon.com about his new book. He bluntly states that the media bares the bulk of the blame for creating hysteria by publishing falsehoods that, even at the time, did not withstand the most basic scrutiny.

Mnookin identifies a variety of journalistic standards that were violated with the publication of Kennedy’s article.

1. Creating false equivalence:

One is this false sense of equivalence. If there’s a disagreement, then you need to present both sides as being equally valid. You saw with the coverage of the Birther movement; it’s preposterous that that was an actual topic of debate. The fact that Lou Dobbs addressed that on his show on CNN is an embarrassment. It’s not a subject for debate just because there are some people who said it was.I do think that the media has more — we have more responsibility for this than really any other single entity… And I think it’s an absolute cop-out for reporters to say, “I’ve fulfilled my responsibility by presenting two sides.” Sometimes there aren’t two sides.

2. Letting reporters and editors who have no education, background or training on judging the validity of a scientific claim judge the validity of a scientific claim.

… You wouldn’t ask me to go write about hockey, because I don’t know anything about hockey. But if something came in over the wire about a cancer study … that assignment could end up on a general reporter’s desk. You wouldn’t ask me to cover business or the movie industry without knowing something basic about it. I don’t know how this happened, but I think there has to be some sort of movement away from, oh, like, we’re going be the first ones with this juicy story. And then in the days and weeks to come, we’ll figure out what the reality is …

3. Believing that it is acceptable to publish outlandish claims as long as you retract them later:

… It’s sort of like putting the genie back in the bottle… It’s the same thing with Obama and the Birther movement. Most outlets now certainly say that he was born in the United States. But once it’s introduced as a topic of discussion it’s really hard to un-introduce it.

There’s a final factor that Mnookin didn’t mention.

4. The willingness to publish anything uttered by a celebrity. Mnookin notes:

… If I said that, oh, I have a report that Derek Jeter’s going to quit baseball, no one would run that because it would be embarrassing. Because there’s no information to support it. If I said that I have good information that Boeing is about to buy IBM, you know, people wouldn’t run that. But for some reason when it comes to health and science, you don’t get that…

That “some reason” is the willingness to repeat any drivel uttered by a celebrity in order to grab readers. Had the vaccine piece been written by “Robert Keene, Jr.” instead of Robert Kennedy, Jr., it never would have seen the light of day. Why publish the uneducated musings and conspiracy theories of a private individual? But when a celebrity commits his or her uneducated musings and conspiracy theories to paper, media outlets fight for the privilege of publishing them.

This is not a trivial issue. Children have died and will continue to die of vaccine preventable illnesses because of the fear generated by media outlets like Salon.com who have been more concerned with page views than with the truth. As Mnookin points out, introducing outlandish conspiracy theories into mainstream media publications legitimizes them, and it is impossible to un-introduce those topics.

Salon.com offers a qualified mea culpa, but we would be better served if Salon.com promised to put journalistic protections in place. We would benefit from a commitment to avoid false equivalence. We would benefit from a commitment to have science issues covered by reporters who know something about science? We would benefit from a commitment to have science articles fact check with scientific experts, not lay people. And we would benefit from a commitment to stop recycling the bizarre conspiracy theories of celebrities.

How about it Salon?

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