Steve Wilson of WXYZ-TV in Detroit: Investigative journalist or anti-vaccine propagandist?

What is it with the local news media in my hometown?

You might (or might not) remember when I noted back in February that there was one Detroit station that did an unbelievably, hilariously dumb and credulous story about “orbs” in photos and whether they are ghosts or spirits manifesting themselves to their friends and family. That story came courtesy of “reporter” Ama Daetz of the local NBC affiliate WDIV-TV (and I do use the term “reporter” loosely). It was so over-the-top, credulously stupid, so hard to distinguish from an Onion parody, that I even “honored” it with a spot on Your Friday Dose of Woo. Now, courtesy of fellow ScienceBlogger, skeptical physician, and all around upstanding dude PalMD, I’ve discovered that another TV station in my hometown, the local ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV, has aired a “report” by an “investigative reporter” named Steve Wilson that mindlessly regurgitates all the antivaccinationist myths and misinformation you could ever fear to find packed into a single four minute news report. It’s so bad that it was easy for me to visualize it as having been written and reported by Jenny McCarthy, if Jenny McCarthy were a pudgy, middle-aged reporter. Indeed, it’s so bad that I can only do one thing and blatantly copy the format of one of the more amusing blogs out there:

“Investigative reporter” Steve Wilson of WXYZ-TV in Detroit: YOU ARE DUMB!

Sorry, I couldn’t help it. But if anyone deserves a bit of YAD treatment right now, it’s Steve Wilson. I don’t know if really is dumb or not (probably not), but he did get the story horribly, horribly wrong.

Given that he’s local, PalMD has subjected the transcript of the report to a very thorough fisking; so I don’t feel the need to do a line-by-line deconstruction of the misinformation and antivaccinationist talking points in this report. However, I must confess that I’m astounded by the amount and breadth of antivaccinationist pseudoscientific misinformation contained in this report. Having heard rumblings from the antivaccinationist underground, where Wilson is idolized for similarly one-sided reporting on this issue back in 20031, 2, 3, 4, 5 (reporting that somehow garnered an Emmy Award, showing that an award, even a normally prestigious one, is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting), that Wilson was working on a story about Michigan parents traveling to the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, I had expected the worst. I got that, and far more. Normally, when I see credulous reporting about the claimed link between vaccines and autism in a local market, my first inclination is not usually to shoot first (rhetorically speaking) and ask questions later (although I do do that from time to time). However, Wilson is clearly a serial offender on this score. This is not the first time he’s done this.

That’s why the not-so-Respectful Insolence™ that Wilson so clearly deserves and craves will be his, as I am a benevolent skeptical blogger. I rarely deny such heartfelt and plaintive requests for my loving blogospheric attention.

Bookending the report with excerpts from an interview with the hapless President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Renee Jenkins, and then in essence accusing her without justification of lying without giving her the chance to respond to the charge, Wilson uses every muck-raking journalism technique in the book to cherry pick information that (he thinks) supports the notion that vaccines might–just might (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)–cause autism and that there is a conspiracy in the government to cover it up. At the same time, he gives antivaccinationist parents and mercury militia members free rein to spout their pseudoscience and conspiracy-mongering without so much as even a mild expression of skepticism or a single penetrating question. When it comes to supporters of the mercury/vaccines/autism pseudoscience, suddenly this pit bull of an investigative reporter becomes a tiny puppy wagging his tail as he’s stroked by GOV marchers, begging them for more petting and more treats.

I also happen to know that at least a couple of medical bloggers e-mailed Wilson to politely express concerns about the story he was working on and the direction he planned to go, offering a skeptical viewpoint and some resources to counter the lies of antivaccinationist, before the GOV rally. He never responded, and now I know why. The only thing he got right is that this is a “controversy that won’t go away. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that this is because the whole vaccines/autism issue is in reality a manufactroversy, not a real scientific controversy. You can draw your own conclusions, but I conclude from Wilson’s unbelievably one-sided report and his failure even to acknowledge the other side beforehand that Wilson’s either a true believer himself (in which case he’s let his bias irrevocably taint his journalism) or he doesn’t care whether his story is accurate or not (in which case he’s an opportunist looking only for ratings). Watch the video and then judge for yourself. Feel free to provide an alternate explanation if you think my two choices are unfair or otherwise represent a false dichotomy.

In the meantime, I will deconstruct some real howlers of antivaccinationist talking points in Wilson’s report that demand–nay, cry out for!–an application of the aforementioned not-so-Respectful Insolence™. The bar has been set high, however, by PalMD, who amusingly and accurately characterized the “expert” that Wilson chose to interview, Boyd Haley, thusly:

Actually, Haley is an “expert” in the issue in the same way that my daughter is an expert in poop—she is terribly interested, has some interesting ideas based on fantasy and immaturity, is illiterate, and completely wrong. But at least she’s cute.

Unfortunately, Boyd Haley doesn’t have cuteness going for him. Indeed, Dr. Haley apparently fed Wilson an unending stream of pseudoscience and misinformation, which Wilson duly regurgitated, misinformation such as:

  1. Presidential candidate John McCain says now there’s “strong evidence” of a link between skyrocketing Autism and the mercury in vaccines. Boyd Haley is a scientist and pioneer in the study of this issue. Hah, so maybe it’s Boyd Haley himself who told Wilson that he’s an expert! In any case, John McCain is clueless about this issue and has received copious quantities of much-deserved criticism for his remark. Wilson also neglects to mention that Boyd Haley is the same man who once referred to autism as “mad child disease.” With “experts” on their side like that, the mercury militia hardly needs enemies.
  2. A study of monkeys that showed vaccinated primates showed increased neurological disorders and non-social behavior similar to Autism. I’ve deconstructed this unbelievably bad study extensively. Not only did it not include even close to equal numbers of animals in the control and experimental groups, but it was published by Andrew Wakefield, whose litigation- and money-driven “research” ten years ago sparked a scare over the MMR vaccine that led to a decrease in vaccination and a resurgence of the measles and mumps in the U.K. Moreover, its lead investigator Laura Hewiston not only is married to the IT director for Dr. Wakefield’s clinic but has an autistic son and is a plaintiff in the Autism Omnibus case, in which thousands of parents are trying to obtain compensation for alleged vaccine injury from the now being heard. If that’s not a major conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.
  3. A study of vaccination records which seems to match increased Autism with increased vaccinations containing mercury. I presume that the study being referred to is the latest Geier and Geier crapfest claiming to relate vaccines to autism. EpiWonk slapped this one down in a three part demolition.
  4. An animal study that shows the kind of mercury used in vaccines ends up in the brain and stays twice as long as the mercury in fish. This is the infamous Burbacher monkey study, which was deconstructed amusingly by Bartholemew Cubbins. It’s also worth pointing out that there is real and very recent data from real human babies that show that thimerosal is rapidly secreted after intramuscular injection.
  5. A “study” that is not a study in which the UPI found only 4 cases of Autism among a community of 22,000 Amish people who generally shun vaccines. Statistically there should be about 130. This is nothing more than a standard antivaccinationist canard that the Amish in Pennsylvania don’t vaccinate and they don’t get autism. It is also quite false. The Amish do vaccinate, and they do get autism. This myth originated with Dan Olmsted, a former UPI reporter who is no longer with UPI but is now Editor of the Age of Autism, a website dedicated to promoting the belief that vaccines cause autism. Indeed, it is rather amazing that Mr. Olmsted neglected even to interview Dr. Strauss, a physician who treats special needs Amish children at the cryptically-named Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA. Isn’t it also odd that Mr. Wilson did not see fit to cite the source or dig a little deeper? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. It’s not odd at all, given that Wilson has clearly drunk the Kool Aid.)

Then there’s his most deceptive claim of all, the claim that he made when he accused Dr. Jenkins of, in essence, lying:

A loving grandmother and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Renėe Jenkins is among those in medicine, in government, in the media, pretty much telling parents this problem’s been solved…there is no mercury in the routine schedule of childhood vaccines anymore, except maybe just “trace” amounts. She’s talking about a mercury-based vaccine preservative called Thimerosal…and the truth is there’s still as much as ever in 11 vaccines including most flu vaccines injected into pregnant women and kids, and some of them younger than 9 get two doses in a season.

Why is this claim deceptive? Easy. For one thing, even if vaccines did cause autism, they wouldn’t do so in a nine year old child. It’s actually irrelevant even based on the ideas (I refuse to dignify them with the term “hypotheses”) of the mercury militia to mention vaccines that are given to nine year olds. Autism is usually diagnosed before age 3-5 these days, and often earlier. (Indeed, it can sometimes be diagnosed as early as at one year of age.) Moreover the “hypothesis” behind vaccine causation is that the mercury somehow damages a developing brain; even within the context of the thimerosal myth earlier exposures matter, later exposures, not so much. So let’s look at the vaccination schedule and see what a typical child under six would get. Here’s the recommended childhood vaccination schedule. I crosschecked the list with the list of vaccines and their thimerosal content. This is what I came up with:

  1. Hepatitis B: No thimerosal.
  2. Rotavirus: No thimerosal.
  3. DTaP: No thimerosal.
  4. Hib: No thimerosal.
  5. Pneumococcal: No thimerosal.
  6. Polio: No thimerosal.
  7. Influenza: Quoth the CDC: “For the 2007-08 season, there is one product licensed for 6-23 month old children (the product is thimerosal-free).  Given the uptake of influenza vaccine among children < 2 years of age to date and the anticipated increase in vaccine coverage this season, CDC projects that the vaccine supply for this agegroup will be adequate to meet demand." Also, most children do not even get this particular vaccine.
  8. MMR: No thimerosal. (Actually, the MMR never had thimerosal because it’s a live attenuated virus vaccine, and thimerosal can kill the virus, rendering the vaccine useless.)
  9. Varicella: No thimerosal.
  10. Hepatitis A: No thimerosal except for the multidose vial.

The bottom line is that thimerosal exposure in children is lower than it has been any time since the 1980s. So I ask Wilson: Why haven’t autism rates fallen, now that thimerosal has been out of nearly all childhood vaccines for over six years now? Every time this question is asked, supporters of the thimerosal myth handwave and shift the goalposts. David Kirby is particularly good at this. Maybe Wilson and Kirby ought to get together sometime. They could compare propaganda techniques.

You know, I now realize that I got carried away. So dense was the concentration of antivaccinationist misinformation in Wilson’s report that I let myself get sucked in to refuting more of it than I had planned. Oh, well, such is life. However, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention that there was a certain man that Wilson quoted multiple times in this article, a man whose opinion on the matter Wilson seems consider very important. If you haven’t watched the video or read the transcript yet, can you guess who it is?

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Yes, that true believer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and in particular his utterly execrable article in Salon.com and Rolling Stone from–get this–three years ago. No wonder the merry band of antivaccinationists at Age of Autism are lapping it up and proposing Wilson for canonization.

Say goodnight, Mr. Wilson. No need to thank me. I’d do the same for anyone spouting antivaccinationist misinformation to a large (or even not-so-large) audience. Finally, Mr. Wilson should know that, through this awful bit of “journalism,” he’s succeeded in stealing the “crown” for the most execrable news item of the year from Ama Daetz and her ghostly orb story. I didn’t think anyone could do it, but damn if Wilson didn’t manage to pull it off and prove me wrong. There’s a big difference, though. The orb story amused me, mainly because I couldn’t believe that anyone would take such easily debunked nonsense seriously. Heck, even ghost hunters don’t take orbs seriously anymore. In contrast, Wilson’s report made me mad. It mad me mad because his cynical misinformation and fearmongering could have real and negative consequences for the health of children in Michigan.

ADDENDUM:

  1. Steve Wilson has made an appearance in the comments of the blog of fellow skeptical physician PalMD. Good going, dude! You really ticked him off.
  2. Autism News Beat has weighed in, refuting more of the misinformation in Wilson’s propaganda piece. (More here.)
  3. So has Left Brain/Right Brain.
  4. This is the sort of thing that Wilson’s fear-mongering contributes to.
  5. Prometheus is here to help Mr. Wilson with The Lay Person’s Guide to the Scientific Literature, Part 1 and Part 2.