Matt Lauer to look at the vaccine-autism “debate”? Oh, goody.

I realize that I’ve gotten into one of those runs where it seems that all I blog about is anti-vaccinationist loons, but, before trying once again to take a break from the madness, I had to go to the well one more time because this looks a bit frightening:

NBC News’ Matt Lauer will take an unprecedented look at the emotional debate surrounding vaccines and the suggested link to autism on Sunday, August 30 at 7 p.m. ET with “Dose of Controversy.” In the one-hour Dateline, Lauer speaks exclusively with Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 medical study was the first in the world to suggest a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The British doctor has since influenced the lives and stirred the passions of millions of parents worldwide looking to solve the mystery of what causes the complex developmental disorder.

But Dr. Wakefield’s theories have also raised serious questions from the media and the medical community. Lauer interviews investigative journalist Brian Deer who wrote a critical report for London’s Sunday Times in 2004 detailing what he said were potential conflicts of interest that Dr. Wakefield had never revealed. Lauer also talks with Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and expert on vaccines who has spoken out on behalf of vaccine safety in the United States.

Now, Dr. Wakefield reacts to his harshest critics on the controversy he’s created over the past decade.

Lauer also reports on Dr. Wakefield’s most recent work in the United States and the medical community’s continuing search for the cause of autism, including new studies from researchers working to understand the disorder that affects 1 in 150 American children.

Apparently there’s also going to be an 8-10 minute segment featuring part of Matt Lauer’s interview with Andrew Wakefield on The Today Show on Friday. Oh, goody.

Andrew Wakefield’s Thoughtful House has released a letter that’s making the rounds on the anti-vaccine and autism quackery websites and sounds vaguely worried:

Dear Friends,
As some of you may have already heard, the NBC television network is producing a special on Thoughtful House and Dr. Andrew Wakefield.  We are sending along this note to make you aware of the extent of coverage on various programs and the scheduled broadcast date.  First, though, we thought it was important to help everyone understand our decision to cooperate with the reporter, Matt Lauer, and his producer, Ami Schmitz.
In our estimation, there has not yet been any fair coverage in the mainstream media of Dr. Wakefield or the work of Thoughtful House.  While we have a large community of supporters that know Dr. Wakefield’s credibility and the accomplishments of Thoughtful House and our excellent physicians and clinicians, including Dr. Bryan Jepson, Dr. Arthur Krigsman, and Kelly Barnhill, CN, CCN,  many of us in the Autism Advocacy Community spend most of our time communicating with people in similar situations.  Our challenge has always been to reach out to a greater population that might not know or understand what is happening with regard to the autism epidemic and the lack of government research into potential causes, which includes looking at vaccine safety.  We thought that if we ever were able to communicate with a fair-minded journalist working at a media outlet with both credibility and reach then it was likely to be worth the risk trying to tell our story.

We have taken that chance with NBC. While we initially declined their invitation for a story, we were persuaded to move forward when Matt Lauer was proposed as the correspondent. His reputation for being objective and thorough prompted us to reconsider and ultimately to open our doors. In March, TV crews from The Today Show, Dateline, and NBC Nightly News began gathering material at Thoughtful House in Austin. This involved taping long interviews with Drs. Wakefield, Jepson, and Krigsman, some of our therapists, administrators, and, more importantly, a few of our families. The crews traveled to London to report on the Lancet controversy and interviewed many of the central figures relevant to that part of our story. They also taped interviews, presentations, and families in attendance at the Atlanta DAN conference. Dr. Wakefield was flown to New York by the network and received what he described as a “tough but fair” interview in a one-on-one with Today Show host Matt Lauer. The person we have dealt with throughout the course of this project is Mr. Lauer’s producer, Ami Schmitz. Ami has a long resume as a medical journalist and was formerly Dr. Timothy Johnson’s producer at ABC News. In our assessment, she has been thorough and diligent in gathering information, documents, and asking the kind of detailed questions that have been glossed over or conflated in previous reporting. We believe, based upon hours and hours of working with Ami, she is writing an even-handed report, which will be narrated and hosted by Mr. Lauer.

Nothing is certain, of course, so we are taking a risk. However, we believe the potential reward is worth that risk; it’s entirely possible this will be the first time this subject matter (autism, Wakefield, Thoughtful House, vaccine safety research) has been considered objectively in mainstream media. If that is the case, we have the possibility of communicating with millions of people and that will be nothing but positive for those of us dealing with autism in our own families. We will find out this Friday, August 28. A portion of Mr. Lauer’s interview with Dr. Wakefield will be broadcast in an 8-10 minute segment on The Today Show. Either Saturday or Sunday, the NBC Nightly News Weekend will also broadcast a lengthy piece on Thoughtful House and vaccine safety. Coverage will culminate on Sunday night, August 30, at 7 pm EST, with an hour-long broadcast hosted by Mr. Lauer on Dateline NBC. This is scheduled to be adjacent to the Sunday night NFL football game on NBC, which means there is the potential for a large audience. In fact, the cumulative audience for all of these programs means there are likely to be no less than 5 million people who learn about autism and Thoughtful House and, quite possibly, as many as 20 million viewers will see the various broadcasts.

Consequently, you see the reason we decided to cooperate with NBC. The program might just be a game changer in the conversation we are all having in our communities with our governments, health care providers, insurance companies, and overall policies within our culture that marginalize families dealing with autism. We all started off several years ago on what many of us believe is the correct course for treatment and research and it has led us to this moment, and we believe we’ve made the right decision.

We would like to ask all of you that are active in the autism community to hold all judgment and wait to see the final broadcast. NBC has dedicated substantial time and resources to this story and the producer has made every effort to interview people from all points of view. Our hope is that a fair story will be told and you may submit feedback to the network after the shows have aired. Please do not attempt to contact them prior to the broadcast.

Please share this information with your friends, and if there are any last minutes changes, which we are told is always possible in the news business, you can rely on us to bring them to your attention.

Anissa Ryland
Director of Operations
Thoughtful House Center for Children

My guess is that Thoughtful House and Andrew Wakefield have little to worry about from NBC. Matt Lauer is hardly known for his hard-hitting journalism these days, and we’re not likely to see a TV story in which NBC does for Andrew Wakefield what the Chicago Tribune did for Mark and David Geier and Mayer Eisenstein. This series of reports is likely to be the typical “tell both sides” nonsense. It may pay lip service to science through interviews with the token skeptics, such as Paul Offit and Brian Deer, but my guess is that overall Wakefield will be portrayed as a brave maverick doctor who may have made some mistakes about the science and may have crossed an ethical boundary or two but whose heart is in the right place and who did what he did because he cares so very, very much about autistic children and because he may be on to the “cause” of and “cure” for autism. The hearings of the General Medical Council about Wakefield’s massive conflicts of interest and falsification of data in his original report in the Lancet in 1998 will end up looking like arcane misunderstandings and conflicts. No doubt this impression will be reinforced by fawning interviews with parents (with autistic child nearby) who claim that Wakefield “recovered” and “saved” their children from autism. Against such testimonials, the science that says there is no link between vaccines and autism and that biomedical woo of the type that Thoughtful House is peddling will appear cold, uncaring, hopelessly hidebound, and dogmatic in rejecting the ideas of these “brave maverick doctors.” Meanwhile assumptions of the anti-vaccine movement about an “autism epidemic,” “biomedical” treatments, and recovery from autism will almost certainly go unchallenged.

In other words, NBC will likely look at Wakefield’s claims, weigh them against what scientists say about his pseudoscience, incompetence, and scientific fraud, and then split the difference. I would also guess that NBC will also play to parents fear of vaccines as a marketing tool to increase viewership. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m confident that I’m not. After all, unlike the case in the U.K., very few people outside of those who pay attention to the vaccine/autism manufactroversy have the slightest clue who Andrew Wakefield is. My prediction?

Crowing and celebration on Monday morning about how “fair” NBC was to Thoughtful House.

It’s one prediction that I’d like to be very, very mistaken about.