Get out the popcorn! This internecine war among antivaccinationists is getting interesting

Alright, I give up. I’m getting out the popcorn. It’s a Friday night, and it’s on, baby! It’s so on that I’m breaking one of my blogging rules and writing up a blog post on Friday night, which is when I usually try to relax. I suppose that it helps that I’m working tonight anyway, with a grant deadline coming, something I usually don’t do on a Friday night either if I can help it, and could use a brief entertainment break. Besides, right now I’m watching my favorite guilty pleasure Spartacus:War of the Damned, and wasn’t going to be working while I watched anyway. So off we go! The reason is that the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism’s “editor” Dan Olmsted has responded to Jake Crosby’s attacks on the other antivaccine crank group SafeMinds, an incident I had a whole lot of fun with over the last week.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about blogging and satire, it’s that if you have to label a post “satire” then you have no business trying to write satire. Good satire doesn’t need to be labeled as such, nor does it need explanation. If it needs to be labeled or explained, then, with rare exceptions, it’s not good satire. Let’s just say that Dan Olmsted is not one of those rare exceptions. Right after he wrote up what he considered to be a “satire” of the whole incident, he was forced to post a followup post explaining to his confused readers what the heck he was talking about. For instance, after the first post, a commenter named Kristine was lost:

Those of us not in the inner circle are going to need this spelled out. Honestly.

While a commenter named Taximom was equally confused:

Dan, I have no clue what either you or Tim are talking about. Can you please explain this so that people who are not privy to all the politics can understand what is going on?

As I said, whatever Olmsted’s talents might include, they don’t include journalism or satire.

A brief bit of background: It all began a week ago, when the resident attack poodle at SafeMinds and Age of Autism, a young man who fancies himself a budding epidemiologist and investigative reporter by the name of Jake Crosby, was unhappy that the pragmatic wing of the antivaccine movement had won out over the more “activist” wing in an internal battle in the antivaccine group SafeMinds in determining tactics that it wanted to use and topics it wanted to cover in its chance to testify before Dan Burton’s old Congressional committee in one last antivaccine hurrah by Dan Burton before he rode off into the sunset of wingnut retirement. So he attacked the only way he knows how. SafeMinds responded a week later, and now it’s on! Now, let me be clear. By “pragmatic” I mean “not completely batshit crazy,” or at least in control of its craziness enough to know that it can’t afford to be perceived by a Congressional committee as being complete and total cranks. By the “activist” wing, I mean completely batshit crazy in its antivaccine wingnuttiness. In other words, this is the group that is completely antivaccine and doesn’t mind letting the world know it’s completely antivaccine. No “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine’; I’m pro-safe vaccine” for this group. Oh, no! it proudly lets its antivaccine freak flag fly, not even being willing to downplay the pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy mongering, even for a little while, even if only for tactical purposes. They are the true believers and will preach their message no matter what.

Guess which wing Jake Crosby belongs to. Hint: To show his displeasure, he teamed up with Patrick “Tim” Bolen, who makes Jake look like a model of reason by comparison, but Jake’s working on becoming more like Bolen, as his post SafeMinds Steals The Show, Literally… demonstrates. As I said before, if you want to make sure that reasonable people perceive you as a total loon, write for Patrick “Tim” Bolen’s website. That’ll do it, and that’s just what Jake did. Even so, his revelations were quite interesting. First, he completely betrayed his comrades in arms against vaccines by publicly revealing private discussions and e-mails, while accusing the leadership of SafeMinds of manipulating the Congressional hearing to put a “sane” face on the antivaccine movement. Meanwhile, he expressed great butthurt at SafeMind’s only smart decision: Not to let Jake testify and to try to keep Jake as far away from the Congressional hearing as possible.

For over a week, Age of Autism remained silent. It was only yesterday that SafeMinds released a press release denying all the allegations and proudly proclaiming that it had investigated itself and found that it had failed to find any wrongdoing.

Olmsted’s satire is, as you might expect, really, really dumb. Seriously, it’s embarrassing in its ineptness, so much so that I felt a bit embarrassed for Olmsted and I don’t even like him or what he stands for! He affects a fake Yosemite Sam accent and tells the tale and then at the end publishes—yes, you guessed it!—an e-mail exchange between Bolen and him. Olmsted expresses confusion about Bolen’s saying “if I publish” Jake’s piece because it’s already up on and the web. After all, as Olmsted so astutely noticed, I’ve been having a field day with Jake’s post. (What he not-so-astutely didn’t notice is that I’m going to have a field day with his own attempt at satire and his followup explanatory post.) In any case, Bolen replied:

No, that’s not true. I haven’t published it. Notice that it was intentionally not dated. I put it in a hidden place where certain key people could see it to comment on it. It was supposed to be private. … So far, I can’t guess how many people have seen it, but if I do the teaser, and hit the send key, roughly 285,000 subscribers will get it seconds later. Then, it gets picked up by our network and rebroadcast to even much larger readership.

Dan, were I you, I’d be very careful about what you do with this. Rumor has it that 50% of AoA’s income is dependent on either Mark Blaxill or SafeMinds. Were I you, I wouldn’t even touch this. You might be just betting the farm. The last thing you want to be, right now, is a part of the problem. You were right not to touch it in the first place. Perhaps this is a good time to wet your finger and see from which direction the wind is blowing in the Autism world.

This clarifies a lot. I had noticed the odd format of the post and how it didn’t show up on the front page of Bolen’s website. The way I found out about it is from people sending me links to Jake’s Tweet in which he announced the publication of this “expose.” Equally amusing is the threat Bolen makes, which is completely toothless. I might not have 285,000 subscribers, but I’ve already spread Jake’s post far and wide over the Internet because Jake himself Tweeted it. It’s out. It doesn’t matter if Bolen hits the “send” key or not. It really doesn’t. His threat is impotent, as usual, and I’m guessing he’s probably exaggerating how much support SafeMinds lends to AoA. After all, AoA has a bunch of advertisers selling autism woo. But, given the incestuous relationship between AoA and SafeMinds, in which several members are active in both groups, it wouldn’t surprise me if SafeMinds is a major source of AoA’s funding.

Olmsted’s followup to his “satire” is actually far more amusing than the satire itself. After lamenting how “some of our worst critics have now had plenty of time to relish its attacks on our friends while the rest of us could only watch in distress,” Olmsted writes:

Jake is someone I have long admired for his autism advocacy and writing for Age of Autism. He remains a Contributing Editor. However, this article does not stand up to scrutiny on a number of levels. The invasion of privacy of a number of SafeMinds board members here is unconscionable and, really, inexplicable given the far less-than-critical issues involved. Furthermore, based on preliminary inquiries, the facts do not seem to be as described in this article; certainly, SafeMinds has denied them vigorously. It’s bad journalism, glaringly unsourced and without giving the “targets” an opportunity to give their version of events. I stand by the choices I’ve made in dealing with this unfortunate situation, and will be following up in the near future.

I can hardly wait.

It’s also amazing that AoA is keeping Jake as a Contributing Editor. I don’t see how this can end well. It’s not entirely unexpected, though. Olmsted appears to be too much of a chicken to pull the trigger and fire Jake, which is what pretty much anyone with even a modicum of management savvy would do without hesitation. The guy just launched a full frontal assault on a very important member of your collective (Mark Blaxill), among others, and you’re going to keep him on to do more damage? Not smart. However, it’s also possible that Olmsted thinks he can gently rope Jake back into the fold. Also not smart. Jake’s already shown himself to be too much of a loose cannon. Success in such an endeavor is highly unlikely. It does, however, guarantee me some highly productive grist for more amusing blog posts, which is why now I am, like Dieter, “as happy as a little girl.” As a commenter on AoA points out:

What Jake did cannot be excused as simply a “young journalist.” When Jake released private conversations (without permission to do so), he essentially killed any chance that he has to be a “trusted” journalist. Whether one wants to admit it or not likely anyone who has ever corresponded directly with him or even including Jake, is now having to think back whether they ever ever said anything about someone that Jake may decide at some point, to release to the world.

Indeed. I’d bet that pretty much everyone with any position in the antivaccine movement is doing just that. Another commenter observes:

This is a serious question, which must have already occurred to Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill:

What are the probable positive versus negative effects of having Jake Crosby continue as a contributing editor to this site? (Will you ever trust him again?)

The only positive effect I can think of is that maybe Olmsted and Blaxill think they can rein Jake in. Now that Jake’s gotten a taste of being the “rebel” and the only “pure” antivaccinationist in the bunch, this is a strategy fraught with risk. It will, however, almost certainly produce some highly amusing blog fodder for me.

In the meantime, while waiting for Olmsted’s followup and to see what happens next, I can’t help but point out that Jake’s invasions of privacy didn’t bother Olmsted in the least when Jake was doing what he did it in the service of attacking AoA’s enemies. I could hardly restrain myself from laughing uproariously at Olmsted’s characterization of Jake’s article as “bad journalism, glaringly unsourced and without giving the ‘target’ an opportunity to give their version of events.” As if anyone else on AoA ever gave the ‘target’ an opportunity to give their version of events! In fact, I can’t help but ask: Who taught Jake? Who nurtured his journalistic “talents,” if not Olmsted? In particular, my irony meter exploded when Olmsted introduced his post by saying that Jake had offered his article to him first to publish on AoA, but he had rejected the article because it “did not meet the standards that I try to apply to everything submitted to Age of Autism.”

Seriously?

Look at the articles Jake’s published on AoA over the last three or four years. Look at them! Now Olmsted gets religion about journalistic standards? Now? And this one article by Jake suddenly “bad journalism” and “standards that I try to apply to everything submitted to Age of Autism”? Seriously? Can anyone tell the difference, from a perspective of journalistic standards,” between Jake’s post on the Bolen Report and anything else he’s published on AoA? I can’t. In fact, if anything, Jake’s article on the Bolen Report might even be a little bit better than his average character assassination screed, at least in terms of his “journalism.” I realize that’s not saying much, akin to saying that rancid fish smells a little bit better than human excrement that’s been sitting around fermenting a while, but it is, I suppose, slightly better. Of course, nowhere did Jake really document that Beth Clay, the lobbyist hired by SafeMinds, ever actually misrepresented SafeMinds as he claims, but that’s about par for the course for a typical Jake Crosby screed. Either way, whether Jake’s accusations have a grain of truth to them or whether they were made up from whole cloth in his fevered mind, AoA wasn’t going to publish something that attacked an organization with which it was so tightly affiliated.

Amusingly enough, Jake has appeared in the comments of this post to complain:

You never made any of these criticisms about my piece when I first submitted it to you. Did Mark Blaxill tell you to say this? I gave him plenty of opportunities to give his version of events – he sent me 14 emails. In the last one he cut me off with:

“…it’s not worth arguing with you anymore. So I won’t.”

(and Mark [Blaxill] copied you on it)

Later, Jake whines:

When I asked you if there would be repercussions from Age of Autism if I posted my article elsewhere, you just said you wouldn’t can me. What you should have said was yes, there would be repercussions from Age of Autism – like what you wrote about me in this blog post.

I’m telling ya, you can’t make stuff like this up. Even better, I now know that Olmsted almost certainly had to approve Jake’s previous posts, because Jake said he submitted this one for publication, implying that the way articles get posted to AoA is through its managing editor Dan Olmsted.

As I said before, I actually do kind of feel sorry for Jake. He’s starting to realize that he’s been used, played, and abused by those whom he considered his friends and mentors. Men like Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted. Olmsted, Blaxill, and the crew at AoA published his stuff for the last four years or so. They let him think that the smear jobs he routinely did, coupled with his hilariously inept “six degrees of separation”-style conspiracy theories actually constituted good journalism. Meanwhile, Jake’s fans, the readers of the antivaccine crank blog AoA, swarmed in the comments, egged him on, pouring out effusive praise after each new piece of ludicrous conspiracy mongering and character assassination, hanging around him at quackfests like AutismOne like so many groupies, telling him what a great guy he is, how it’s so awesome that they have someone on the spectrum on their side, how he is the next generation, a future leader of the movement. Then, all he has to do is to gore one wrong ox, say bad things about allies of his comrades at AoA, and suddenly he’s persona non grata. I bet he thought he could do anything if he thought his cause to be just. Sadly, that’s not how the world works, and Jake is finding that out. As they say, old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill, and unfortunately Jake never had much in the way of skill, anyway. But he is young.

Time to pop up another bag of popcorn! I can’t wait to see what the next phase of this conflict brings. In the meantime, it’s back to working on my grants.

ADDENDUM: It just keeps getting better and better! For instance, after Olmsted’s post we have a commenter by the ‘nym nd writing:

To prevail in a public debate, we need to be credible.

Jake’s association with Tim Bolen is not helpful. Jake’s association with Brian Hooker is not helpful. Age of Autism’s association with Jake is not helpful. Age of Autism’s association with Brian Hooker is not helpful.

We have to do better.

Sadly, nd can’t make the further leap of reasoning that to prevail in debate you need a credible argument, which the antivaccine movement has never had. He or she is right about one thing, though. Associating with Patrick “Tim” Bolen is not helpful. He makes the entire crew at AoA look like the very picture of sober scientists by comparison.

Finally, you know it’s really on when the big dog himself weighs in. I’m referring to J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue and big macher at AoA:

This is a complete waste of everyone’s time. Every person involved in the dust-up has been a champion of our kids and they all deserve our respect. This is a movement fraught with tension, stress, and confusion. Time for everyone to grab their toys, leave the playground, take a deep breath, and get back to the task at hand.

(Jake, you shouldn’t use people’s private emails without heir permission, I wouldn’t respond to an email from you if I thought that was a risk)

Let me fix that for ya, J.B.: “You shouldn’t use people’s private e-mails without their permission if they are friends. If we think they’re our enemies, feel free to violate their privacy by publishing their private e-mails as much as you want if by doing so you can make them look bad.”

That is what you really meant, isn’t it, J.B.? After all, I don’t recall your ever telling Jake to cool it when he was publishing the private e-mails of journalists, scientists, and others. In fact, you egged him on. Hypocrite. In fact, you more than egged him on. You gave him the example to follow by publishing private e-mails yourself! Remember how you posted a private e-mail from an autism researcher to AoA, even though she explicitly told you that you did not have her permission to do so? She wrote:

Mr. Handley none of you have permission to share emails that i have sent to you as individuals with anyone besides the intended receiver nor do you have permission to quote me publicly. Unlike the newspaper which was public, private emails to individuals sent confidentially are not for public quotation.

Your response:

Says who?

And, tough shit.

Stay classy, J.B. Stay classy. As usual.

The bottom line: You taught Jake. You provided an example for him. You don’t like it now that he’s used your very own techniques on Mark Blaxill and other members of the leadership of SafeMinds, do you? Not so great, is it, when you’re on the receiving end of such slimy behavior?. And you wonder why I find it so utterly just, so completely appropriate, so much an example of karmic retribution that your friends are finding yourselves on the receiving end of the very same behavior. Meanwhile the very same crowd of your readers who egged you on when you violated trust and courtesy are now shocked—shocked, I say!—when the same violation has occurred to their heroes at the hands of one of their own. You, sir, are a joke, as are Jake Crosby, Dan Olmsted, and Mark Blaxill. You all deserve each other.