Andrew Wakefield and the Tribeca Film Festival: Criticism of a bad decision ≠ “censorship”

Ever since I mentioned on Tuesday that the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival had taken a massive dump on reality and science by selecting for screening Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary,” Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, dedicated to the so-called “CDC whistleblower,” the topic has taken over, as topics sometimes tend to do here. In response to the mounting criticism for featuring a film by a scientific fraud clearly intended as an “I’ll show you all” moment to persuade viewers that Wakefield was right after all about his long discredited claim that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, a spokesperson for the film festival provided one of the most disingenuous excuses ever, even going so far as to post it on Twitter in response to the hammering that Tribeca is taking:

As I said, Tribeca is utterly clueless on this front.

But what’s done is done, as I’ve said elsewhere. However this Expelled!-level bit of pseudoscientific propaganda found its way onto the Tribeca Film Festival schedule, be it through a big name star putting in a good word to the organizers or an antivaccine-sympathetic and science-averse reviewer thinking that there really is a conspiracy on the part of the CDC to “hide” the evidence that vaccine cause autism (it is, after all, one of the organizing “principles” of the antivaccine movement), it’s there now. Never mind that this “conspiracy” is a whole lot of nothing.

What made me decide to turn this series of posts into a trilogy is that now the antivaccine movement has weighed in with a couple of tropes that long time readers will find quite familiar. No, I’m not referring to a couple of climate science denialists who have popped up in the comments of my last post, in which I compared antivaccine activists to climate change “skeptics,” who do so resent being compared to antivaccinationists or creationists, even though they are very similar in the forms their arguments take and the level of evidence mangling they engage in to deny that the climate is warming largely due to human activity. First, I’m referring to tone trolls. We have one right now, who is oh so outraged that I’m not a lot more polite and “respectful” to the antivaccine fringe in general and Andrew Wakefield in particular. Such is life. If you haven’t figured out that the title of this blog is, at least to some extent, sarcastic, this probably isn’t the blog for you.

A more common antivaccine trope worth addressing is this one, featured this morning on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism entitled Media Lockstep Crackdown on Any Vaccine Safety (Danger) Conversation Continues at Salon. It’s rather hilarious, given that it comes from the AoA “Media Editor” Anne Dachel, a woman who is best known for sending her antivaccine flying monkeys to throw feces into the discussion thread after any article critical of antivaccine pseudoscience or supportive of vaccines. Basically, she starts with an image from the National Coalition Against Censorship outlining the history of film censorship in the United States. Mary Elizabeth Williams’ article on Salon.com entitled Anti-vaxxer’s Tribeca triumph: Discredited doctor’s documentary about “the long-debated link between autism and vaccines” doesn’t belong in respected festival. (What’s to argue with?)

In any case, Dachel’s post begins:

And now another installment of the “NO NO YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT VACCINES AS ANYTHING OTHER THAN LIFE SAVING FAIRY WATER” files…. Salon attacks a prestigious film festival for daring to include a film about vaccines. The censorship calls in the media toward the vaccine injured and their families and those who dare speak out is nothing short of North Korean in its approach. But Americans are wising up. Visit the National Coalition Against Censorship to learn more about the history of censorship in America. They need to do some updating…

Let me spell it out one more time for Ms. Dachel:

Criticism ≠ “censorship”

Let me also spell it out for her again:

Freedom of speech ≠ freedom from criticism

I hate this gambit, because it is so clueless and/or dishonest.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on here. The Tribeca Film Festival, for whatever reason, has made a huge mistake, choosing what even the trailer reveals to be a dishonest film that manipulates quotes from its subject, William Thompson, promoting a dangerous pseudoscientific idea. It’s a private corporation; so it has the right to choose to screen any film its organizers want to screen. It can use any criteria and process that its organizers deem appropriate. It could, if it so desired, take 3″ x 5″ cards with the name of each film entered into a big bowl and draw them at random or just have one of its founders, like Robert De Niro, pick whatever he wanted the festival to show if that’s what it wanted to do. There’s nothing any of us can do about that directly, particularly those of us not involved in the process. Those of us on the pro-science side are also quite cognizant that in any film festival screening hundreds of films selected from thousands of submissions, there will be occasional—or even not-so-occasional—pieces of cinematic crap that slip through. This, however, “smells” different than the run-of-the-mill bad movie that sometimes gets selected for film festivals, even ones as prestigious as Tribeca or Sundance.

What we can and should do is to criticize and question the selection. We also have every right to start asking organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival how such a piece of scientific and film dreck could have been selected. That is exactly what I’ve done. So have Mary Elizabeth Williams, Laura June, Anna Merlan, Matt Carey, Brownwen Dickey, and Michael Hiltzik, for example. None of them have called for “censorship.” The worst that’s been called for are (1) an accounting by the organizers of the festival for how this film was selected and (2) for skeptics to attend the screening, even though it would end up putting money in the Tribeca Film Festival’s and Andrew Wakefield’s pocket, in order to draw attention to the lies in the film and, quite frankly, to make Andy and his fellow filmmakers sweat with some uncomfortable—but polite!—questions that poke holes in the claims made in the film.

Here’s something that isn’t “censorship” either, and that’s looking into connections of the Vaxxed filmmakers and subjects and means by which Wakefield’s film could have slithered into Tribeca. I sincerely hope that some intrepid reporters, like Anna Merlan or Bronwen Dickey, are looking into potential celebrity connections, celebrities who have a connection with Andrew Wakefield or others involved in this film. After all, one of the Tribeca Film Festival founders is Robert De Niro, who has a special needs child, and Wakefield claimed in a talk that Leonardo DiCaprio was backing his film, before later denying that he had ever said any such thing. Given this information, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder if one of these two had something to do with getting Vaxxed selected.

Of course, it’s not just about Wakefield. It’s also reasonable to wonder if others associated with Vaxxed might have celebrity connections that could have gotten the movie into Tribeca. One of these is Del Bigtree, who is a producer and could well know some antivaccine celebrities with sufficient stature or connections to get a film in. Interestingly, Tribeca has finally published the bios of all the principals involved in Vaxxed. There another possibility, too, an unexpected surprise. I’m referring to Sharyl Attkisson, former CBS correspondent and die-hard antivaccine loon, as I’ve documented many times going back to 2007. Her connection to Wakefield dates back at least as far as her utterly dishonest reporting of the murder of an autistic teen named Alex Spourdalakis. She’s still at it. Yet another possibility is Philippe Diaz, who apparently was a big deal in the world of documentary film making, although his IMDB entry doesn’t show any films more recent than 2009.

Freedom of speech means that Andrew Wakefield and anyone he’s conned “persuaded” into believing his pseudoscience can make whatever sort of propaganda film they want, provided they can find the resources to do so. It also means that the Tribeca Film Festival can screen that same pseudoscientific antivaccine (but I repeat myself) propaganda film if its organizers so desire. However, it also means that journalists and, yes, bloggers can criticize Tribeca for its decision, refute Andrew Wakefield’s long history of promoting antivaccine misinformation about the MMR, and pre-emptively demolish the conspiracy theory at the heart of Vaxxed. That’s not “censorship.” It’s just more speech.

Cranks like Anne Dachel and Andrew Wakefield never seem to understand that.