In which antivaccine activist J. B. Handley thinks attacking Andrew Wakefield’s movie “backfired”

Nearly two weeks ago, a story that I had been blogging about almost nonstop for a week reached its conclusion when Robert De Niro decided to pull the antivaccine movie Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe from the Tribeca Film Festival, of which he was one of the co-founders. Before that, he had revealed that it was he who had bypassed the festival’s regular selection procedures and asked that the film be shown. All of this happened after an uproar over a film so full of antivaccine quackery, conspiracy theories about William W. Thompson (a.k.a. the “CDC whistleblower” in antivaccine circles), and an attempt at disingenuous and unconvincing spin from the PR people at the Tribeca Film Festival. Not surprisingly, the antivaccine movement, as it it wont to do, cried “Censorship!” apparently not realizing that criticism of a film and a respected film festival’s decision to screen it does not equal censorship.

Once the decision to drop Vaxxed had been made, I myself more or less decided to drop my coverage of the film. Well, that isn’t quite true. I couldn’t help myself and chronicled the reaction of everybody’s favorite quack with an over-the-top style that I find highly entertaining in small doses, Mike Adams. Just as entertaining, if not more so, was the reaction of Del Bigtree, the producer of Vaxxed, who dishonestly tried to convince Andrew Wakefield’s supporters that he had somehow been “censored” by ABC News when it only used a snippet of conversation from his interview with one of the producers of a news report.

Then…nothing.

Yes, even though there were developments. One such development was Robert De Niro appearing on WNYW Fox 5 NY:

First of all, I found it highly irritating that the narrator said that a “lot of good, responsible people think there is a link” between vaccines and autism, as if the only reason we shouldn’t believe that there is a link is because Wakefield has been discredited. On the other hand, as I’ve said so many times before, as much as I would rather discredit the vaccine-autism link based solely on the science (which does indeed discredit the link), Wakefield’s disgrace is a useful shorthand in media reports that, unfortunately, is more compelling to most people than the evidence. In other words, it’s easier to say that the vaccine-autism link has been discredited because Wakefield committed fraud trying to prove it than it is to explain the science showing why, and people will more readily believe you.

In any case, De Niro’s answers to questions about the controversy were disappointing. He does actually confirm all along the reason why I thought he was forced to pull Vaxxed: The controversy over its inclusion was drowning out all other news about the film festival. As De Niro said, he didn’t want the whole film festival to be about Wakefield and vaccines and autism. De Niro also shows that he’s not as bright as I had given him credit for, as he denies that Vaxxed is an antivaccine movie. He then justifies himself by calling the issue “complicated” and saying that he’s “still getting information about it.” I also got the impression that the filmmakers were complaining about being associated with Vaxxed, and who could blame them if true?

As you heard in the video, another development was that the Angelika Film Center agreed to show the film. The film’s opening, appropriately enough, occurred on April 1, complete with Q&A sessions featuring Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker themselves last weekend, and the film is still running there. I assiduously ignored further developments. OK, I didn’t exactly ignore them. I knew about them. I read some of the stories about them. I simply chose not to blog about them, mainly because I was tired of the whole thing. It’s taken this long for me to start to be curious again just what’s been going on. I was quite amused at the cries of “censorship” and conspiracy from the antivaccine movement. I was even more amused by the terrible, terrible reviews Wakefield’s movie got. It turns out that Wakefield and Bigtree were so incredibly heavy-handed that even film critics could recognize it for the scientifically bankrupt propaganda dreck that those of us familiar with Andrew Wakefield knew that it had to be. Apparently we were correct, although I can’t know for myself until the film hits some public online venue that I can access, preferably for free.

More recently, the conspiracy mongering has started to ramp up again, reaching hysterical levels. Before I get to it, let’s recap, step by step, to see how we got where we are today. First, Robert De Niro got his Tribeca Film Festival to screen Vaxxed. Second, three weeks ago, the lineup for the Tribeca Film Festival was announced, including Vaxxed. The antivaccine movement went crazy with glee. Controversy and criticism of the decision grew, leading the Tribeca Film Festival to make up BS excuses and the antivaccine movement to go into full conspiracy mode. Finally, Robert De Niro, under pressure (whether from just the negative publicity or sponsors is not known) decides to reverse his decision and pull the film, driving the antivaccine movement into even greater heights of crazy. The end result was that Andrew Wakefield lost the prestigious venue in which he had hoped to show his film. It would have been one showing at the end of the festival, but it might have netted him a distribution deal. As a result of the decision to ax Vaxxed, instead Wakefield and Bigtree pulled in $28,000 over the weekend and got a hell of a lot of publicity.

So was this outcome better? Did Andrew Wakefield “play us,” knowing full well the furor that the announcement that Vaxxed would play at Tribeca would cause? When I hear that, I laugh. The reason is that such a view gives Wakefield way too much credit. Sure, he’s clever, but he’s not a chess player. He doesn’t plan ten moves ahead. Also, Wakefield is an egomaniac. Even if the blowback did ultimately allow him to garner more attention for his movie and make more money, I’d be willing to bet that, after having somehow conned either Robert De Niro or his wife Grace Hightower to put his film in the Tribeca Film Festival, an effort that might well have required prolonged persuasion, it was a hard blow indeed to his massive ego to see De Niro yank it so ignominiously. In other words, it wasn’t planned; I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t even a “Plan B.” That the film was picked up by the Manhattan Film Festival is unlikely to assuage the blow. What typically happens with crank conspiracy films like this is that they do get picked up by smaller film festivals.

And the hits keep coming, leading to still more conspiracy mongering. Once again, it comes from our favorite quack, Mike Adams, in the form of an article entitled subtly as Mikey is wont to do Powerful forces threaten Houston film festival to pull VAXXED documentary… ‘heavy handed censorship’ by government officials who resort to financial extortion to shut down public screening. Yes, apparently, another film festival in Houston picked up Vaxxed. What happened next, if you believe Adams—something you should never do, given his track record—is that Vaxxed was “censored” by unnamed high ranking Houston government officials. This accusation is based on an e-mail from Hunter Todd, Chairman and Founding Director of Team Worldfest, claiming that he was called and threatened. Is it true? Who knows? One can’t help but notice that he doesn’t name names and he did it because their “actions would have cost us more than $100,000 in grants.” Not surprisingly, Adams got this report from arch HIV/AIDS denialist, antivaccine activist and all-around conspiracy crank Celia Farber. More on this in a moment.

Perhaps the most amusing development since the last time I blogged about this is the elevation of stature of a certain very close friend of the blog from our old friend J.B. Handley. JB and I go way, way back, to near the very beginning of this blog. Indeed, if memory serves, I believe that the first time I encountered him was in 2005, around the time I was pummeling Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s dishonest article about thimerosal in vaccines. Founder of Generation Rescue, one of the loonier antivaccine groups and one originally focused on fear mongering about mercury in vaccines, it was later headed (and still is) by Jenny McCarthy.

Those of us who have encountered JB know that he’s not exactly a man who keeps his emotions under control. In fact, he’s well known for his “bull in a china shop” approach to what he calls “vaccine safety” advocacy (or, as I put it, being a complete asshole) but what is really antivaccine advocacy. Along the way, he’s been known for his extreme misogyny, complete with roofie and rape jokes about female journalists.

So what’s he up to this time? Well, so great is his hatred of a certain friend of the blog and so eager to argue that all the criticism of Vaxxed has “backfired,” that he takes a quote from that person from an article that appeared in the LA Times:

The beauty of it is that I played a major role in bringing the story to public consciousness, followed the story as it evolved, and now can provide a fairly complete recounting.

Which was all true at the time it was said. Next, to paint a picture of a conspiracy to “silence” Wakefield’s film, Handley quotes an article from The Guardian:

Within half an hour of Robert De Niro’s Tribeca film festival posting on Facebook that it had scheduled an April viewing of Vaxxed, the highly controversial anti-vaccine documentary, a well-oiled network of scientists, autism experts, vaccine advocacy groups, film-makers and sponsors cranked into gear to oppose it.

At the center of the network was a listserv group email list of more than 100 prominent individuals and science research bodies run out of the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) based in St Paul, Minnesota. The listserv acts as an early warning system that sounds the alarm whenever the potent conspiracy theory that autism can be caused by vaccination surfaces.

Through the listserv, conference calls were quickly organized among top scientists across the country to discuss how to respond to the news that what was seen as a scurrilous and misleading film was to be given a high-profile airing. Leading figures in the documentary world were also enlisted to add their objections to the showing of Vaxxed.

I saw this article when it came out, and I remember having a distinctly annoyed reaction. Specifically, I wanted to know why the hell I wasn’t on this conspiracy. I mean, come on! I’ve been ranting, debunking, talking science, deconstructing bad antivaccine arguments, and mocking antivaccine twits for over eleven years now! Isn’t that worth anything? A shill check isn’t enough, man! I want respect for my efforts in the service of our reptilian pharma overlords. I want a seat at the table, dammit!

Of course, I’ve never heard of this listserv, and, to be honest, neither had anyone I asked (and, believe me, I did ask); so I really wonder where the heck this reporter got this information from. Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were listservs about immunizations where various issues with vaccines and the public acceptance of vaccines are discussed, but this is yet another story that doesn’t really pass the “smell test.” Remember how I said that those who think that Wakefield is so clever that he foresaw the backlash against Vaxxed being screened at Tribeca give him all too much credit? Unfortunately, the same thing is going on here. People like Handley, who apparently think there is a highly organized cadre of scientists and public health officials out there just waiting for news like this in which an antivaccine film by Andrew Wakefield is set to be screened at Tribeca, so that they can all organize and swoop down to censor it. Would that the pro-vaccine forces were that organized and ruthlessly efficient!

Not surprisingly, Handley plays the “Help, help, I’m being repressed!” card coupled with the “Please repress me” gambit:

…the “listserve” crowd, so proud of their accomplishments 8 short days ago, may be singing a different tune today. I’m an extremely proud American, and one of the things I know about Americans is that we all care deeply about freedom, and we all hate being told we can’t see or do something. If the “listserve” hadn’t jumped into action and turned Vaxxed into an international controversy in the media, it likely would have had it’s single showing at Tribeca and moved on into obscurity. But that’s not how it happened.

No, Mr. Handley, it was not the bloggers and nonexistent “listserv” crowd that caused this. It was Robert De Niro, who bypassed the usual selection procedure to show Vaxxed at Tribeca. I truly believe that De Niro was duped by Wakefield, who preyed on his love of his autistic son, but, make no mistake, it was De Niro’s fault that Vaxxed grew so big, and no one else’s. If De Niro hadn’t selected Vaxxed for Tribeca, there wouldn’t have been an uproar, and he wouldn’t have ended up deciding to shut down the screening, generating more publicity for the film. On the other hand, I’m not sure that all this publicity did Wakefield and Bigtree all that much good, as the wider exposure resulted in many more highly negative reviews than they otherwise would have had to deal with.

On the other hand, Handley does reveal something important. He reveals a response to an inquiry by an antivaccine activist named Ginger Taylor to the Houston Mayor’s office:

The mayor asked that it be removed from the lineup. I believe Judge Emmett did the same. The film festival is being funded in part through a grant from the City of Houston. The mayor felt it inappropriate for the city to endorse an event that would be screening a film that is counter to the city’s efforts to ensure children receive vaccinations.

The film was also removed from the Tribeca Film Festival lineup so Houston is not alone. In fact, it was that move that raised the concerns locally.

Janice Evans-Chief Policy Officer
& Director of Communications

On the one hand, I can totally understand why Mayor Sylvester Turner might have done this, particularly if city funds were being used to support the film festival. After all, the movie is directly opposed to a major function of the city’s health department, which is to prevent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and if the city is partially funding the festival, there is an appearance of endorsement, even if there is no explicit endorsement. On the other hand, on a strictly political, public relations level, this was an incredibly boneheaded thing for the mayor to have done. Private nonprofit corporations can host whatever speech they wish or decline to host whatever speech they wish for whatever reason, but it’s a very dicey proposition for the government to pressure a provate nonprofit not to host certain speech. If this is what happened, arguably Mayor Turner screwed up badly. This is a propaganda victory that will spawn antivaccine conspiracy theories for a decade to come. It makes me want to fly to Houston, march right down to city hall, grab the mayor by his lapels, and yell right in his face, “What the hell were you thinking? You’ve just made the job of pro-science advocates so much more difficult!”

In the end, Handley “thanks” a certain friend of the blog and the “listserv” for making Vaxxed an “international phenomenon.” Let’s just say that Handley is exaggerating a bit here. The person whom he thanks surely doesn’t have that sort of power. Believe me, we wish we had that sort of power, but we don’t, except in J.B. Handley’s fevered delusions, and certainly this person never ever called for Tribeca to yank the movie. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) However, Robert De Niro does have that much power. Believe me, if Robert De Niro hadn’t agreed to screen Vaxxed in Tribeca, all the blog posts in the world from this person’s blog would have been incredibly unlikely to direct that much attention to the movie. Sure, the movie made $28,000 so far, but it’s not being shown internationally, and the only international reach of this movie seems to be the easy debunkings of its central conspiracy theory that are available online. None of this stops, however, the merry band of antivaccine conspiracy theorists at that wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism, from weaving the same threads together about the IAC and the Houston film festival and asking Did the CDC censor Vaxxed? No, did it really? Betteridge’s law of headlines appears to apply here.

Andrew Wakefield’s movie is a load of conspiracy mongering pseudoscience-laden nonsense. I can be pretty sure of this without having seen it just based on the trailer, reviews, and a healthy background knowledge of the whole CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory. Through a combination of cynically playing on the love of a celebrity for his autistic son, luck, and a whole lot of lying, Andrew Wakefield has gotten a fair amount of attention. It will, however, be short-lived. Once its initial run at Angelika ends, my guess is that Vaxxed will be more or less relegated to the conspiracy film circuit, Alex Jones and Mike Adams, and and the antivaccine underground. None of this is to say that it is not very much worthwhile to put information out there refuting the misinformation and lies in the movie, but let’s just remember. This is Andrew Wakefield. We need to keep hammering that home.