Sigh. Here we go again. Robert De Niro is letting his antivaccine freak flag fly again, this time even higher than usual, by revealing that in the wake of the antivaccine debacle at his Tribeca Film Festival he is going to make his very own documentary about vaccines. It’s the continuation of a process that, depressingly, revealed Robert De Niro to be perhaps the biggest A-list antivaccine celebrity out there.
First, a bit of background to bring newbies up to speed. A couple of months ago, science-based medicine advocates were scratching their heads over news that the Tribeca Film Festival was going to include among its documentaries a film called VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. The movie, which was directed by antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield and a one time producer for the pop medicine daytime show The Doctors, Del Bigtree. From the trailer alone, which contained a number of deceptive audio edits, it was obvious that this movie was going to tell the myth of the “CDC whistleblower,” William Thompson, a CDC scientist who’s been a frequent topic of blogging here due to his having nearly two years ago been recorded by a biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist named Brian Hooker who demonstrated his incompetence with an epically incompetent and simplistic “reanalysis” of a study by Frank DeStefano and coauthored by Thompson that claimed to have found that the CDC had “covered up” a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in African-American boys, thus confirming the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. Transcripts were released, and documents given to a Congressman by Thompson leaked, and the story keeps going on and on.
Truly, it has turned into an urban legend, and this is the legend told by VAXXED, an execrable film containing a heaping helping of antivaccine pseudoscience and misinformation. It’s a movie you don’t even have to see to know that it’s antivaccine nonsense.
There was a considerable uproar over the inclusion of VAXXED in the Tribeca Film Festival, with its PR department characterizing the criticism as attempted “censorship” even though it was nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, I and others speculated that someone must have pulled some strings to get such an obviously bad movie full of antivaccine pseudoscience into Tribeca, perhaps an A-list celebrity antivaccinationist. I even speculated that it might have been Robert De Niro, one of the film festival’s founders, himself, although at the time no one had any knowledge or evidence that he had antivaccine proclivities. In fact, I was rather surprised when Robert De Niro admitted that it had been he who had unilaterally decided to include VAXXED in the film festival he founded, bypassing the regular submission and judging process. Ultimately, the festival yanked VAXXED, and antivaccinationists, who had viewed its inclusion in the festival as a vindication, went absolutely nuts in their outrage.
Not long after that, in April Robert De Niro let the mask drop and let his antivaccine freak flag fly for the first time in an interview on the TODAY SHOW. It was an interview that was painful to watch. De Niro revealed that he and his wife Grace Hightower had an autistic son and that he De Niro repeated old, long-debunked antivaccine talking points as the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, Jane Rosenthal, looked on in horror and tried to rein him in. It turned out that his wife believed that something had “changed” in their son after being vaccinated. I also learned around the same time from someone who worked on the set of a movie De Niro appeared a few years ago in that Andrew Wakefield had been seen speaking with Hightower on set. My best guess was that the movie was likely to have been Machete, which was filmed in Austin and directed by Robert Rodriguez, who with his wife Elizabeth Avellán is a big booster of Andrew Wakefield.
However, Robert De Niro became an antivaccine loon, like the newly converted, he plans on doing something about it. He wants to make a movie, as described in this interview. But first, some antivaccine nonsense:
And I have to ask, you have an autistic child and your own film festival, Tribeca, started out with a controversy over an anti-vaccination documentary you programmed. What do you think you learned from choosing it and then choosing to not show it?
RD: Well, what I learned, first of all, there was a big reaction, which I didn’t see coming, and it was from filmmakers — supposedly, I have yet to find out who it was. I wanted to just know who they were, because to me there was no reason not to see the movie. The movie is not hurting anybody. It says something. It said something to me that was valid. Maybe some things were inaccurate, but if the movie was 20 percent accurate, it was worth seeing. And they were saying it’s because of the filmmaker and he was discredited, but how was he discredited? By the medical establishment? There’s a lot going on that I still don’t understand, but it makes me question the whole thing, and the whole vaccine issue is a real one. It’s big money. So it did get attention. I was happy about that. And I talked about another movie called Trace Amounts that I saw and spoke about it a lot, that people should see it, and it’s there. Something is there with vaccines, because they’re not tested in some ways the way other medicines are, and they’re just taken for granted and mandated in some states. And people do get sick from it. Not everybody, but certain people are sensitive, like anything, penicillin.
“I have yet to find out who it was”? Either he’s not trying that hard to find out (which would be good), or he is still really pissed off and is sending a message not unlike the threat he made last time he was interviewed to “find out” who complained about VAXXED. Be that as it may, let’s look at just what De Niro is saying. “The movie is not hurting anybody”? Really? It is a mass of conspiracy mongering and misinformation that, if it becomes widespread enough, could drive down vaccination rates and harm children. “Maybe some things were inaccurate, but if the movie was 20 percent accurate, it was worth seeing”? That might be fine for a fictionalized account of some event or other, but this movie is being represented as a documentary. It is being sold as a true story that is describing accurate science, when it is anything but that. De Niro wants to know who discredited Andrew Wakefield? Yes, it was the medical establishment, but it was also a dogged investigative reporter named Brian Deer, the British legal establishment, and just about anyone else with a knowledge of medical science who looked at Wakefield’s claims.
In fact, I’d argue that Wakefield discredited himself, and the rest of the world just reported how he did it. If De Niro is still unaware of that, he is clueless beyond belief.
So Robert De Niro has “questions.” So what? The answers are there for him if he would only open his eyes and shake off the torrent of misinformation that he’s come to believe, but I suspect that will not happen any time soon, given that he’s parrotting a version of the pharma shill gambit, the toxins gambit, and the easily refutable lie that vaccines aren’t tested adequately. He’s gone deep down the rabbit hole for a deep swig of the antivaccine Kool Aid.
Now here’s where he tells the interviewer that he’s making a movie:
Your hope is that eventually people will see the movie?
RD: Yeah, and you always say, you’re not against vaccines, you’re against what they put in vaccines that can hurt certain people who are allergic. It can kill them sometimes. And there’s such an industry. There’s big, big money in vaccines that the CDC will put …
And you’d show this movie again, given the opportunity?
RD: No, I’m working on something else. Harvey Weinstein and I are working on doing a documentary, but I don’t what to talk much about it, because when I talk about it, something happens. But that’s what we plan to try to do.
Harvey Weinstein is one of the biggest producers in the business. He’s so big that Entourage based a character on him. If this is true, and Harvey Weinstein is bankrolling a vaccine documentary with Robert De Niro, that is a very good reason for advocates of science-based medicine to be worried. An A-list celebrity teaming with one of the biggest producers in the business who co-owns with his brother a film studio could be bad, very bad for the public perception of the science of vaccines, because the A-list celebrity who is making it with Weinstein has revealed himself to be very much antivaccine and in the thrall of the narrative of antivaccinationists like Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Brian Hooker. Unlike VAXXED, it’ll be a movie with glossy production values, slickly made, with the marketing muscle of a major Hollywood studio behind it and either hosted or at least promoted by a beloved A-list actor. Bigtree’s and Wakefield’s movie is primarily preaching to the converted, with Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey doing most of their publicity through Q&A sessions and Periscope videos to try to reach a wider audience, along with the occasional interview they can score on regular media.
In contrast, Weinstein and De Niro could take Wakefield’s lies, wrap them in the myth of the “CDC whistleblower,” add sympathetic anecdotes of parents struggling to care for their autistic children and repeating the same sorts of anecdotes as Jenny McCarthy about how they think their children “changed” right after vaccination, and make a compelling saga that you and I would know to be nonsense but would be very compelling to people not familiar with the old misinformation, tropes, and lies that antivaccine activists use to promote the idea that vaccines are dangerous. Even if the chances that this movie is ever made turn out to be small, I still think it’s something to be concerned about. Sure, it’s just a movie, but if it is made and marketed, it would be the biggest antivaccine propaganda film ever made by the heaviest hitters yet to make such a film.
Despite that, I actually do feel for Robert De Niro. Parents of children with autism like him are magnets for antivaccine activists and quacks and susceptible to their blandishments because of the very human desire to want an explanation for everything. Something must have caused my child’s autism, they think, and feel guilty wondering if it was something they did. Enter antivaccinationists with an explanation that’s simple, compelling, and oh so wrong. Add to that De Niro’s celebrity, which attracts the really big name antivaccine loons, like Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and it’s easy to understand how De Niro and Hightower were seduced by antivaccine pseudoscience. That doesn’t excuse them, but it is to me a mitigating factor.
De Niro apologists will likely point out that he has repeatedly said that he is not antivaccine. My response to that is that very few antivaccinationists actually publicly self-identify as antivaccine. (As an aside, I find the ones who do refreshing because of their honesty.) Knowing that being antivaccine is viewed unfavorably, the vast majority of them convince themselves either that they just have “questions” or, as Jenny McCarthy so famously did, that they are vaccine safety advocates. However, I’ve been at this long enough to recognize antivaccine rhetoric when I see it, and Robert De Niro is spouting pure antivaccine rhetoric. That makes the odds that any product of his collaboration with Harvey Weinstein will produce a scientifically accurate portrayal of issues of vaccine safety slim or none and that the documentary won’t be antivaccine propaganda disguised as a vaccine safety expose zero..