Daily Beast reporter Jackie Kucinich falls prey to the perils of reporting on antivaxer Del Bigtree

So I’m finally back. As many of you surmised, I needed surgery; I had it two and a half weeks ago; and I’m back. I’ll say little more than that it was spine surgery and that no fusion was involved, hence my relatively rapid return to work. I must say, a lot of things happened in my absence. I was also fairly active on Twitter, mainly because I was rather bored not being able to do a lot and sitting in front of a computer screen was too painful until recently while using a smart phone was not. Now that I’m back, I think I’ll start relatively slowly, beginning with an article on The Daily Beast by Jackie Kucinich that I encountered, entitled Top Anti-Vaxxer Says He Learned All He Needs to Know From Being a Producer on ‘Dr. Phil’ and ‘The Doctors’. It’s an example of an article that on the surface seems to be deconstructing antivaccine pseudoscience but is actually too sympathetic to Del Bigtree, a man who started out as an obscure, little known producer on shows like Dr. Phil and The Doctors, and in a mere three years has risen to be one of the three arguably most famous antivaxers in the world, along with Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

It’s actually an interesting story that had great potential, but we get a taste of Kucinich’s intent right in the first paragraph:

Last month, Del Bigtree stood behind a podium at a Texas rally, his flowing gray hair blowing in the wind, to talk about the supposed perils of government-mandated vaccines—a speech he has given all over the country.

Got that? Del’s got flowing gray hair. According to Kucinich, he’s also unfazed by criticism:

This time, he had a prop: Near the end of his speech, he affixed a yellow Star of David to his coat with the words “No Vax” across the center. It was a symbol, he said, of solidarity with New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is in the throes of a measles outbreak.

Condemnation of the stunt—from the Auschwitz Memorial Museum and the Anti-Defamation League, among others— was swift. But Bigtree said he wasn’t worried about the criticism.

“Honestly, I was doing what I thought I was raised to do, which was stand up for minorities,” he told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “A Jewish community was going to be quarantined and not allowed to go into their own synagogues during Passover. To me it seems so obvious that smacks of the issues in Germany.”

Bigtree’s explanation for why he used the Yellow Star of David is transparent, disingenuous nonsense. He’s never shown evidence of standing for minorities that I’m aware of other than in the context of the antivaccine movement. Indeed, he arguably exploited the distrust for the medial system held by African Americans in his use of Brian Hooker’s bogus “reanalysis” of a study that purportedly showed that the MMR vaccine was associated with an increased risk of autism in African-Americans. He’s gone to Compton to preach the evils of vaccination, not unlike the way that Andrew Wakefield went to Minnesota to fuel the measles outbreak among the Somali immigrant community there.

I’ve written about the penchant of prominent antivaxers to liken school vaccine mandates to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. Indeed, RFK Jr. himself once likened vaccination to the Holocaust. (But don’t call him antivaccine!) This isn’t even the first time that antivaxers have misappropriated the symbol of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the Yellow Star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear in order to be instantly identifiable. During the political battle in 2015 over SB 277, the California bill (now law) that banned non-medical personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates, an antivaxer named Heather Barajas made a badge with a syringe on it. True, it wasn’t yellow, and it wasn’t a Star of David, but her intent was explicit in the Facebook post in which she showed off her new badge with her child in a photo with photos of Jews during the Holocaust wearing Yellow Stars of David. She deleted it, but I preserved it (unfortunately I did not preserve the text):

That was 2015. In 2019, everything’s been amped up, and no only did Del Bigtree appropriate the idea of a badge, but he made it into a yellow star:

He’s not the only one, either. Here’s a version that’s been popping up on social media all over the place:

As an aside, I can’t resist noting that antivaxers are not the only cranks who’ve misappropriated the Yellow Star of David:

I won’t dwell on this, other than to note that I could probably find others abusing the Yellow Star of David to claim they are persecuted. It’s offensive, particularly when antivaxers do it.

Let’s get back to Kucinich’s article. The main problem with the article is that, for all its refutations of some of Del Bigtree’s claims, its refutations are incomplete, and, worse, it reads more like a celebrity profile, specifically a profile of a celebrity who’s earned notoriety and controversy. For instance, his antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, is described as “headline-grabbing,” and Kucinich makes sure to point out that Bigtree’s nonprofit has raised over a million dollars and that he has 13,000 Twitter followers and 114,000 likes on the Facebook page for his streamed show.

Kucinich also makes sure to point out that Bigtree has a “flair for the dramatic”:

Bigtree’s flair for the dramatic precedes his role as vaccine choice crusader. A graduate of the Vancouver Film School, Bigtree spent a few years directing small films and plays. A review of a show he directed at Hollywood Fight Club Theater in 2007 said: “Although it lacks the complexity and length of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s Oleanna is no less worth pondering and no less astonishing. David Mamet’s 1992 script receives a fresh Hollywood rendering from Director Del Matthew Bigtree at the Hollywood Fight Club Theater with Randy Robertson playing John, the college professor and Ruby Laurelle Staly playing his challenging pupil Carol.”

The thing is, Bigtree is not controversial. There is no scientific controversy about his antivax views. He is a dangerous crank, an antivaxer. Unfortunately, the tone of the article doesn’t really convey that very well. Indeed, the tone borders on admiring in some places. Indeed, the very fact that Bigtree is unfazed by criticism, while a very common characteristic of cranks and fanatics, is presented in such a way that it isn’t clear that that’s what he is; that is, if you are not familiar with Del Bigtree and the antivaccine movement.

The next passage bothered me as well, because it basically let Bigtree present his experience as a producer on two cheesy medical TV shows is enough to provide him with the knowledge and the tools to question vaccine safety:

“As a television producer on a medical show on CBS called The Doctors and prior to that I was a producer on the Dr. Phil Show, so I had about 10 years of working first in psychology and then in medicine and surgery and cutting edge techniques in science as form of entertainment,” he said. “I would read medical journals while looking for stories that I saw were interesting. The things that always grabbed my attention were really brilliant surgeons… surgeons who had used less invasive techniques, do less damage to the body but achieved the same goal.”

Bigtree’s experience on The Doctors gave him the confidence to leave the show to delve into a new project, the documentary called Vaxxed with disgraced physician Andrew Wakefield. It centered on the debunked theory, championed by Wakefield, that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine caused autism and the government covered it up.

It was that movie and the bus tour that followed that helped launch Bigtree into anti-vaccine stardom.

The Doctors

Now here’s where a bit of false balance. This story is mostly about Del Bigtree. He’s quoted extensively. Some of his misinformation is refuted. I’ll admit that some of it is refuted about as well as I can expect a reporter to do it (for instance, the part about ICAN). It’s not enough, though, particularly within the structure of this article, particularly given the way that he’s presented. Then at the end only one person supporting a science-based position is quoted, Dorit Reiss, and then not extensively. Indeed, the fact that it’s not enough, that Kucinich quoted Bigtree in such a way that allowed him to paint himself as some sort of self-taught expert is a form of false balance. It also led me to believe that the primary purpose of this article was to profile Bigtree as a rising star of the antivaccine movement more than it was to show him as a dangerous crank.

I must admit, though, that Bigtree’s bragging about reading medical journals during his time working for Dr. Phil and The Doctors did amuse me; it deserves mockery, as clearly he learned nothing. His misinterpretation of vaccine literature is epic and demonstrates that he, for all his bragging, he’s never understood science, not really. Working for those shows, at best, taught him how to do stories with a superficial mixture of understanding and misunderstanding tarted up with sensationalistic nonsense, much like what he demonstrated when he produced VAXXED. However, even that part of the story is problematic. You and I know that Bigtree’s full of crap when he proclaims his great knowledge of the medical literature, but the average reader doesn’t. We laugh—and rightfully so—at Bigtree’s claim, but the average reader doesn’t. The average reader thinks, “Maybe he is self-taught,” because the average reader doesn’t realize how difficult it is to teach oneself biology, immunology, infectious disease, and other topics relevant to vaccines. In fact, it’s damned near impossible. It might have been possible 100 years ago, but today it’s too complex to learn without guidance.

Another problematic part of the article is how it portrays Bigtree as a rockstar among antivaxers, a celebrity. People listen to celebrity. At the least, he comes across as appealing, rather than the arrogant, self-righteous jerk that he really is. Then there’s the way that the article concludes. It’s very, very grating. :

Criticism from highly credentialed experts is unlikely to stop Bigtree, who used the end of his show on Thursday to issue a call to action to supporters, encouraging them to keep pushing and demanding answers.

“All of this is coming to a head, this is such an exciting time. Do you feel it? Do you feel what’s happening? This one is not going to be easy it would be boring if it was…” he said.

“This is our time. You’ve got to feel it. It’s so exciting.”

Seriously? Kucinich ended the article with a quote from Bigtree about how great it is to be an antivaxer in 2019? In the middle of multiple large measles outbreaks? How hopeful he is? I think I know what she was going for, but this is an epic fail.

That’s why I said this article is basically free publicity for antivaxers. It’s not quite a celebrity puff piece, but it flirts with it. Indeed, Bigtree is even allowed to get away with the most common denial among antivaxers:

He maintains that he’s not an anti-vaxxer, a term he says is derogatory and made up by the pharmaceutical industry to discredit skeptics like him.

“I still believe that, for the most part, vaccines are effective. The question I have is are they safe and that’s the investigation I began and that’s why I started a non-profit to get to answers to that question,” he said. “When we say vaccines are safe, how do we determine that?”

Here’s a hint: Antivaxers always deny that they are antivaccine, with very rare exceptions. Famous antivaxers never admit to being antivaccine. Smoking them out is easy, if you know how. All you have to do is to ask the antivaxer denying he’s antivaccine a simple question: If, as he claims, he’s not antivaccine, then he must consider that at least some vaccines are safe and effective. So which specific vaccines he considers to be safe and effective. MMR? DTaP? Varicella? HPV? Antivaxers will either deny that most or all of the vaccines safe and effective or they will hem and haw and try to do everything they can to avoid giving a straight yes/no answer to the question about each vaccine. Either way, they reveal themselves as antivaccine. How do I know this? I’ve been dealing with antivaxers for nearly two decades now. (See? I can help.)

Kucinich’s article isn’t all bad. The false balance isn’t as blatant as it is in a lot of articles about antivaxers, and there are some good bits refuting specific bits of misinformation. Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and its tone undermines whatever good intentions might have been behind it.