UPDATE: Sun-Times endorsement of autism quackfest remains online even after editor claims it was “incorrect”

See the bottom of this post for an update on the Sun-Times‘s “proud support” of AutismOne.

On Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times published a fawning, credulous Q&A with Jenny McCarthy, who has been more responsible than anyone in the country for advancing the spurious idea that there’s a connection between vaccines and autism.

The hook was the annual Generation Rescue/AutismOne quack-fest that’s held in Chicago each spring. This year, as in years past, the conference is featuring Mark and David Geier, a father/son team who peddle sham autism “treatments,” including injected children with massive doses of the drug used to chemically castrate sex offenders, and Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who first advanced the notion that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could be linked to autism. (The Geiers are under investigation for their practices, and Mark Geier has had his medical license suspended in multiple states; Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license several years ago after the U.K.’s General Medical Council found he displayed a “callous disregard for the distress and pain” of children he was experimenting on.)

As painful as the Q&A was, what was most offensive about the story was its concluding line:

The Sun-Times proudly supports Generation Rescue and Autism One^.

I wasn’t the only person who noticed this. Jim Romenesko, perhaps the savviest observer of the media landscape for the past decade and a half, picked up on it as well. He emailed Jim Kirk, a former media columnist who is now the top editor at the Sun-Times:

Back when you were the Chicago Tribune media columnist, you would have needled the Sun-Times for doing this; now you’re the guy who’s ultimately responsible for it.

Come on, Jim, you can do better than this.

Yesterday, Kirk responded. Anyone hoping for a mea culpa is going to be sorely disappointed:

[T]he wording used to describe the Sun-Times’ involvement was incorrect. It should have read that the Sun-Times is a media sponsor of the event, nothing more. The article should not have stated or suggested that the newspaper supports — or doesn’t support — a particular cause.

Unfortunately, Kirk’s message, like the Sun-Times‘s coverage, does not seem to be grounded in the real world: Kirk sent his email yesterday, on May 16. As of today (May 17) at noon, the piece remains on the Sun-Times site with this ending:

What’s especially odd about this is that other revisions have been made to the piece in the last two days. For instance, on Tuesday, I called out the Sun-Times for writing that the event was “free”; in reality, there’s a $25 “processing and materials” fee. As of late yesterday, the Sun-Times had changed its description of the event to read, “Admission free; processing and materials $25.”

Kirk also told Romenesko that “a plan has been in the works to transition the Cause & Event column from a community affairs freelancer to an editor.”

This doesn’t make much sense, either: The author of the piece is not a “community affairs freelancer.” It is, as Romenesko noted, someone named Alisa M. Alexander, who happens to be the public relations VP of Wrapports, the company that owns the Sun-Times.

So what’s going on? Does Kirk have so little power that he doesn’t have the authority to make corrections to a website he’s supposedly in charge of? Is the Wrapports PR team dictating what appears in the pages of the Sun-Times? I’ve reached out to Kirk for some explanation of what’s going on over there; I’ll obviously report back if/when I hear from him. If there are any other Sun-Times staffers who have any insight into the situation, drop me a line — I’m happy to talk to you off the record.

UPDATE, May 21, 7pm: It looks like the Sun-Times has followed through on what Kirk said the paper should have done in the first place: When I checked the article today, the “proudly supports” language had been changed to read, “The Sun-Times is a media sponsor of the event.”

^ May 29, 2012, 6:15 pm: Per reader Narad’s comment in this post, I un-sicced the Sun-Times‘s spelling of AutismOne as “Autism One”; he makes an interesting point. I’m not sure what the ultimate spelling should be, but certainly it seems there’s a legitimate case for spelling it as two words.

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