PBS’s Newshour is currently in the middle of a multi-part special on autism. The series brings Robert MacNeil back to the show for the first time in 16 years. If it turns out to be MacNeil’s swan song, it’ll be an embarrassing coda to his career.
The series kicked off with an episode titled “Autism Now: Robert MacNeil Shares Grandson Nick’s Story.” Here’s MacNeil’s introduction:
I’ve been a reporter on and off for 50 years, but I’ve never brought my family into a story, until Nick, because he moves me deeply. Also because I think his story can help people understand his form of autism and help me understand it better.
The rest of the hour-long program shows in spades why MacNeil would have been well-served by sticking to the principles that he’d followed for so long. He never makes clear what “form” of autism he’s referring to — although he does quote a single doctor claiming that the Nick suffers from lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, which is the gastrointestinal disorder that Andrew Wakefield claimed the children in his retracted and disgraced 1998 study were suffering from. The rest of the discussion of the “type” of autism that Nick has focuses on his mother, Alison, and her belief that her son’s his condition was caused by the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. As it happens, that is the very vaccine Wakefield had fingered for blame.
In one of her on-camera interviews, Alison MacNeil claims “it’s impossible for me to know” what really happened:
People say to me, Alison, it’s a coincidence. Alison, how do you know this happened? Well, it’s impossible for me to know. But what I will say is this: It was not a coincidence that my child was diagnosed with autism at the same time that his whole system shut down. Something happened to my child.
At that point, an impartial reporter might have asked why, if Alison was uncertain, she started a blog titled “My Vaccine Injured Child.” An impartial reporter might have asked Alison about her claim that vaccine advocate Paul Offit and former CDC director Julie Gerberding “have lost touch with their humanity. … I don’t know how either of them manage their guilt and complicity in hurting so many babies.” Finally, an impartial reporter might have asked what, exactly, Alison meant when she wrote that if it turns out vaccines do not cause autism, “I will look stupid, but it will have been well worth it.”
Not long after the start of tonight’s episode, MacNeil nods to the fact that there is not a single reputable study that has found any connection between vaccines and autism:
Public health authorities say there is no scientifically valid evidence that vaccines cause autism.
That’s it. No interviews with actual scientists or public health officials or epidemiologists or vaccine researchers or spokespeople from the American Medical Association or the American Academy of Pediatrics. Indeed, MacNeil gave even less lip service to more than a decade’s worth of studies on millions of children than Oprah Winfrey did during the first of her episodes lauding Jenny McCarthy’s courageousness in going public with her belief that vaccines were to blame for her child’s condition. At least Winfrey actually bothered to read a statement from the CDC.
Earlier today, I posted the following on Twitter:
A few minutes later, I got this reply:
I get accused of insulting parents who believe their children are vaccine-injured all the time, so that response wasn’t a huge surprise. (The “vaccine-safety” group currently running anti-vaccine billboards in Times Square posts this on Twitter about once a day: “Promoting vaccination using fear and hate: watch @sethmnookin insult parents who make their own vaccine choices. http://bit.ly/fWoPQf #vaxfax“)
But it’s not true. Out of everyone involved in the vaccine debate, parents are probably the only group whose motivations I don’t at least occasionally impugn. There is not a doubt in my mind that Alison MacNeil, like Katie Wright and Kim Stagliano and all of the other parents I’ve interacted with either virtually or in the real world, genuinely and honestly believes her son was given autism by a vaccine. As I’ve said many times, it would be dishonest for me to pretend I know what my reaction would be if I believed my son had been injured or that the medical community didn’t care about the difficulties I was facing.
Robert MacNeil, however, is not a parent of a child he believes is vaccine-injured–and if PBS is going to let him commandeer a news program, both he and the network have an obligation to make sure he acts like a journalist. His work so far in “Autism Now,” has been reckless and irresponsible–and any claim that he’s just presenting information and not at least tacitly endorsing his daughter’s views is preposterous.