An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda to Robert MacNeil's career

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:

sethmnookin: Sad: For 1st time MacNeil injects self into story, lets daughter publicize bogus vaccine-autism link on PBS http://ht.ly/4Cv3d

A few minutes later, I got this reply:

adamhollandblog: @sethmnookin Concerned families are not out for “publicity” for “bogus” ideas. You may disagree w them, but don’t impugn motives.

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.

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33 Responses to An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda to Robert MacNeil's career

  1. Pingback: [Abstracts] vs. anecdotes: What we have here is a failure to communicate

  2. I am so disappointed to learn that this is the tenor of this report so far. I grew up trusting the MacNeil/Lehrer report, relying on it for real, thorough in-depth information. I had hopes that MacNeil would be carrying on that tradition here.

  3. Lisa R. says:

    He’s “just presenting information” in the same way that antivaccine organizations “just present information” — a misleadingly biased array of facts with a few outright falsehoods thrown into the mix.

  4. Twyla says:

    So far Robert MacNeil’s work on “Autism Now” has been excellent. I too grew up trusting the MacNeil/Lehrer report, relying on it for real, thorough in-depth information. I am so glad that so far that tradition is continuing. Thank goodness someone on mainstream TV has the courage to talk about what is really happening.

  5. Robert MacNeil did a “grandpa” piece and not a “medical science”
    or “journalism” piece. He is entitled to do so and PBS is entitled
    to air it. Everyone viewing it is entitled to draw their own conclusions.
    I did not find it “embarrassing”, “reckless” or “irresponsible” at all,
    just a “grandpa” piece. Anyone wanting to know the medical science
    on autism would hardly expect to find it in Robert MacNeil’s story
    of his grandson.

    • Liz Ditz says:

      With all respect, Catherine Smith, this is how PBS NewsHour is framing the series:

      MacNeil teamed up with producer Caren Zucker, who has produced many stories on the condition and is the mother of a 16-year-old son with autism, to criss-cross the country for five months, building a series of reports that explores the latest scientific and medical thinking and chronicles the impact of autism on families, educators and clinicians.

      “The latest scientific and medical thinking” is not a “grandpa story”. I agree with Mr. Mnookin that Mr. MacNeil has embarrassed himself and journalism.

  6. Dawn says:

    I wish I understood why people are so afraid if Autism being something that can be reversed with food, supplements, etc. We have grown into a society that us willing to put a label on a child and tell them it’s the vest they will ever be. What a pathetic thought that as a a society we agree to treat our children so poorly.

  7. Pingback: The first of many statements yoking Robert MacNeil to the vaccine-autism canard

  8. Pingback: Researcher who “does not meet the standard of reliability required by case law” good enough for PBS’s Newshour

  9. Jake Crosby says:

    “An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda” pretty well sums up Kurt Andersen’s appraisal of and involvement in your book, not to mention how both his and your biases have apparently eclipsed NPR’s reporting of this controversy.

    And Bob’s your uncle:
    http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/03/seth-mnookin-bobs-your-uncle.html#more

  10. kelly says:

    I must ask, have you seen the entire series yet? Embarrassing? What
    Is wrong with you and your perception of reality? What are you so
    afraid of? Have you no respect at all? Robert MacNeil’s reputation for
    journalistic integrity is being called out by YOU, the industry’s biggest
    Whore and sell out? You are not fit to call anyone out on anytfrom!
    please just stay under the rock you occasionally crawl out from!

  11. Common Sense says:

    The Vaccine Debater’s Handbook
    Your Guide to Ensuring Your Ego has Priority Over Logical Discussion

    1. Always assume those who disagree with you are maniacal monsters who wish to cause as much harm as possible to the human race.

    2. When confronted with research that goes against your current line of thinking, reject it immediately as baseless and flawed or respond to any points to which you have no answer with insults or threats.

    3. It is even better to ignore the research itself and find as many character flaws in the researcher. You’re gold if you can dig up an embarrassing incident from the researcher’s past – try for a silly looking high school photo or get comments from an ex partner. (because only people you disagree with have ever done or said anything silly, right?)

    4. Only drug companies can do non biased research that have a clean record as far as fudging data, concealing flawed data and avoiding conflicts of interest. Research by anyone else is flawed, biased and motivated by greed – unless of course you like their conclusions.

    5. If one is possibly good, more must be better.

    6. Rely heavily on arguments that have gaping holes in them. Herd immunity is perhaps the best example of this.

    7. Always assume that those who hold the opposite opinion have never bothered to study the issue.

    8. Reject all non drug based health care options as unscientific quackery and refer to natural health care practitioners as “quacks” or “cultists.” After all, health can only be created with drugs, surgery and chemicals – and of course true health will only be achieved with the complete and utter eradication of microorganisms. They have no beneficial purpose anyway.

    9. Dismiss the idea that immunity could possibly have something to do with living conditions (eg. good sanitation, regular bathing, clean water, low pollution levels etc.) and lifestyle factors (eg organic food, exercise, toxic avoidance, spinal health, etc.) A very effective strategy is paying a doctor to go on the news and denounce all of these things as unproven nonsense, or at least have him say, “the evidence is sketchy.”

    10. If society at large agrees with something, this is the best benchmark for truth. No more scientific discussion is necessary. No society has a history of nearly universally accepting a flawed concept or habit.

    11. Remember – only Medical Doctors are smart enough to understand the immune system. You cannot possibly be intelligent enough to discuss it if you don’t have an M.D. (even if you’ve done all the immunology courses that M.D.’s have plus many others and engaged in your own private research.) If your doctor says something he / she MUST be right, because there is no history of doctors ever being wrong.

    12. Never EVER consider that other people may choose to live differently than you. Never be OK with that and keep bitching until you become twisted and bitter – or until everyone on earth finally agrees with you…. whichever comes first.

    13. If you are a natural health practitioner discussing things with an M.D., be sure to keep your inferiority complex in tact. (Or in some cases that good old superiority complex)

    14. The ever growing number of MDs who do not support vaccination obviously have mental problems, they must have gone to an inferior medical school and a have long history of thinking for themselves. (Something to be avoided.) The best thing to do is call every possible media establishment and give them a long list of damaging information about that particular doctor. Also try to imply that they may be sexually deranged or gay. It doesn’t matter if the stories you tell them a real, partially true or completely imagined. You are acting in the greater interests, so the ends justify the means.

    15. When confronted with a point in which you have no logical answer – such as the dangerous toxins in vaccines – sidestep the issue. The best two responses (if you choose to answer at all) in this case are:

    a. “Those who get damaged from these toxins are an acceptable loss for the greater good.”
    b. “Toxins are perfectly safe if administered within vaccines, even though they well and truly above EPA limits.”

    16. Refer to all those who disagree with you as “Conspiracy theorists” or “Conspirators.” Try to mention the Illuminati World Domination plans as much as possible.

    17. When an outbreak of a disease for which there is a vaccine occurs, get on the news as quickly as possible and loudly blame it on the unvaccinated. Just ignore that the vaccinated people are getting the disease in equal or greater numbers than the unvaccinated.

    18. When an unvaccinated person does come down with such a disease, this is proof enough of the efficacy of vaccines.

    19. Shout from the rooftops, “If we stop vaccinating, Small Pox will come back with avengence!” (Don’t bother broadcasting that the Small Pox vaccine was ceased in the 1970’s due to toxicity concerns.)

    20. If you learned it in university or saw it on the news, it must be true.

    21. If you saw it on facebook or twitter, it must be true, but only if it suits your agenda. An even more reliable source is myspace.

    22. Rest most of your debate strategy on making the other guy look bad, instead of promoting your own agenda in a positive light. Learn this tactic from a politician if possible (ie – don’t vote for that guy; he’s an idiot! Vote for me!) Remember – people feed off of negativity and fear.

    23. When a new flu strain is discovered, alert every news station in the world and use phrases such as, “It COULD mutate”, “Millions will die”, “Pandemic” etc. Test the new vaccine on as few people as possible and recommend it to everyone.

    24. It is not possible to be friends with someone who holds the opposite opinion on vaccination. If you have such a friend, spend all your time with them throwing temper tantrums. If this fails to convert them, terminate the friendship.

    25. Parents who do the opposite of your decision are irresponsible. Social Services should be called immediately.

    26. Spend your time brooding and making yourself angrier by the day over the fact that not everyone is in universal agreement with you. The angrier you get, the more people will listen and agree with you.

    a. It is even better to spend your free time taking photos of facebook comments, posting them on your own page and getting your toadies to make disparaging remarks about that person. This gives you a whole new level of credibility and keeps you from doing all those irritating things like spending time with family or hobbies. It will also make you feel tough and powerful.
    b. If you have been on the receiving end of all of that, ensure that you play the victim role well, and cease all functional activity until everyone in the world agrees with you and there are no more idiots left on earth.

    27. When you run out of arguments, or just can’t answer all those pesky questions from the other side, try to impose rules that the debate must stop. This is in no way a cop out strategy, because after all YOU MUST BE RIGHT, so it is for the greater good that nobody hears the other side of the story.

    28. When all else fails, if the other side just won’t accept the infinite wisdom that you have, the time proven strategy of threats, cyber bullying, slander, vandalism and violence are a sure way of shutting the other person up.

  12. KellyD says:

    People NOT in the know, like Seth Mnookin, have to CONSTANTLY bring up the same statement over and over again.. “Andrew Wakefield, yada yada yada, vaccines cause autism.. no studies showing vaccines cause autism..” My God, when are they going to get a new mantra. Andrew Wakefield NEVER SAID vaccines cause autism. Der. They are NO “studies” proving their *claims* that vaccines DON’T cause autism. There IS, however, a VIDEO INTERVIEW with Julie Gerberding, former head of the CDC claiming that VACCINES DO CAUSE (what she refers to as) AUTISM-LIKE SYMPTOMS (to which we parents all laugh… what the hell are *autism-like symptoms* Must I remind those of this beauty? “There are no studies to date that prove cigarettes cause lung cancer” – CDC, 1958.

    You all are so quick to jump on the vaccine bandwagon of “they don’t they don’t they don’t”.. then please – enlighten us – oh wise ones, as to what else caused my child to regress after his 15-month shots? THOUSAND of children… Was it because he took a nap afterwards? Was it because we practiced the art of cellular respiration on a constant basis prior to, during and after the jabs? Was it because I took him for a car ride home afterwards instead of throwing him in a napsack and walking home? What then? What? What? None of you have an answer. Not a single, solitary one of you.

    Bravo to Mr. Macneil for bringing this open – knowing the amount of flack he and his daughter would receive by the unknowing and ignorant general public – the ones NOT in this battle. Bravo.

    One more thing. Vaccines cause autism. Word.

  13. Marsha McClelland says:

    I loved Common Sense’s comment. Thank you Seth for calling more attention to this matter. We, truth, needs all the help we can get so keep on trying to cover up the cover up. Kudos to Robert MacNeil. It will be brave people like him who will finally bring children in from harm’s way from bad drugs, vaccines & other toxins.

  14. Marsha McClelland says:

    Since Dr. Wakefield has been brought into this, as always, here are the facts of his vindication;

    Before the good doctor, Wakefield, was sacrificed & framed, we were already on the warpath to save our children from further harm. We thank him for his part in calling attention to the facts & helping raise awareness, knowing all the time his career would be at risk because of it.

    And his work has been replicated as I’ll show you in my next comment.

    Listen to this in depth round table investigation on Jan. 27th as the cover up is exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt;

    http://www.progressiveradionetwork.com/the-gary-null-show-wnye/

    Hear Brian Deer’s interview on Jan. 25th where he reveals, clearly, what’s really what. He hangs himself with his own words, dodging questions & changing the subject as anyone can see, in his obvious ploy to try to pull off the “Elaborate Fraud” he represents­­­­ but accuses Dr. Wakefield of.

    “Documents emerge proving Dr Andrew Wakefield innocent; BMJ and Brian Deer caught misreprese­­nting­­ the facts”

    http://nearing.newsvine.com/_news/2011/01/27/5935264-documents-emerge-proving-dr-andrew-wakefield-innocent-bmj-and-brian-deer-caught-misrepresenting-the-facts

    “Dr Wakefield demands retraction from BMJ after documents prove innocence from allegation­­­­s of vaccine autism data fraud

    http://www.activistpost.com/2011/01/dr-wakefield-demands-retraction-from.html

    “Wakefield Gives Proof: No Fraud. Brian Deer Lied”

    http://www.gaia-health.com/articles351/000394-wakefield-proof-no-fraud.shtml

  15. Marsha McClelland says:

    “In the years after his initial controvers­ial finding, linking the MMR vaccine to Crohn’s disease and autism, he published another 19 papers on the vaccine-in­duced disorder.

    All were peer reviewed. However, strangely enough, none of these 19 papers are ever discussed in the media. The only study that keeps seeing the light of day is the original study from 1998, along with the original questions about conflicts of interest, which he explains in great detail in this interview.

    This is very interestin­g indeed, because not only has he continued his own studies, but since then, a large number of replicatio­n studies have been performed around the world, by other researcher­s, that confirm his initial findings.

    It’s been replicated in Canada, in the US., in Venezuela, in Italy[but] they never get mentioned. All you ever hear is that no one else has ever been able to replicate the findings.

    I’m afraid that is false.

    For those of you who have swallowed this type of reporting hook line and sinker, here is a list of 28 studies from around the world that support Dr. Wakefield’­s controvers­ial findings.”

    1 The Journal of Pediatrics November 1999; 135(5):559­-63

    2. The Journal of Pediatrics 2000; 138(3): 366-372

    3. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003; 23(6): 504-517

    4. Journal of Neuroimmun­ology 2005

    5. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 1993; 7: 97-103

    6. Pediatric Neurology 2003; 28(4): 1-3

    7. Neuropsych­obiology 2005; 51:77-85

    8. The Journal of Pediatrics May 2005;146(5­):605-10

    9. Autism Insights 2009; 1: 1-11

    10. Canadian Journal of Gastroente­rology February 2009; 23(2): 95-98

    11. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry 2009:21(3)­: 148-161

    12. Journal of Child Neurology June 29, 2009; 000:1-6

    13. Journal of Autism and Developmen­tal Disorders March 2009;39(3)­:405-13

    14. Medical Hypotheses August 1998;51:13­3-144.

    15. Journal of Child Neurology July 2000; ;15(7):429­-35

    16. Lancet. 1972;2:883­-884.

    17. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophre­nia January-Ma­rch 1971;1:48-­62

    18. Journal of Pediatrics March 2001;138:3­66-372.

    19. Molecular Psychiatry 2002;7:375­-382.

    20. American Journal of Gastroente­rolgy April 2004;598-6­05.

    21. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003;23:50­4-517.

    22. Neuroimmun­ology April 2006;173(1­-2):126-34­.

    23. Prog. Neuropsych­opharmacol Biol Psychiatry December 30 2006;30:14­72-1477.

    24. Clinical Infectious Diseases September 1 2002;35(Su­ppl 1):S6-S16

    25. Applied and Environmen­tal Microbiolo­gy, 2004;

    26. Journal of Medical Microbiolo­gy October 2005;54:98­7-991

    27. Archivos venezolano­s de puericultu­ra y pediatría 2006; Vol 69 (1): 19-25.

    28. Gastroente­rology. 2005:128 (Suppl 2);Abstrac­t-303

    http://www­.ageofauti­sm.com/201­0/01/wakef­ields-scie­nce-proven­-valid-aga­in-in-new-­study-that­-replicate­s-findings­.html

    • Chris says:

      So which one of those includes a series of at least a dozen children, and is independent from Wakefield and his friends at Thoughtful House?

  16. KellyD says:

    By the way…*Common Sense* LOVED it. Nicely done.
    What happened to the *researcher* who supposedly came up with the vaccine-autism link study? Oh, thaaaaaaaaaaaat’s right. Indicted for fraud this week. Well, durn it, Mnookin. There goes your one source of a *scientific study*.

  17. christina says:

    Again, Seth Mnookin, were you in my house when my son regressed? I cannot unsee what we saw happening to him after vaccination. I don’t vaccinate my children anymore because of what we witnessed, not because another parent told me to be afraid. We all found each other AFTER regression, because of our common experience. And nothing you say can change that.

  18. Rileysmom1204 says:

    Did you write this all by yourself Seth?

  19. Melissa F says:

    I simply can not fathom how a journalist, coming out of retirement, to tell his Grandson’s truth, is embarrassing. What is embarrassing, is your constant disregard, for the people that are living this, everyday of their lives.
    I for one, am I fan of truth. If that is embarrassing to you, or any of your sheeple, I say climb right back into the hole, from which you came! To everyone else, educate before you vaccinate, the worst thing that can happen is not autism, but, death!

  20. Suso903 says:

    Well said, Common Sense. Seth, grow up and stop intentionally misleading people. It isn’t kind, and history will make a fool out of you. Just you wait. I for one won’t forget your cowardice.

  21. Heather says:

    Embarrassing, irresponsible, reckless?

    Kind-of your thing, not Robert MacNeil. His series is thoughtfully done, everyone should watch it.

    Do you remember writing this article?

    Harvard and heroin
    I coasted to an Ivy League degree as a drug addict, but forever damaged the bond between mother and son.

    BY SETH MNOOKIN

    http://www.salon.com/life/feature/1999/08/27/heroinson

  22. concerned parent says:

    If Robert MacNeil’s Autism Now series is careless and reckless as you claim, Mr Moonkin, than this most piece most certainly is a horrid, ugly, ginormous blemish on you. ICK is all I can say!

    Had you bothered to ask the parents that this actually concerns, you would see that we are quite pleased. It is obvious though, that to you, we obviously have no say and don’t matter.

  23. Pingback: Heroin and ad hominem attacks

  24. julia says:

    Judging from these emotion-filled replies, sounds like some of Seth’s words have hit home. This is the only thing the vaccine-phobic have going for them, they have plenty of adrenalin. Thank you, Seth for at least speaking the fact-filled truth.

    • julia says:

      Here is a very relevant photo from 1877 of a girl that had contracted diphtheria [the 'd" in DPT vaccines] and scarlet fever “…by age 17 she developed elephantiasis…”. Five days after the photo was taken the girl died. It is very relevant also that in this whole collection of historic photos that it mentions several times that infant mortality and childhood infectious diseases were common. The collections also contain photos of mothers holding deceased children. So, if the vaccine phobic need emotional anecdotes (as often they rely on them), these photos have it in spades. NSFW

      http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/04/a-collection-of-vernacular-and-historical-images.html

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