PBS blunders on vaccines and autism

Earlier this week, the NewsHour on PBS – usually one of the best news shows on TV – featured a segment on “Parents’ fear of vaccines.” The transcript of the May 22 show, available here, illustrates how badly the news media tends to report science. One reason for this flawed reporting is the media’s belief – probably stemming from training in journalism schools – that they need to present “both sides” of a story.

The story opens well, with a tale of a child in San Diego, California, who had to be quarantined because she was exposed to measles. The source was a 7-year-old boy who’d been exposed to the measles in Switzerland, and who hadn’t been vaccinated. The mother was shocked and upset that her daughter had to be quarantined. The un-vaccinated boy caused 70 children to be quarantined, 11 to come down with measles, and 1 to be hospitalized. Fortunately, all the children recovered.

Then the story goes off the rails: the reporter interviewed a mother – with no medical or scientific training – who read on the Internet “that the information I was getting from the mainstream medical community wasn't necessarily accurate. Nobody told me about possible reactions, such as increased chances of allergies, increased chances of asthma, increased chances of autoimmune disease. Nobody told me any of that.”

Well, nobody told her that because it isn’t true. However, the intrepid PBS reporter, Betty Ann Bowser, said it this way: “nobody told her that vaccines trigger autism in children, as she read on the Internet, because most doctors don't believe that's true.”

Here we have error number one: by saying “most doctors,” Bowser instantly implies that some doctors think otherwise. How is the viewer to know who is right? Bowser then goes on to report on the fraudulent 1998 study linking vaccines to autism (see my earlier blog post for much more on this), which she correct said “has since been discredited.” But then Bowser reported that “At the time, many vaccines contained a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, and some research linked it to autism. By 2002, thimerosal had been removed from most vaccines. And since then, study after study has found no connection between vaccines and autism.”

Error number two: research did NOT link thimerosal to autism. This was one of the bogus claims – also discredited – made by Andrew Wakefield and others in their attempts to link vaccines to autism. As I reported earlier, Wakefield’s original study was discredited and his own co-authors repudiated it, after they learned (among other things) that he was being paid huge fees by a lawyers’ group that was attempting to sue vaccine makers. Multiple studies have failed to show any link between thimerosal and autism. And that’s the best science can do: if there isn’t a link, we can never prove a negative, we can only show that the evidence doesn’t support a link.

The PBS story then righted itself a bit, quoting a medical researcher (Dr. Anne Schuchat) on the enormous benefits that childhood vaccines have produced:
“The vaccines that babies get today are preventing about 33,000 deaths over the course of those babies' lives, preventing 14 million infections, and also saving about $43 billion.”
But Bowser (the reporter) didn’t stop there – she had to report (error number three) “the other side.” So she quoted Jay Gordon, a pediatrician who is in the Wakefield camp – he thinks vaccines cause autism, despite the lack of evidence. Bowser reports that “not one of his 3,000 patients has been vaccinated against all the diseases recommended by the government; 50 percent of them haven't been vaccinated at all.” And she quotes Gordon saying
“I think the children who receive no vaccines at all are statistically safe…. Vaccines are causing an increase in the incidence of everything from diabetes to multiple sclerosis to other autoimmune diseases. And these are extremely rare occurrences, OK -- overstating it, OK, isn't honest, but it's happening.”
Wow, this is really damaging stuff. How many parents will withhold vaccines from their kids after hearing this? There is no scientific evidence to support Gordon’s position, and a great deal of evidence contradicting it. And his phrase “statistically safe” is tragically wrong – individually, some of these children will likely be fine, but statistically speaking, they are clearly in danger, and furthermore they are endangering their communities.

Jay Gordon is a charlatan. He is a well-known pediatrician who has appeared on countless news shows, and he clearly enjoys the publicity – and the money – he gets from being a public figure. For some interesting rebuttals of Gordon’s mistaken claims about autism, see this Skeptico blog from 2005 and the detailed rebuttal by Orac, who points out that Gordon is a big fan of David and Mark Geier, two frauds who are little more than professional expert witnesses and consultants for people suing vaccine makers.

Unfortunately, Bowser (the reporter) didn’t bother to look for skeptical views about Gordon, but apparently was happy to have someone to present “the other side.” By giving a platform on a widely respected news show to these anti-vaccine charlatans, the NewsHour and PBS are doing more harm than they realize.

Towards the end of the piece, Bowser brings in another medical expert, Dr. James Cherry, a professor at UCLA who does research on vaccines. Cherry helps right the ship (which the reporter is determined to sink) in this exchange:
DR. JAMES CHERRY: I think it's terrible [Dr. Gordon's practices, that is]. Once those children start crawling around, they're going to need tetanus [vaccines]. They're exposed to tetanus and injury, and they're going to have to be treated, and the treatment is going to be far worse. And it's actually bad for these people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is that irresponsible?

DR. JAMES CHERRY: Well, in my opinion, it is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is he doing something dangerous?

Too bad Bowser didn’t end there. But instead, she ended with a quote from Bernadine Healy, a former Director of NIH. Astonishingly, Healy said “Vaccines are safe, but there may be the susceptible group. I think the public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without sufficient studies of causation.”

I don’t know what studies Healy has been reading – if any – but she’s out of her depth here. The NewsHour missed a great opportunity to educate the public and improve the health of our children. My fear is that they’ve contributed to a trend – withholding vaccines from children – that will lead to many needless illnesses, and deaths, in the years to come.


  1. You are performing a valuable service here. Journalism schools are generating idiots--unable to read science, unable to master a foreign languge, unable to accurately take down the details someone says/writes, unable to synthesize views and bodies of evidence--in short, high school grads with a penchant for violence, sex, and anything else exaggerated that will get them "column inches". Vile beings who are a major cause of the bad stuff they report on.

    Thanks for your undoing of a tiny fraction of their evil.

  2. Unfortunately, most of the people who are intelligent enough to read your blog are already getting their children vaccinated. I'm a baby boomer and several of my childhood friends had a parent who had been crippled by polio. It never even crossed my mind not to vaccinate my child.


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