When “investigative reporting” becomes anti-vaccine propaganda

Introduction: The following is the text of a letter that I mailed to Bob Sliva, General Manager of WXYZ-TV in Detroit in response to arguably the most biased and incompetent “investigative report” about mercury, vaccines, or autism that I have ever seen. I sent the letter by snail mail, because I was always taught that that gets a station manager’s attention far better than e-mail. My plan was to allow the three days until today for the letter to arrive and then to publish the text of my letter here on SBM as an open letter. After I mailed my letter, I worried that no one would bother to look at links that they had to type in themselves, which is why I wanted to post this as an open letter whose link I could then e-mail to the station.

I also worried that maybe I had been insufficiently polite and persuasive, given that one is always urged not to be too insulting or strident when writing to a media outlet. After all, if I were too strident, Mr. Sliva would find it easy to write me off as a biased crank. I also worried that maybe I should have e-mailed Mr. Wilson first. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson is a serial offender. In 2003 and 2004, he did a series on mercury, vaccines, and autism that credulously parroted all the pseudoscience, distortions, and misinformation that we’ve come to expect from the anti-vaccine movement. About two weeks before the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, my routine monitoring of the anti-vaccine underground turned up references to a story that Wilson was working on about the rally and the thimerosal issue. Believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism described Wilson and his earlier report in glowing terms, which sent up huge red flags to me. The original links no longer function, but, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to find the transcripts of the original reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This “reporting” (if you can call it that) somehow garnered an Emmy Award, showing that an award, even a normally prestigious one, is no guarantee of anything resembling scientific accuracy in reporting.

However, it was Mr. Wilson’s comments and behavior after a post by a friend of mine, Dr. Peter Lipson, that made me realize that dealing directly with Wilson was a waste of time and that I was right to go straight to the General Manager. I’ll show why in an addendum and will also add references to sources that refute Wilson’s one-sided and credulous reporting. It’s funny how such a pit pull of an “investigative journalist” who goes after politicians and others with such tenacity can’t find it in himself to ask even a mildly probing question when interviewing “luminaries” such as Boyd Haley or parents with no scientific background repeating anti-vaccine talking points. In any case, here follows the text of the letter that I sent to Bob Sliva, the Vice President and General Manager of WXYZ-TV:

July 9,2008Bob Sliva
Vice President/General Manager
20777 West Ten Mile Road
Southfield, MI 48037

Dear Mr. Silva:

I am writing in regard to Steve Wilson’s report aired on the 11 PM news on July 8 entitled Some vaccines still contain mercury. As a cancer surgeon and native Detroiter who recently returned to southeast Michigan after living elsewhere for 20 years I was shocked and appalled both at how one-sided his report was and at the sheer level of misinformation Mr. Wilson managed to cram into such a brief segment. That WXYZ would air such an execrably researched and biased segment is the height of irresponsible journalism. Mr. Wilson clearly does not understand even the basics of evaluating scientific, clinical, and epidemiological evidence, and his story reflected that. It wasn’t even close to being fair and even-handed, containing numerous blatant and inexcusable inaccuracies, all on the side of stoking fear among parents that vaccines somehow cause autism. The scientific, clinical, and epidemiological evidence is quite strong that neither the mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines nor vaccines themselves cause autism.

Arguably the most egregious example of how biased and downright deceptive this report was came when Mr. Wilson referred to Dr. Boyd Haley as a “pioneer in the study of this issue.” Is Mr. Wilson aware that Haley is viewed by most scientists in the autism community as a pseudoscientist; that is, when he is even considered at all? Is he aware that Haley once referred to autism as “mad child disease” and that he once marketed a chelator for cats? Oddly enough, none of this unsavory background was mentioned. I am not pointing this out solely to impugn Dr. Haley but rather to point out that for Mr. Wilson to refer to him as a “pioneer” is deceptive in that it leaves out another very big side of the story and presents Dr. Haley as an “expert” whose opinion the audience should trust.

Worse, Dr. Haley cited a number of dubious sources of his own unchallenged, and Mr. Wilson duly listed them with no context. For example, he cited a study of monkeys that allegedly found that vaccinated primates showed increased neurological disorders and non-social behavior similar to autism. This study was exceedingly shoddy in design and execution, so much so that I consider it downright unethical. Not only did it not include even close to equal numbers of animals in the control and experimental groups, but it was published by Andrew Wakefield, whose litigation- and money-driven “research” ten years ago sparked a scare over the MMR vaccine that led to a decrease in vaccination and a resurgence of the measles and mumps in the U.K. Moreover, its lead investigator Laura Hewiston not only is married to the IT director for Dr. Wakefield’s clinic but has an autistic son and is a plaintiff in the Autism Omnibus case, in which thousands of parents are trying to obtain compensation for alleged vaccine injury from the now being heard. If that’s not a major conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. If Mr. Wilson had found a conflict of interest that blatant with, for example, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, you know he would be all over it.

Other equally dubious studies are mentioned. For example, it is stated, “A study of vaccination records which seems to match increased Autism with increased vaccinations containing mercury.” It turns out that “seems” is a good word, because I presume that the study to which Mr. Wilson refers is a recent study by Mark and David Geier, a father-and-son team of true believers in the mercury hypothesis who not only use chelation therapy on autistic children with no evidence to back it up but have developed the “Lupron protocol,” in which autistic children are claimed to have “precocious puberty” and then are treated with a powerful anti-androgen agent normally used to treat prostate cancer or to chemically castrate sex offenders. The study itself is also very poorly designed, as an epidemiologist showed quite clearly (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I would also point out that Dr. Mark Geier has also in the past served as an expert witness in vaccine litigation; that is, until enough judges so severely criticized him that he was not even called to testify for the plaintiffs during the Autism Omnibus.

Then we get to “facts” mentioned in Mr. Wilson’s report that are not even studies. For example, he cites the antivaccinationist canard that the Amish in Pennsylvania don’t vaccinate and they don’t get autism. That is false. The Amish do vaccinate, and they do get autism. This myth originated with Dan Olmsted, a former UPI reporter who is no longer with UPI but is now Editor of the Age of Autism, a website dedicated to promoting the belief that vaccines cause autism. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Wilson did not see fit to cite his source. Indeed, it is rather amazing that Mr. Olmsted neglected even to interview Dr. Strauss, a physician who treats special needs Amish children at the cryptically-named Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA. Also cited throughout is a three year old “expose” written by environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; however, Mr. Kennedy’s article was also riddled with misinformation and distortions. Indeed, Kennedy is not an objective source; rather, he is a true believer in the myth that thimerosal causes autism.

The most egregiously deceptive part of the report, however, was where Wilson stated: “She’s talking about a mercury-based vaccine preservative called Thimerosal…and the truth is there’s still as much as ever in 11 vaccines including most flu vaccines injected into pregnant women and kids, and some of them younger than 9 get two doses in a season. And also high levels of mercury from Thimerosal in tetanus shots and the boosters routinely injected into 11-year-olds…and also in some meningitis and diphtheria-tetanus formulas, too.”

Why is this deceptive? For one thing, even if vaccines actually did cause autism, they wouldn’t do so in a nine year old child. Yet Wilson includes the entire childhood immunization schedule in his list, all the way up to teens. Autism is usually diagnosed before age 3-5 these days, and often earlier. Indeed, it can sometimes be diagnosed as early as at one year of age. Moreover the “hypothesis” behind vaccine causation is that the mercury somehow damages a developing brain; earlier exposures matter, later exposures, not so much. So let’s look at the vaccination schedule and see what a typical child under six would get. I crosschecked the list with the list of vaccines and their thimerosal content. None of the vaccines routinely given to children under six contain thimerosal, other than the flu vaccine, and this is what the CDC says about the flu vaccine for children under two: “For the 2007-08 season, there is one product licensed for 6-23 month old children (the product is thimerosal-free).”

The bottom line is that thimerosal exposure in children is lower than it has been any time since the 1980s. So I ask Wilson: Why haven’t autism rates fallen, now that thimerosal has been out of nearly all childhood vaccines for over six years now? Every time this question is asked, supporters of the thimerosal myth handwave and shift the goalposts.

I conclude by making an observation. Back in February, your competitor WDIV-TV aired an incredibly credulous and bad story about “orbs,” in which it was speculated that these orbs were in fact ghosts or spirits. I had thought that that was the low point in journalism on Detroit television. I now change my assessement. At least stories about orbs are not likely to give a false impression that vaccines are not safe and thereby contribute to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease, as has happened in the U.K.


David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS


As I alluded in the introduction to the letter above, Mr. Wilson showed up in the comments of my friend’s blog. If you have any doubts that he’s either a true believer or a cynical reporter who sees a hot story and doesn’t particularly care whether it’s true or not, read on. Mr. Wilson’s comments are sarcastic, belligerent, and on the whole virtually fact-free. Wilson even cites the antivaccination website Generation Rescue as a source! Here are some examples:

Boy, you folks are awefully fired up about a report based on a CDC list of vaccines that still contain mercury while it is widely (and falsely) reported that the the heavy metal was altogether removed years ago.

Some of you more-vitriolic folks remind me of those who SWORE there was, and could not be, any link between tobacco and cancer. Have you seen some of the ads with docs in white coats saying something like: “Yeah, I recommend my patients have a smoke. It relaxes them!”

Surely we can agree on this:

1. Nobody knows what causes Autism and no study has ever proved or disproved to an accepted scientific certainty that mercury is a trigger in some cases;

2. Mercury, like lead, is a heavy metal that is toxic to humans and should be avoided at all costs;

3. 11 vaccines that can be injected into children (and pregnant women) still contain mercury despite the call nearly 10 years ago from the AAP, government and independent experts for it to be altogether removed;

4. Thimerosal does nothing to increase the efficacy of the vaccine. It exists only for the benefit–financial and otherwise–of those who make it, sell it and ultimately inject it.

So can one of you geniuses explain to me why in the world anybody in their right mind would want to inject the second-most toxic heavy metal known into the body of a baby? This seems like a good idea to some of you???

All of Wilson’s assertions were refuted by subsequent commenters, and his invocation of smoking is a favorite denialist technique known as the “science was wrong before” gambit (the implication being that the crank is right). Did getting thoroughly slapped down by multiple commenters stop him? Au contraire:

I could spend all day refuting the claims and assertions here, not to mention the personal attacks which wouldn’t be necessary at all, would it, if the facts were unequivocally in support of your position?

Say what you will, the science here is just not conclusive on either side. Even the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics has agreed with that.

Yes, HCN listed a bunch of studies, most of which have been seriously questioned by others. And lest anybody think all the science is one sided, those visiting here with an open mind may wish to visit here:

And please don’t waste more bandwidth arguing the weaknesses you see in those studies. As I already conceded, the science is not conclusive on either side–and I’m not the first, nor last, to mention the emperor without his clothes here. (I thought I’d try to work in a little sex just to spice up all this ranting from those who are taking themselves entirely too seriously.)

In other words, Mr. Wilson doesn’t want to be bothered with any inconvenient facts that get in the way of the story he wants to tell; so he instead relies on the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad ignorantiam. (Also, the science is pretty darned conclusive.) It’s also necessary to point out that Generation Rescue is hardly a reliable source for information about vaccines–or anything else for that matter. Remember, it’s the group that ran the highly deceptive advertisement in USA Today a few months ago to peddle toxic myths about vaccines.

When all else fails, Mr. Wilson changes the topic and equates two unrelated stories to make it seem as though questioning him is equivalent to agreeing with a bone-headed statement from a politician and then, like Brave Sir Robin, bravely runs away:

Now I’ve got to go help Phil Gramm spread the word to people losing their jobs, their homes, and their retirement savings that they’re just experiencing a mental recession. Like any suspicions about mercury in vaccines, all economic conditions some people are whining about are just in their heads! Some of you posters here with too much time on your hands need to shift over and share your genius with THOSE “maroons” who obviously just need your guidance to see The Truth.

With all due respect, I’m leaving you folks to continue to just talk amongst yourselves now.

I submit to Mr. Sliva that it is hardly professional behavior for a journalist to dismiss criticism this way, and it shows me that not bothering with Wilson was the correct thing to do. Moreover, Mr. Wilson demonstrated himself to be utterly unable to use evidence to defend a single one of his assertions. I have to wonder if he’s become so convinced of his rightness through his other work championing the “little guy” that he just automatically dismisses even valid criticisms of his reports as being just because his targets don’t like his reporting or because of ideology. He doesn’t seem capable of even considering the concept that the “little guy” isn’t always correct. When it comes to the anti-vaccination movement, that is surely true, and Wilson’s inability to dig up sources more reliable than Generation Rescue to defend himself from criticism shows it.

Investigative journalism is very important in a democracy for uncovering wrongdoing and malfeasance. However, in the hands of reporters with an agenda and no understanding of how science works, it can do enormous harm. Indeed, that’s what happened in the U.K., where measles, once conquered, has now become endemic again because of low vaccination rates in the wake of credulous reporting of Andrew Wakefield’s shoddy study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Meanwhile, here in the U.S. we seem to be on the same trajectory, just a few years behind.

And, although there is plenty of blame to go around, irresponsible reporters like Steve Wilson deserve a significant share of the blame for doing “investigative reports” that are in reality nothing more than thinly disguised anti-vaccine propaganda.

Resources to refute Mr. Wilson and other antivaccinationist propaganda:

  1. Careless reporting that won’t go away
  2. Questions for WXYZ
  3. WXYZ and bad “investigative” reporting
  4. Antivax lies from a local reporter
  5. Steve Wilson of WXYZ-TV in Detroit: Investigative journalist or anti-vaccine propagandist?
  6. The Media and Vaccines
  7. Media Coverage Influence on MMR Vaccination Rates
  8. Mercury Must Be Bad – If Not in Vaccines, In Teeth
  9. Mercury Excretion in Infants
  10. Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis
  11. Early Diagnosis of Autism – Implications for the Vaccine Hypothesis
  12. Toxic myths about vaccines
  13. One More Nail in the Mercury-Autism Coffin
  14. The Hannah Poling case and the rebranding of autism by antivaccinationists as a mitochondrial disorder
  15. Has the Government Conceded Vaccines Cause Autism?
  16. Mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants and autism: Is there a correlation?
  17. Monkey business in autism research
  18. Anti-Vaccinationists Bring a Knife to a Gun-fight
  19. Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”
  20. Drinking the Anti-Vaccine Kool-Aid
  21. Why the latest Geier & Geier paper is not evidence that mercury in vaccines causes autism
  22. Should We Study Chelation for Autism?

The contact information for WXYZ-TV can be found here. Feel free to watch the report and let Mr. Sliva know politely and citing evidence that shows just how badly Mr. Wilson messed up.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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