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Age of Autism and Sharyl Attkisson of CBS: In bed together to bring antivaccination propaganda to the masses?

Remember how on Monday I posted a dissection of some truly execrable reporting on vaccines and potential conflicts of interest (COIs) by Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News that aired one week ago today? As you may recall, my main point was that Attkisson’s reporting was lazy, describing nothing that couldn’t be found from public sources, and biased in that it intentionally used inflammatory language in order to bias the reader/audience against Dr. Paul Offit and the American Academy of Pediatrics right off the bat before even describing the supposed COI. I further made the point that it’s rather convenient how Attkisson harps on disclosed COIs of Dr. Offit while totally ignoring the many undisclosed COIs of “investigators” on the “vaccines cause autism” (or, as I now like to call them, the antivaccine brigade), sarcastically wondering if Ms. Attkisson was planning a second part of her story to look at some old “friends” such as Mark and David Geier, Andrew Wakefield, and others who have profited enormously from vaccine fearmongering and even generated what we in the biz call “litigation-driven” research in order to promote the belief that somehow, some way, autism’s got to be all about the vaccines.

Of course, I knew the answer to that question right off the bat, given that Attkisson had previously revealed her sympathies to the anti-vaccine movement last year in a crank-fest of a piece. However, as much as I knew that Attkisson was sympathetic to Generation Rescue and the antivaccine movement, I had no idea just how much–that is, until yesterday, when something happened that gives me reason to believe that Attkisson and Kim Stagliano or one of the merry band of antivaccinationists at that repository of all things antivaccine, Age of Autism, are the best of buds, or at least working together. See what happened for yourself and then ask yourself if you can come up with a better explanation.

Earlier this week, after Attkisson’s biased article, Lisa Randall of Voices for Vaccines, a pro-vaccination group trying desperately to hold back the tide of antivaccination nonsense sweeping through the country at the moment, FAXed CBS News a letter complaining about Attkisson’s story. This is the text of the letter:

Voices For Vaccines objects to the defamatory allegations made by the CBS Evening News on Friday, July 25, against the American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child By Two, and the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with our colleague Dr Paul Offit singled out for baseless criticism.

It is our privilege to partner with these institutions in our mission to disseminate reliable information about vaccines. These groups advocate for immunization based on the overwhelming evidence for the lifesaving power of vaccination, and motivated by a sincere concern for the health of America’s children. It is preposterous and deeply offensive for CBS to suggest otherwise by insinuating that the pharmaceutical industry improperly influences the views of these vaccine advocates.

An obvious starting point for an unbiased reporter assigned to investigate this possibility would have been to determine whether the advocates’ recommendations were in accord with the scientific consensus on immunization, as articulated by neutral bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (In fact, all three subjects of the CBS story do promote vaccination according to federal guidelines.)

In contrast, Sharyl Attkisson relied solely upon tangential observations in concluding that the judgment of these respected authorities has been co-opted by drug companies. Ms Attkisson’s choice to pursue her story even after failing to uncover any evidence of malfeasance reveals not bias on the part of the story’s subjects, but on the part of Ms Attkisson herself Professionalism required her to acknowledge that the targets of her story have done nothing other than emphasize to the public that which is well known to science. that vaccines allow children to grow up safe and healthy.

We call upon CBS to issue a retraction of Ms. Attkisson’s report and an apology to the individuals and institutions whose good and honorable work in the field of immunization has been smeared. We further ask CBS to reflect upon the fact that it does not befit a user of the public airwaves to broadcast misleading claims about the most important public health measure of our time.

These are, of course, all very reasonable criticisms of Attkisson’s hit piece. But here’s the interesting part. Guess what the date was on the letter? It was July 31. Now guess what appeared on that repository of antivaccine propaganda, Age of Autism on July 31, posted by Kim Stagliano? This article:


And guess what was in this post? I’ll tell you. The post included as part of it the complete text of Lisa Randall’s letter, which was addressed to Katie Couric; Katie Boyle, Senior Producer; Jonathan LaPook, MD, Medical Correspondent; and Sharyl Attkisson, Reporter. Hmmm. Indeed, yesterday, there was even a link to a PDF of the actual letter, although the link appears to have been removed since then. Fortunately, Liz at I Speak of Dreams downloaded the PDF and hosted it at her own blog, in which she comments on this case as well. Doesn’t it strike you as incredibly suspicious just how fast this letter went from CBS to Age of Autism. It does me.

How do you think the antivaccine propagandists at AoA got a hold of this letter so quickly, within less than a day after its being sent? Although it’s theoretically possible, I seriously doubt that Katie Couric, Katie Boyle, or Jonathan LaPook sent it to them. They have no reason to be sympathetic to AoA, Generation Rescue, or their other fellow travelers in the antivaccine movement, nor do they have a reason to give such a quick heads-up to antivaccinationists. That leaves one of two possibilities: Either some poor intern or secretary who collects and distributes FAXes tipped off Stagliano or someone else at AoA. That possibility, too, seems unlikely.

So what possibility seems the most likely? Stop me if I’m too far off base here, but maybe–just maybe–we should look to the reporter who has an established track record of stories sympathetic to the antivaccine movement and suspicious of vaccine manufacturers. Maybe–just maybe–this very same reporter is in just a little too close with Generation Rescue and its merry band of antivaccinationists over at AoA. Maybe–just maybe–given her preexisting sympathy to the view that there is a vast pharma conspiracy to suppress any hint of any complications from vaccines by pouring cash into the coffers of shills in academia and industry, Attkisson leapt to the conclusion that Randall’s letter was an industry counterattack. After all, AoA has been trying unsuccessfully to smear Voices for Vaccines as an industry shill for a while now. If Attkisson has ties to Generation Rescue and/or members of the AoA crew, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s heard the same dark insinuations that AoA has been posting in the form of articles designed to paint Voices for Vaccines as a pro-industry front group, posts such as:

This is a typical Age of Autism smear campaign. As Mike Stanton points out, Voices for Vaccines accepts no funding from governments of vaccine companies and has only one staff member, with office space provided by a nonprofit organization. It’s about as far from an industry front group as can be imagined.

CBS News clearly has a problem. Whether it’s Sharyl Attkisson (most likely) or someone else, there is a someone so sympathetic to antivaccine groups in its organization that he or she leaked a FAX to CBS almost instantaneously after it was received. Whatever the case, the objectivity of CBS News is now in serious question based on this incident. My personal take on this is that the culprit was almost certainly one biased and lazy reporter, Sharyl Attkisson, who leaked the FAX to the antivaccinationist contingent at Age of Autism. In any event, CBS clearly needs to investigate its investigative reporters. One of them appears to be so biased that she represents a rapid and personal pipeline to either Kim Stagliano (who reposted the FAX on AoA) or someone in Generation Rescue or associated with Age of Autism.

I think it’s a good time here to point out that not all potential COIs involve money. In fact, many do not. Strong personal beliefs can also represent a COI, as can being too cozy with a specific advocacy organization or political group. I now believe that Sharyl Attkisson has a conflict of interest every bit as bad as the exaggerated one of which she accuses Paul Offit. She has clearly drunk the antivaccine Kool Aid to the point where she can no longer even make a pretense of even a hint of objectivity regarding the issue of vaccines. Moreover, so biased is she that apparently she cannot be bothered to investigate for herself if AoA’s accusations against Voices for Vaccines have any merit (they don’t) before striking back at the organization by instantaneously leaking its letter of protest to CBS News. Attkisson no longer deserves the appellation of “investigative reporter.” But, no worry, I’m sure that as soon as she inevitably self-destructs from her own biased reporting that there’ll be a place for her as a “correspondent” at Age of Autism. She can hang out with other journalists-turned propagandists, such as David Kirby and Dan Olmsted, and indulge her belief that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of bad things to her heart’s content.

ADDENDUM: The contact page for CBS News is here. Scroll down to the “Contact Us” link at the bottom, and a web form to send feedback will appear. Please use it to tell CBS News that such behavior on the part of one of its reporters is unacceptable and to demand that they investigate their “investigative journalist.”

Also, here is some other commentary worth reading:

  1. Voices for Vaccines reply to CBS
  2. Two Part Criticism of Sharyl Attkisson’s Lack of Journalistic Ethics
  3. The Curious Reports of Vaccines and Autism on CBS
  4. Dear CBS Evening News

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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