[Great swipe at what passes for journalism nowadays.  Most just sing the Pharma song like the pseudo-experts they are.]

December 15, 2008

Some New York Times Reporters are Just Ignorant

ReviewerBy J.B. Handley
There's a reporter named Gardiner Harris who writes for the New York Times. I've probably talked to a hundred or so reporters in my time and he is unquestionably the biggest jackass I have ever encountered. Aside from being snide, cynical, wildly biased, dismissive, and arrogant, there's also this ditty, in a private email to me that explains it all:

"but scaring parents away from life-saving medicines is no way to improve this terrible situation. i have met parents who lost their children to vaccine-preventable diseases, and they are haunted. if you had your way, there would be far more of these haunted souls. i hope to prevent that from happening." Gardiner Harris

So, he's also a vaccine zealot.

Needless to say that when I got the message that Donald McNeil from the New York Times had called on Friday for an interview, I just shook my head. Do I really have the time to waste on another trap at the New York Times, so I can see whatever I say put in the worst possible light in print no matter what I do? Stubbornly, and probably against my better judgment, I called him back.
Before the interview, I took a quick look at Donald's bio, and here's what I found:

"Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a science and health reporter specializing in plagues and pestilences. He covers diseases of the world's poor, AIDS, malaria, avian flu, SARS, mad cow disease and so on. He also writes features and first-person pieces for other sections. He joined the Times in 1976 as a copy boy and has been a night rewrite man, an environmental reporter, a theater columnist and an editor. From 1995 to 2002 he was a foreign correspondent based in South Africa and France and has reported from 49 countries."

Plagues, diseases of the poor, SARS, and mad cow disease? I held no hope - most journalists who specialize in these topics believe vaccines are the answer for all the ills that face the world. It got worse when I started to read the articles Donald McNeil had actually written. Just consider some of these headlines:

Sharp Drop Seen in Deaths From Ills Fought by Vaccine

New Vaccine Said to Offer Hope Against Deadly Bacterium

Avian Flu Pandemic Still Possible, Experts Say

Study Casts Doubt on Theory Of Vaccines' Link to Autism

Oh good God, I thought, this guy is drinking the kool-aid like the other New York Times reporters. Just for fun I Googled "Donald McNeil New York Times Paul Offit" and wouldn't you know, the quote machine has been very busy with Mr. McNeil, featured in nearly every article he has written on anything anywhere to do with vaccines. See for yourself.

My cell phone rang. It was Donald McNeil. He tells me he's writing a review of Paul Offit's book. Interesting that a book sitting at #8,219 on sales rank at Amazon hits the New York Times radar, but there you go.

The interview began. Unlike Gardiner, Donald McNeil was a pleasant guy from the outset, clear and straightforward in his goals. He mentioned Offit's book, that there was certainly some controversy, and what did I think about it all.

I think my initial answer surprised him. To paraphrase myself I said:

"Offit's book is a disappointment. For something like autism, where none of our health authorities have any explanation of cause or cure, we have a whole community of doctors and parents who are actually recovering children. And, without ever treating an autistic child, interviewing a DAN! doctor who treats them, or exploring the several hundred case reports of complete recovery and thousands of stories of improvement, without ever looking into any of this, Offit says its all bullshit. I just don't understand how someone who considers themselves a doctor could do that."

And here is what I am going to tell you about Donald McNeil: he was completely and utterly clueless. He'd never heard kids actually recover. He'd never heard of cases of children, now neurotypical, with detailed medical records and case reports charting their recovery. He didn't know tens of thousands of kids are truly recovering from autism and being treated by doctors with medical degrees just like Offit. From his perspective there's a lie by Andy Wakefield, one death from chelation, and a bunch of quackery. Substance to what we are actually saying and doing? He had no clue.

The conversation continued. He said Offit has a simple position on our community: greedy lawyers and opportunistic doctors prey on desperate parents, and that's all we are. What did I think of that?

I told him Vaccine Court lawyers are paid by the hour, as far as I knew, so hard to fathom they are chasing a great fortune. On the quack doctor side, I took him through my own neighborhood. Six kids with ASD at my son's school. Three completely recovered, all from the same doctor. Doctors don't stay in business very long without results, and I have seen some great results. Has he ever looked? Of course he hasn't. He had no idea.

He then asked the annoying question, the one that Offit deems important to tell every reporter he talks to. He said Offit can't do a book tour for his book because of his fear for his safety because he has gotten death threats. What did I think of this?

My first answer, which is probably the one he'll use, came from the instinctive side of my brain:

"Many of us on our side of the debate get threats, too, we're just not wimps who whine about it. It comes with the territory."

I went on to say that a death threat is never OK, I condemn it, and whomever did it should be prosecuted. At the same time, what I wish I'd said was, "What the hell does that have to do with whether or not he is right or wrong?"

We went on to the next topic, which was probably my favorite. I took him to task on the sweeping statements he and his colleagues make that the science proves "vaccines don't cause autism." I took him through how every single study Offit and others cite only compare vaccinated kids to other vaccinated kids. I asked him to try and name any other drug on the planet where they try to assess adverse events by only looking at people who have received the drug in question. I explained how important it is to look at unvaccinated kids, something people like Offit never advocate doing.

His answer?

"Looking at unvaccinated kids would be immoral."

Now, let me explain. Donald McNeil, senior medical writer at the New York Times, didn't even know unvaccinated kids exist. He thought I meant you would do a study where you told parents not to vaccinate their babies. The idea that unvaccinated kids live in the US or that they need to be considered came from left field. He'd simply never considered such a simple notion and, I'm guessing, never realized all the science from the other side only looked at vaccinated kids.

By the end of the call, it hit me vaccines are the Bernie Madoff of the drug industry. Madoff could do no wrong. Don't understand how he makes his money? No problem. Seems impossible for him to generate the returns he generated? No problem. Government agencies have taken a look and found nothing wrong? No problem? Everyone else who matters says he's the real deal? No problem. $50 billion in losses later, big problem.

Donald McNeil, a reporter for the New York Times, believes vaccines can solve many of the world's health problems. Paul Offit, who he has quoted in many of his stories, is a trusted source and insider. Autism is up 60-fold? So what? Offit will explain it to him. Offit can be trusted. He's a doctor. We're crazy, desperate parents. We think some vaccines or too many vaccines might actually cause side effects. Our position can't possibly be believed, he just calls us for a quote.

Donald McNeil doesn't strike me as a zealot. I don't think he writes his articles so pharma will buy ads or take him on junkets. He's simply ignorant of this topic, and his preconceived notion that he understands what's going on leads him down a certain path of who to trust and what to write. Did I succeed in changing his understanding? I doubt it. Expect a glowing review on False Prophets soon.

Author's note: More information on my own experience with Paul Offit's new book will be forthcoming shortly.

J.B. Handley is co-founder of Generation Rescue and a contributor to Age of Autism.