Rolling Stone Retracts Autism Article, but Lots of Junk Journalism Remains

Last Updated Jan 22, 2011 6:53 PM EST

Rolling Stone's retraction* of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s 2005 article "Deadly Immunity," which claimed that vaccines cause autism, is welcome -- but it also points the spotlight at a lot of other journalists who have published utter garbage about vaccines over the years. Some of their most prominent work -- giving sympathetic airings to the notion that vaccines may be dangerous -- remains out there on the Web, uncorrected, as if it were still true.

Kennedy's Rolling Stone article originally said that "... the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real." But since The Lancet retracted the original piece of research that made that link, and since the British Medical Journal then revealed that the study wasn't merely a mistake but an outright fraud, the entire notion that vaccination and autism are somehow linked has been thoroughly debunked.

Those aren't the only retractions. A federal court of appeals recently found that a Dublin laboratory that purportedly found measles virus in the guts of autistic children who had been given a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine must have faked its results.

Salon editor Joan Walsh, who also published Kennedy's story, said:

... continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do.
Walsh's action is unusual however. Here's a brief list of some of the more prominent pieces of junk journalism you can find on the web that reporters and editors have made no effort to amend or correct:

CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson* has been more sympathetic than most over the years to individuals who claim that vaccines have something to do with autism. In 2004 she produced a report that said:

Nobody makes the claim that all ADD and autism cases are caused by the mercury in vaccines. But many researchers believe it plays a large role in our epidemic of the 1990s.

[*Disclosure: BNET is owned by CBS.]
In 2008, Attkisson wrote a blog item about a Public Library of Science study that showed no vaccine-autism link. But instead of describing the study, Attkisson quoted in full and verbatim an "opposing analysis" by the "researchers" at Thoughtful House. Thoughtful House is the former employer of Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced researcher whose bogus Lancet article first linked vaccines to autism. (That's him to the right.)

The U.K's Daily Mail for years kept up a drumbeat of stories about vaccines and autism. Here's a typical one, "Scientists fear MMR link to autism," quoting Wakefield:

This new study confirms what we found in British children and again with Professor O'Leary. The only exposure these children have had to measles is through the MMR vaccine.
'They were developing normally until they regressed. They now suffer autism and bowel disease.
The author of the study Wakefield was referring to later said his study claimed no such link.

Fox & Friends' Alisyn Camerota last year aired a piece titled "Autism correlation coverup?" that suggested the government was forcing parents of autistic children to jump through impossible hoops to prove that vaccines are damaging. Autism News Beat has a good explanation of why Camerota's piece is baloney, but even better than that Fox News itself reported this year that "Study Linking Vaccine to Autism Was 'Elaborate Fraud.'"

The Huffington Post continues to publish the blog of Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy model who still believes vaccines cause autism, as if nothing has happened, and as if she doesn't have a history of getting things wrong. On Jan. 10, days after the study by Wakefield was revealed as a conspiracy cooked up by anti-vaccine activists hoping to win a lawsuit, McCarthy wrote:

Dr. Wakefield did something I wish all doctors would do: he listened to parents and reported what they said.

... Since when is repeating the words of parents and recommending further investigation a crime?

In fact, research fraud -- which is what Wakefield allegedly did -- is a crime in the U.S.
The good news is that Google's search algorithm is doing its job: The wave of media coverage about the debunking of the Wakefield study has buried thousands of poorly reported stories from the mid-2000s in which activists with theories got sympathetic treatment while the boring, high-quality evidence was ignored. But still, it would be nice if the media could admit they're wrong every now and again.

*As Retraction Watch makes clear, Rolling Stone deleted the story from its site without explanation. Only Salon explained its errors.
Related: