A News from Underground exclusive
Warning shots: Who’s behind the campaign to keep vaccine talk off “The View”?
By Steve Schneider
When it was announced that Jenny McCarthy would be joining TV’s “The View,” America’s op-ed pages were filled with the protests of pundits worried that she would use her position on the show to further her crusade against childhood vaccinations. (McCarthy claims that her son was afflicted with autism and blames vaccines for his condition; she has urged other parents to question and/or reject the vaccinations many pediatricians recommend.) For some of McCarthy’s detractors, whether or not she would actually get to discuss vaccines on the program, and to what degree, was almost immaterial: **Slate**’s Phil Plait argued that just by having her on the show, its producers were lending tacit credibility to a cause that he (like many other advocates of the pharmaceutical status quo, both official and self-appointed) considers reprehensibly dangerous.
Plait had already orchestrated a reader write-in campaign to prevent the hiring from going through. Though it failed, the tactic is now being revisited in a petition circulated by Change.org, which seeks to have McCarthy replaced on “The View” before she can even shoot an episode as a series regular. That petition, curiously, is bylined “by Voices for Vaccines; St. Paul, Minnesota.”
So what is Voices for Vaccines, and why is it authoring Change.org’s content? On its own website, Voices for Vaccines describes itself as “a parent-driven organization supported by scientists, doctors, and public health officials that provides parents clear, science-based information about vaccines and vaccine-preventable disease…” But one look at the specific names involved makes it clear why the organization might be very interested in preventing any anti-vaccination talk from coming to “The View.” The Scientific Advisory Board of VFV includes one Paul A. Offit, identified in a CBS News report as holding a $1.5 million dollar Merck-funded research chair at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. According to CBS, Offit “holds the patent on an anti-diarrhea vaccine he developed with Merck”; in 2008, future royalties for that vaccine, Rotateq, were sold for $182 million, CBS reported.
The money trail doesn’t stop there. According to Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the non-profit National Vaccine Information Center, the Voices for Vaccines board is rounded out by another advisor (Stanley A. Plotkin) who is a vaccine developer, and two others (Alan R. Hinman and Deborah L. Wexler) with significant ties to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That last connection isn’t as innocuous as it might sound: As Maine-based M.D. and public-health blogger Meryl Nass explains, the pharmaceutical industry “funds CDC through the conduit CDC Foundation”; in turn, CDC funds the Immunization Action Coalition, another pro-vaccination advocacy group. (Voices for Vaccines advisor Wexler also heads the IAC.)
Voices for Vaccines is itself an offshoot project of the Task Force for Global Health. The Task Force’s board of directors is chaired by Jane Fugate Thorpe, an Atlanta products-liability lawyer whose official bio trumpets her “strategic defense of industry-leading corporations and industry coalitions, particularly with regard to Daubert strategies.” (“Daubert” refers to the standard governing the admissibility of expert testimony at trial.) In other words, Thorpe has made her reputation shielding product manufacturers from individuals like the concerned parents VFV purports to represent.
What’s notable about all this is its very brazenness: A few quick clicks and a smattering of Google searches is all it takes to bring up the relevant connections and allegiances. Voices for Vaccines isn’t making much of an effort to hide its vested interest in ensuring that the products from which its members profit aren’t questioned on national television. Similarly, Change.org – which last year decided to renounce progressive values in order to provide a platform for “a wider diversity of participants and perspectives” – isn’t doing a very good job of obscuring its newfound role as the willing transmitter of corporate propaganda. In revealing the site’s shift in focus, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim named “astroturf campaigns” as one of the project types Change.org was now open to taking on; helping vaccine developers quash potential criticism from behind a thin veneer of citizen concern would seem to fit that definition rather snugly.
It’s also significant that the involved parties aren’t content to wait until McCarthy says something “objectionable” about vaccinations on-air so they can respond to it. That might lead to a genuine national conversation about vaccines – their pros and cons, their benefits and risks, and whether they cause and/or trigger conditions like autism, as opposed to merely appearing coincidentally with them. But even permitting such an exchange of views to take place could have a negative effect on the popularity of the products — which might be one reason why the medical establishment seems perennially quick to treat the safety of vaccines as a settled issue. “In a more rational world, this discussion would be un-reopenable,” Offit told National Geographic. “The answerable questions have all been answered.” And as reader Brian Franklin responded, “What kind of scientist says that?”