Jan 10 2017

Cleveland.com Doubles Down on Fail

vaccine-shot-promoThere are several phases to a serious gaffe. First, there are the conditions which led to or allowed the gaffe to occur. Then there is the gaffe itself. There is then the response of the person or institution who committed the gaffe – which is perhaps the most important phase . Finally, there may or may not be a long term correction of the underlying conditions.

Over the weekend, as I discussed yesterday, Dr. Daniel Neides, Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, published an anti-vaccine screed on cleveland.com. I won’t bother debunking the anti-vaccine pseudoscience again, just read my post from yesterday. You can also read David Gorski’s excellent take down at Science-Based Medicine.

Suffice it to say the column was full of misinformation and common anti-vaccine tropes that are long debunked. The publication of a dangerous anti-science rant by Cleveland Clinic’s Director of the Wellness Center was, of course, the gaffe.

The conditions that led to that gaffe are obvious, and something about which my SBM colleagues and I have complained for years- the infiltration of alternative medicine pseudoscience into academic medical institutions. Cleveland Clinic has an “integrative medicine” center headed by Mark Hyman, who co-authored an anti-vaccine book. The Wellness Center itself embraces all sorts of vitalistic nonsense and pseudoscience.

As David says – no one should be surprised when the director of a center that embraces quackery publishes an article that embraces quackery.

The Response

Cleveland.com’s response to the gaffe turned it into a full PR meltdown. We had hoped that as the workweek resumed, they would have put their heads together and appropriately managed the situation, but that did not happen. Instead, they doubled down on their initial failure as an academic medical institution.

Over the weekend the original article was taken down for a few hours, but was then restored. That was just evidence that they don’t have their act together.

Chris Quinn, Vice President of Content, cleveland.com, has now written an article explaining what happened.

Around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, I received an email from a reader expressing outrage about the removal of the Neides column from our site. I was surprised by the email, as nothing should be deleted from our site without my approval, and we very rarely remove articles and columns from our site and do so only with much deliberation. We own the rights to everything published on our site, with rare exceptions.

I checked, and the column was not just unpublished, it was entirely gone from our system.

I sent a note to the reader to thank him for the alert, and we set about restoring the column, and the many comments associated with it. We found it in an archive, and within an hour or so, we republished it.

So they didn’t have full control of their own content – but really that is the least of their problems. I will get to Quinn’s article in more detail, as it represents the core failure I want to discuss in this article.

Over the weekend the Cleveland Clinic also published their own statement, which to their credit disavowed Neides’ views:

“Cleveland Clinic is fully committed to evidence-based medicine. Harmful myths and untruths about vaccinations have been scientifically debunked in rigorous ways. We completely support vaccinations to protect people, especially children who are particularly vulnerable. Our physician published his statement without authorization from Cleveland Clinic. His views do not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”

Such a statement, however, is a minimal response. It looks as if they are just giving themselves plausible deniability and distancing themselves from the controversy. Unless they take concrete action to correct the underlying problems, I would find this statement insufficient and even insincere.

Neides also published a classic notpology:

“I apologize and regret publishing a blog that has caused so much concern and confusion for the public and medical community. I fully support vaccinations and my concern was meant to be positive around the safety of them.”

Right – he apologized for the controversy, not for being an irresponsible anti-vaccine pseudoscientist using the imprimatur of the Cleveland Clinic to spread dangerous misinformation. The notion that his article was meant to be “positive around the safety” of vaccines is double-speak BS. It was blatantly anti-vaccine.

OK – that was over the weekend. That was immediate emergency damage control. What is their more thoughtful full response? What “appropriate disciplinary action” will they take?

Teach the Controversy

Here is the core of Quinn’s explanation for why cleveland.com is leaving the post live on their website:

This column has become the topic of a widespread conversation. At cleveland.com, we strive to be the center of conversation, so we are loath to remove something that has become central to a debate.

As I said, if we had learned that Neides was pushing discredited anti-vaccination arguments before the column had become part of a bigger conversation, we might have asked him or the Clinic for revisions. By the time we knew of it, the conversation was raging.

What a total cop out. They are seriously taking a “Teach the controversy” position? Posting dangerous misinformation in order to be the “center of conversation” is a serious breach of jouralistic standards.

Also – there is no legitimate scientific debate about the safety of vaccines and the lack of any link to autism. This is a manufactroversy, a false debate. It is misleading and irresponsible to pretend that there is any real debate over the issue, and to host an article defending the debunked side of this false debate.

Also, if they learned about it ahead of time, they “might have asked him…for revisions?” Really? They would have published it with revisions? It is hard to imagine what revisions would have saved that article, since it was pure misinformation from beginning to end.

In the comments Quinn reinforces this position:

It’s a guest column. Not a news story. It’s clearly labeled as such, along with information about the person who wrote it. We run guess (sic) columns every day. We seek to be a platform that welcomes a great many voices and perspectives.

So, your goal is to be Facebook or Twitter? A news outlet is not supposed to be a platform for many voices and perspectives, but a source of trusted and vetted information. There are plenty of places on the web where anti-vaccine nonsense has a home, cleveland.com does not need to give it one.

This response is also incredibly naive. Has Quinn not been paying attention to social media the last few years? (I actually think he probably hasn’t.) Readers generally do not take note if an article is an opinion piece vs a news story. They may not even notice if it is advertising or satire. Further, the article will be spread via social media, where it will become a disconnected piece of information. Many readers will not look much past the headline.

Essentially, what will be spread around is that a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic thinks vaccines are unsafe because Big Government and Big Corporations cannot be trusted. This will spread unwarranted fears about vaccines, and it will contribute to the false controversy and will likely lead to an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases.

This article has not contributed to the conversation. The points made have already been thoroughly debunked. All they have accomplished is giving a shot in the arm (pun intended) to anti-vaccine nonsense, they have lent their reputation to dangerous misinformation, and they have sullied their own reputation.

Again, I have to point out that this is not about censorship. This is about editorial quality control. Cleveland.com does not owe a platform to misinformation. They are not keeping anyone from expressing themselves in public or on their own or other appropriate platforms. They should simply be quality-controlling their own content.

In this case they have contributed to what I consider to be one of the greatest challenges our society currently faces – the homogenization of information. Social media has rendered all sources of information roughly equal, and those who have ideological, financial, or other agendas have learned to exploit this fact. The public can’t have a conversation any more, because we don’t have any shared common ground of authoritative facts.

Quinn is essentially arguing that cleveland.com is just another social media platform where all views have equal merit. If this attitude takes further root, that would be an unmitigated disaster. It is, unfortunately, slowly happening.

It’s still early, however. Quinn’s response is extremely disappointing, but I hope they are still paying attention to the criticism aimed at them and will seriously think about what fixes they need to make.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Clinic should seriously consider what this means about the integrity of their Wellness Center. That is the underlying problem that allowed this to happen – inviting pseudoscience into a respected medical institution.

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