Jan 29 2008

Freedom of Speech, Censorship, and Media Responsibility

ABC is scheduled to air a new Drama, “Eli Stone” on Thursday Jan. 31st. The first episode features a lawyer suing for a parent who believes her son’s autism was caused by mercury in vaccines. By all accounts the show is an assault on science and reason. The New York Times got it right when they wrote:

But reams of scientific studies by the leading American health authorities have failed to establish a causal link between the preservative and autism. Since the preservative was largely removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, autism rates have not declined.

But the script also takes several liberties that could leave viewers believing that the debate over thimerosal — which in the program’s script is given the fictional name mercuritol — is far from scientifically settled.

The new show has sparked controversy beyond the New York Times. The American Academy of Pediatrics has written an open letter to ABC calling for the cancellation of this episode. They write:

“A television show that perpetuates the myth that vaccines cause autism is the height of reckless irresponsibility on the part of ABC and its parent company, The Walt Disney Co.,” said Renee R. Jenkins, MD, FAAP, president of the AAP. “If parents watch this program and choose to deny their children immunizations, ABC will share in the responsibility for the suffering and deaths that occur as a result. The consequences of a decline in immunization rates could be devastating to the health of our nation’s children.”

The other side is also fighting back. David Kirby wrote his usual rambling nonsense of an opinion piece in the Huffington Post. Orac has already dissected and decimated Kirby’s illogic so I won’t bother to repeat it. Kirby accuses the AAP letter of “bordering on near-hysteria” and an attempt to “censor fiction and crush artistic freedom.” Comments from gushing anti-vaccine kooks echo the accusation of censorship and vow to defend the first amendment.

I am all for freedom of speech and artistic expression. However, the AAP letter, and criticism of the ABC show in general, do not amount to censorship, and certainly have no bearing on the first amendment. They are a call for responsibility in the media. Shouting the equivalent of “vaccines are dangerous poison” to millions of viewers is definitely the same as shouting “fire” in a crowded movie house. It is the very definition of how freedom of speech is limited by responsibility to avoid causing harm to others.

Kirby also writes:

But parents are far too smart to base such an important decision as immunization on the “content of the episode” of a single drama on broadcast television.

What planet is he living on, Vulcan? Kirby naively assumes there is a clean division between drama and reality on television. There isn’t. There are docudramas, infomercials, fake reality shows, staged events, and infotainment. Courtroom dramas, like Law & Order, boast that their stories are “ripped from the headlines.” The lines between news and drama are hopelessly blurred. Also, it is clear from memory research that most people do not remember where they got information from. Also when they are exposed to information, even in the context of saying that the information is wrong or a myth, they will remember the information as correct later.

So the ABC show, a realistic courtroom drama covering a real issue “ripped from the headlines” but getting the science and the bottom line completely wrong, will create the vaccines-cause-autism meme in millions of people, and perpetuate this myth in popular culture. Does Kirby really believe it is misguided hysteria to believe this will affect vaccine compliance?

ABC got this one wrong. Perhaps the writers and producers are simply ignorant of the facts of this matter. Perhaps they cynically don’t care. They have the right to show their reckless drama, but that right does not relieve them of any responsibility. I and others have the right to heap scorn upon them for their callous irresponsibility, and you might say we have a responsibility to do so.

15 responses so far

15 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech, Censorship, and Media Responsibility”

  1. eiskrystal says:

    I have to wonder if this isn’t cynical marketing on the part of the show’s writers. No doubt quite a few people will be watching it to see what all the fuss is about.

  2. Well maybe they’ll end the episode with the parents loosing, and coming to realize that the vaccine did not cause autism.

    Come to think of it I don’t think that would pull through a lot of ratings. It’s probably better for ratings to have the big bad pharma company (as undoubtedly there must be one on the defendant side) loose and the evil executives and doctors made to pay for their EVIL DEEDS. Yeah that’s more likely what’s going to happen.

    Lucky for us we live in a country where most people are smart enough to know that what they see in TV is not real.

    ……..Wait a minute! WE DON’T!

  3. daedalus2u says:

    If they do run this, and if vaccination rates do drop, I hope that everyone who get a disease because of reduced herd immunity sues ABC for reckless disregard of the public interest.

    Perhaps emergency rooms can recover some of their expenses from ABC when preventable diseases waste ER resources.

    ABC has a responsibility to use the public airways over which they broadcast in the public interest. Broadcasting hate speach like this is not in the public interest.

    The first ammendment may allow them to show this, it does not insulate them from being required to compensate those their reckless behavior injures.

  4. anandamide says:

    re: the mightyalert – it’s a pity, because portraying a more truthful image could be very gripping – traumatised parents taken in by CAM proponents and desperately putting their child through any number of treatments – especially as the parents (or one of them) begin to doubt the CAM treatments and start to change their views on the nature of autism. Plenty of conflict and emotional charge in that story, and it even lends itself to a neat resolution.

  5. isles says:

    Only someone who is himself not too bright, e.g. David Kirby, would make the statement that most Americans are smart enough to recognize scientific fiction when it is presented as fact.

    Sorry to say, but there it is.

    I agree anandamide – it would be a whole lot more creative to do a show that illustrates how the bottomfeeders of the alt-med world sponge off desperate parents, and very satisfying if it ended with the parents realizing they’d been taken for a ride.

  6. DavidCT says:

    If a lie is repeated often enough it is taken by many to be truth. This psychology worked well for the Third Reich.

    A brief search at Pete Bowditch’s site: http://www.ratbags.com will bring you to a page of children suffering from vaccine preventable diseases. It is a graphic display of what can result from irresponsibly repeated misinformation or as Peter would say, LIES.

  7. geoffmitchell says:

    I am writing to ABC to voice my disgust. Here’s the URL to do so yourself.

  8. Steve Page says:

    I’m just glad I live in the UK, where we have realistic shows like Eastenders.

  9. Potter1000 says:

    Here’s a little anecdote to add to the discussion: I have a friend whose daughter, her first child, has autism. And hers was one of those cases where there was a definite worsening of her condition that preceded her diagnosis, meaning she had language skills that seemed within a normal range for her age but she lost those skills. As I understand, this is not the norm but it happens. The symptoms and the diagnosis came relatively soon after she received her MMR vaccination. Naturally, her mom had concerns that the vaccine caused her daughter’s autism, although she didn’t become a true believer or activist or anything. But when her second child reached that age, of course she was nervous. She and I had never talked about this until it came up that she was worried about vaccinating her second child. She knew that I had worked with autistic people for several years and asked for my opinion. First, I explained that I wasn’t any kind of expert, but I had followed the controversy as a layperson who was interested, and I told her what I knew of the science and what the American Academy of Pediatricians and others had to say about it. Ultimately, whether because of my advice or not, she did vaccinate her second child. It’s about two years later now, and he appears to be fine.

    Dr. Novella and others have it right that the manipulation of parents’ opinions on this subject is serious stuff, and doctors and scientists are right to speak out as loudly as possible against misinformation, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s spread through thinly-veiled fiction. Scared parents aren’t stupid, they (we) just aren’t always sure what’s right when we see what appears to be conflicting information about these things. Not every parent can take the time to research all the details and find out that it’s not the open question that many portray it as. If I hadn’t kept up with what the real experts were saying, I would have been scared about vaccinating my kids, too.

    Sorry about the long post.

  10. kathleenseidel says:

    What I want to know is whether Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney attributes her son’s autism to vaccine injury.

  11. Simon says:

    Dr Novella,
    I have followed the vaccines/”badness” debate for some time, but your article for Skeptical Inquirer last month was easily the best publication I have ever read on the subject. It was accessible, well argued and presented and easily verifiable. It has become the armoury from which I can defend vaccination from the believers. I do not know if you or SI own the rights to the piece but I urge you to spread it far and wide. It is more than accessible enough for publishing in a Sunday colour supplement, a school text book in critical thinking or even expansion into a book. If I had the funds I would leave a printed copy in every GP and hospital waiting room in the country.
    We scientists often are proud to have our papers published and sometimes are naive enough to believe that anyone interested will take the time to find our words and read them. However, the believers will repeat themselves over and over in every medium possible, including TV fiction, and it’s time we responded in kind. Please, Dr Novella, I strongly believe that your article is just what we need and I hope you will continue this fight right up to the day when logic and the scientific method prevail over prejudice and superstition.

  12. Flavin says:

    Steve, I don’t think I follow one of your points.

    I am all for freedom of speech and artistic expression. However, the AAP letter, and criticism of the ABC show in general, do not amount to censorship, and certainly have no bearing on the first amendment. They are a call for responsibility in the media. Shouting the equivalent of “vaccines are dangerous poison” to millions of viewers is definitely the same as shouting “fire” in a crowded movie house. It is the very definition of how freedom of speech is limited by responsibility to avoid causing harm to others.

    Your first point is that the AAP are not trying to censor the episode and that their criticism is not related to the first amendment. Your second point is that the content of the episode presents a clear and present danger to the public and is beyond free speech protection.

    I’m not sure how the two points connect. Are you trying to say that the episode should be censored, or might have grounds to be, even though it isn’t being censored now?

  13. My point is that requesting responsibility on the part of mass media is not censorship. The AAP does not have the power to pull the plug on this program. I know such statements depend on the definition of “censorship” and I don’t want to get into a semantic argument. The point is that those like Kirby are using the word “censorhip” as a pejorative to imply that the AAP is trying to stifle creativity and free expression. This is hogwash. They are simply calling for responsibility – exactly like counseling against the shouting of “fire” in a crowded building.

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