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.

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