This doesn’t feel like a great time to be taking pot shots at the mainstream media. On nearly a daily basis, our president is rallying hatred as he accuses CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets of publishing “fake news,” a catch-all for something he doesn’t like, or would just as soon not be made public. 

But then, the unprecedented official vitriol thrown at the media has been going on for nearly three years now.  In other words, there’s not going to be a “good” time for me to go after the media. 

So I’ll get my objection on the table. I’ve seen one too many hysterical reports about measles outbreaks and dumping on parents who won’t allow their children to have the MMR vaccine (and others). I’ve shied away from taking a stand on vaccination either pro or con because I don’t feel I have enough knowledge about the intricacies of research and outcomes. I personally know physicians, whom I consider honest and decent people, who have absolutely no doubt in their minds that the vaccinations they provide on a daily basis are necessary and beneficial to society. 

I also know personally parents of children with developmental problems who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that their children were damaged by vaccines. And I know parents who have are so convinced of the dangers they refuse to have their children vaccinated. 

I’ve watched with amazement as national news programs throw newscaster physicians onto the evening news to dump on anti-vaxers in the conflict over MMR vaccination for measles. 

All this by way of prelude to dumping on a particularly obnoxious report in the Sept. 2 issue of The New Yorker. The 7,500-word article, “The Message of Measles,” is mostly a profile of New York state’s health commissioner, and his campaign to stymie an increase in measles outbreaks in the state via universal use of the MMR vaccine. The New Yorker has a history of impressive journalism, including investigative journalism. It revealed in 1972 the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Just in recent days it broke the news about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s efforts to hide contributions from sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. And lots in between. 

But on vaccination it is like a lot of mainstream media publications—it is obsessive in its condemnation of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. At one point in the September 2 article, it quotes the story’s hero, state health commissioner Howard. Zucker: “ ‘It’s shocking how strong the anti-vac movement is,’ Zucker said. ‘What surprises me is the really educated people who are passionately against vaccinations. I see this as part of a larger war against science-based reality. We need to study vaccine hesitancy as a disease.’ “

That assessment, and others like it, aren’t presented as one view, but rather the only view. From a New Yorker business point of view, I’d say it’s never a good idea to accuse customers or potential customers who disagree with you as being victims of “a disease.” 

And that’s just a little of the article. Amazingly, the report goes on to gloss over a more serious medical crisis than people opting out of the MMR vaccine, in describing how Zucker early in the summer inspected overnight camps in New York state to make sure campers were vaccinated. “Zucker asked (a camp director) what his greatest challenges were. (The director) and the camp pediatrician gave each other a knowing look, and (the director) said, ‘The volume of prescribed medication.’ He painted a familiar picture of a teen and preteen pharmacopoeia. ‘It’s mind-boggling and sad for us.’ “ Maybe sad for the camp officials, but not for the state. All the state cares about is enforcing vaccination, getting rid of the religious exemption, and all The New Yorker seems to care about is promoting that agenda. 

This report reminds me of all the times I was interviewed over the last decade by reporters writing newspaper and magazine articles about raw milk. The reporters often sounded sincere and interested in a balanced report. In the end, the reports were always attacks on raw milk and on the parents who fed it to their children. 

The New Yorker report also provides fodder for a book I helped write over the spring and summer with a dozen or so of my late-1960s classmates at Columbia Journalism School, which examines changes in journalism over the last 50 years. Several chapters of the book argue that it was the media’s inattention, or even hostility, to women, minorities, small businesses, and other important constituencies that precipitated its decline. Together, of course, with competition from the Internet. I’ll have more news about the book when it gets closer to publication early next year. 

As I said, I don’t have a strong view about the pros and cons of vaccination. But I respect those who are worried enough that they don’t want to have their children vaccinated. The only convincing argument I’ve heard against this refusal it is that some children and adults with immune issues  (like from taking cancer drugs) could be placed at risk for getting measles as more people get it. Enforced vaccination seems a large price to pay in lost personal liberty to protect a very small number of people with immune issues. I’d be interested to hear constructive discussion about how people with immune issues might co-exist with the rest of the population, which could be sick with any number of illnesses. Perhaps have isolation areas in schools and other public places where those with immune issues hang out? 

Zucker is right about one thing: there is a growing amount of conflict over science. My previous post about climate scientists being pressured on their research results concerning climate change is another aspect of the same problem. As soon as you demonize those who interpret the science differently from you, it just leads to more divisions, which are very slow to heal.