Sidelined by False Balance on a Local TV Show

I’ve been getting calls from reporters and producers in record numbers in the past weeks as US measles cases have been increasing. I’ve talked to people from Bloomberg Politics, the San Jose Mercury News, CNN, the Baltimore Sun, Men’s Health, Chicago public radio station WBEZ, CBS Interactive, Canadian radio show Day 6, Sirius XM’s Doctor Radio, and a local Philadelphia TV station.

The one interaction I’ve had that distressed me was with a local TV station. They asked me to appear on a news magazine segment to talk about measles history and the history of the anti-vaccination movement. A few other segments would air on the same show, one about health insurance enrollment and one about, of all things, sports betting.

The taping happened yesterday. As I was in the green room waiting to go on first, a woman named Honey arrived. I assumed she was the sports betting interviewee, as I had already met the health insurance guest. The producer took Honey outside the room to prep her. And then I heard the words “twins,” “vaccine-injured,” and “autistic.”

After that I had just a few minutes to get behind the big plastic desk and start the interview. The anchor really didn’t want to talk about history at all and focused on the measles outbreak and vaccine refusal. I shouldn’t have been surprised about that, though they had assured me they didn’t want a doctor for the segment.

I couldn’t stay for Honey’s segment, since I had a radio show to tape next. I did find an appearance she made on the Today show in 2008, in which Honey stated that Jenny McCarthy was her hero. She told a story very similar to Jenny’s: the normally developing child(ren), the vaccines shortly after one year of age, and the claim that their souls left them. Honey makes many media appearances and, I gathered, has been a guest at this channel before.

I wish I’d had to the presence of mind to address what I knew would follow (or perhaps precede) my segment, if only to say that show was committing the sin of false balance by pairing my statements with that of a critic of vaccines, voicing claims that have been time and again refuted by evidence. But it was my first TV appearance and I felt incredibly constrained by the format. I also remember what I’ve heard Paul Offit say about these situtations and why he won’t appear with people who say their children have been harmed by vaccines: in that situation, there are only three roles: the good guy (the mom), the sufferer, and the villian — invariably the person who’s representing the medical side.

Next time, if there is one, I hope I can disrupt the narrative or refuse to participate in the charade of “balance.” Granted, I haven’t seen the show, but I can’t imagine that the anchor will do anything forceful to challenge Honey’s narrative.

On a more positive note, I had a good radio conversation about the history of anti-vaccination sentiments with Brent Bambury of Day 6. That will air the morning of February 7 on CBC stations as well as on 35 US PBS stations. Also to come: Doctor Radio on SIRIUSXM Monday, February 9, at 8 am EST, with History of Vaccines advisor Thomas Fekete.