An antivaccine reporter strikes again
The damaged done by the antivaccine movement is primarily in how it frightens parents out of vaccinating using classic denialist tactics of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Indeed, as has been pointed out many times before, antivaccinationists are often proud of their success in discouraging parents from vaccinating, with one leader of the antivaccine movement even going so far as to characterize his antivaccine “community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire,” as being in the “early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.” Meanwhile, just last week Anne Dachel, “media editor” for the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, gloated about basically the same thing, how although overall vaccination rates remain high, vaccine exemption rates are up in many areas of the country and how her movement has provided plenty of information to “.”
And it is the very same antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, that is promoting a different, more insidious message, specifically how the brutal murder of an autistic teen nearly three months ago “.” What do I mean by “insidious message”? It’s the hijacking of the autism advocacy movement, which tries to advocate for more services for autistic children and adults and more awareness and understanding of autism, by the antivaccine message that autistic people are somehow “damaged,” be it by vaccines or unnamed “toxins,” that the “real child” has been “stolen” by autism, and that any manner of biomedical quackery to “recover” autistics is justified by the horror of autism. Although Attkisson, the reporter for the story discussed below, never specifically mentions vaccines, if you know the background of the case, that message is quite obvious and not very far under the surface of :
Not surprisingly, this story was reported by Sharyl Attkisson, who is CBS News’ resident antivaccine reporter. I’ve known her to in a manner that gave Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. a as far back as 2007. Since then, she’s as a “pharma shill,” very likely to help them portray Lisa Randall at Voices for Vaccines as an “industry group,” about antivaccine physician and hero to the antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield, and (which was really just the rebranding of autism). Most recently, Attkisson promoted a relating vaccines to autism. The review article, by Helen Ratajczak, cited lots of pseudoscience from antivaccine literature in the service of supporting a truly dumb hypothesis, namely that DNA from vaccines could recombine in the brains of children to result in autism. Attkisson was . As you might imagine, I was not. Along the way, Attkisson also indulged in . No wonder she is the perfect reporter to do this story promoting the viewpoint that autism is so horrible and the system provides so little help that we should understand why a mother like Alex’s might become so desperate that she would poison her son and then, when that failed to kill him, try to slash his wrist, and then, when that failed, stab him in the heart with a kitchen knife.
A feeling of utter revulsion welled up in me when I finally watched Attkisson’s video. On the one hand, I can only begin to imagine how hard it is to raise and care for a child like Alex Spourdalakis, who was nonverbal and, as he grew, was becoming very strong and difficult to manage and control. On the other hand, that is no excuse for murder. Those of you who haven’t read my original post about this murder, go now and read it. It provides the background, in particular how long before the murder the antivaccine movement had latched on to Alex’s story, blatantly used it to promote their viewpoint, and corrupted it. Not long before Alex’s murder, Andrew Wakefield even traveled to visit him and :
That’s just a reminder that even minimal fact checking would have turned up the Wakefield connection, not to mention that shortly after this video an anonymous donor turned up to get Alex out of Lutheran General Hospital and to a “,” or how the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism had a tight connection with Dorothy Spourdalakis that nearly three months before Alex’s murder. Also note that Alex’s mother wrote a in which she states:
Vaccines have maimed too many already and there are many more to come. The CDC’s latest stats confirm that. We are not going away, nor are we giving up. My son Alex is just one of millions of children and adults who no longer will be silenced.
It is a sentiment that Sharyl Attkisson appears to agree with.
Lies of omission to exploit an autistic teen
I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that I found to be exploitative and far more sympathetic to the mother and caregiver who murdered Alex Spourdalakis than to Alex himself. It’s sympathetic to the mother in that it spins a tale in which a mother, who was so kind and loving that she would wash her son’s feet, sleep on the floor by his bedside, and do everything in her power to find him help, finally despairs and decides that her son is suffering so much that he is better off dead. So she and Alex’s other caregiver Jolanta Agata Skordzka killed Alex and tried to commit suicide, but failed. The exploitation comes from the multiple images of Alex nearly naked and in four point restraints, images that show no respect for his dignity as a human being. Indeed, I would go further than calling this segment exploitative and slanted towards the mother and accuse Sharyl Attkisson of lying by omission in that so many relevant facts about the background of this story are omitted that a viewer unfamiliar with it would completely miss the context and have no idea who at least two of the people interviewed are. If Attkisson were to plead ignorance, she would reveal herself to be the hack reporter that I consider her to be. I don’t think she can plead ignorance anyway, because of her close connections with the antivaccine movement through bloggers at AoA and her long history of promoting antivaccine pseudoscience that goes back at least to 2007, which is when I first noticed her, and probably beyond. Why CBS News continues to indulge Attkisson’s penchant for vaccine pseudoscience I don’t know, but this piece clearly represents a failure of her producers to do even minimal checking of her reporting, as you will see.
The first lie of omission comes from what is not mentioned about the footage of Alex used by Attkisson in her report. Notice the source of the video: The (AMC). What is not revealed by Attkisson is that the Autism Media Channel is an antivaccine propaganda network designed to promote the idea that autism is caused by vaccines. Don’t believe me? Then consider this. The Director of the Autism Media Channel is Andrew Wakefield. It’s somehow been mysteriously scrubbed from the site, where you will find little mention of Andrew Wakefield anymore, but the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism refers to Wakefield as the Director of AMC (for example, ) and it is in various news outlets that he is the Director of the AMC (for example, this , which lists him as the “director of a company called Medical Interventions for Autism and another called the Autism Media Channel”). Meanwhile, the AMC still features a couple of videos by Wakefield, for example, in which he challenges Dr. David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health in London, the official responsible for overseeing the nation’s immunization program in the UK, to a debate over the death of a child thought by his parents to have been caused by the MMR vaccine. Then there’s (the second one on the page), where Wakefield is interviewing Dr. Arthur Krigsman, who, not coincidentally, is featured in Attkisson’s report as the only doctor who could help Alex Spourdalakis when Loyola University Medical Center and other hospitals could not. He is also on the . As the :
The Autism Media Channel website contains videos with titles such as Not Born With It – a reference to the belief that autism is far from genetic, which leads it to advocate biomedical interventions such as nutritional supplements as well as gluten- and casein-free diets (one video is entitled How To Afford A Gluten And Casein Free Diet). Other videos recommend that parents of autistic children cook food using stainless-steel or ceramic pots so metals don’t “leach into the food and give more toxic overload to your kid”.
The lies of omission are many-fold and just keep coming. For example, Attkisson doesn’t mention the ongoing connection between Andrew Wakefield and the AMC, which is not, as it is represented, just a web channel designed to promote the vaccine-autism hypothesis that was started by Andrew Wakefield and Polly Tommey. Instead, Attkisson presents the AMC as a “website with a mission of helping those living with autism.” Very benign-sounding. Who could argue with that? It’s also the AMC’s self-professed mission. However, any halfway-decent reporter would have at least mentioned in passing the AMC’s connection with Wakefield. Another omission is that Tommey is quite a familiar presence to British skeptics, being a and . (She even has her own .) Indeed, Tommey once maintained a Facebook Campaign known as . A few years ago, she launched a billboard campaign to try to score a meeting with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. British physician Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick pointed out at the time, in a response he called :
In her campaign posters, Mrs Tommey, whose 12-year-old son Billy is autistic, offers to save the UK government £500 million a year by helping people with autism to get jobs. But it is not clear from the posters how she thinks this can be achieved. However, The Autism File, the magazine she edits, focuses on two issues: supporting the campaign led by the former Royal Free Hospital researcher Andrew Wakefield against the MMR vaccine and promoting ‘unorthodox biomedical’ treatments for children with autism.
The current issue of The Autism File contains a 15-page feature providing a detailed account of the case presented by Dr Wakefield to the General Medical Council, where he is currently facing charges of professional misconduct. The recent judgments in the US Omnibus Autism Proceedings revealed the consensus among experts that Wakefield’s research was scientifically flawed and probably fraudulent. Yet this research has proved damaging to thousands of parents – on both sides of the Atlantic – who were drawn into futile litigation. The resulting decline in confidence in MMR has contributed to renewed outbreaks of measles. It is regrettable that The Autism File should continue to uphold pseudoscience to the detriment of children’s health.
The Autism File promotes a range of ‘unorthodox biomedical’ treatments for autism. These include exclusion diets, vitamins and supplements, anti-fungal and anti-viral medications, and ‘detoxification’ regimes, such as ‘chelation therapy’, which purport to remove ‘heavy metal’ toxins from the body. Practitioners providing these treatments also offer a wide range of unvalidated investigations. Polly Tommey’s husband Jonathan, who is closely involved in The Autism File, also runs a private clinic providing biomedical tests and treatments (though he has no medical qualifications).
And, from the :
The presenter of many of the Autism Media Channel videos is Polly Tommey, who is also registered with the Texas secretary of state as a co-director of the company, along with Wakefield. Tommey, who recently moved to Austin from the UK with her husband, Jonathan, and their three children, first appeared on the autism radar in 1999 when she and Jonathan were guests on Tonight With Trevor McDonald. That evening they announced that they had given their autistic son, Billy, an infusion of the hormone secretin, extracted from pig intestines, which stimulates digestive fluids in the pancreas, produces pepsin in the stomach and bile in the liver and, they said, resulted in “excellent progress”.
Meanwhile, Jonathan, Tommey’s husband, who has a sports science degree and a foundation degree in nutritional therapy, set up the Autism Clinic in Berkshire to offer “specialist autism treatment”, including “diagnostic tests” and an array of supplements and vitamins that he prescribes and makes available from his online shop. He also features in some of the programmes on the Autism Media Channel’s YouTube page. In one of those films, Jonathan Tommey – The Biomedical Imbalances In Autism, he recommends “supplementary intervention” such as “vitamins and herbs” for children with autism. In the same film he discusses chelation therapy. “As nutritionists, we can’t use chelating agents. They are prescriptive medications,” he says, adding, “They are available on the web. My suggestion is you’ve got to be very careful doing this without professional guidance, and unfortunately in this country there are not many practitioners that do chelation.” But, he adds, “Chelation has been used to a good level of success.”
So what we have here is a woman who, while she does advocate for families with autism, also promotes the pseudoscientific and dangerous idea that the MMR and other vaccines cause autism, as well as a variety of quackery designed to treat the “toxic insults” that in her mind cause autism. Indeed, a quick perusal of website, which is a repository for the magazine, confirms Dr. Fitzpatrick’s assessment quite nicely and confirms the Guardian‘s reporting. For instance the section features articles on , , (complete with at least one ), and , “” and otherwise. There are articles claiming that or that vaccines in general . If you don’t believe that Polly Tommey is firmly entrenched within the antivaccine camp, look no further than to yesterday’s Age of Autism, in which her latest issue of The Autism File is as featuring two articles from AoA contributors, and and featuring a monthly column by AoA’s managing editor, Dan Olmsted. If you take a look at the of the latest issue, you’ll see that the author list reads like a Who’s Who of the antivaccine movement, including a column by Kim Stagliano (another AoA contributor), Deirdre Imus, Erik Nanstiel, Anju Usman, and, yes, Andrew Wakefield himself, who penned a piece called . Not surprisingly, Wakefield attacks those who try to counter the message of people like Attkisson, Tommey and Wakefield that the mother was a long-suffering saint who finally cracked because there was no help for her son.
Here’s an excerpt:
Clearly of the same assured if mistaken mindset, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), in calling for Spourdalakis and Skrodzka to be charged with a “hate crime,” claims that:
In truth, Alex’s murder is about a repulsive ideology all too common within our society that preaches that it is better to be dead than disabled.
Really? Were these organizations—NCD and ASAN—there for Alex at any stage during the unfolding tragedy? Did they have access to his medical records or interview his carers? Did they warn from Alex’s bedside, as did Jill Rubolino and Jeanna Reed from Autism Is Medical (AIM) of their grave concerns for Alex’s life in the absence of medical care? Did they make spontaneous offers of help, or seek to offset in any way the chance that their “hate crime” was imminent?
This is typical Wakefield, as disingenuous as it gets. Remember that Wakefield a fictional vignette about a mother who loved her autistic child so much that she climbed the Hounds Ghyll viaduct with him and jumped off with him. The view, clearly, was that autism can be such a burden that, when it gets too hard, the greatest act of love is a murder-suicide, which is the way to “keep him safe.” The echoes from this resonate in the Alex Spourdalakis case.
As I pointed out before, it is very likely that Dorothy Spourdalakis was subjecting Alex to “autism biomed” quackery and came to know Rubolino and Reed through that. At the time, I was making an educated guess based on what I could find on AoA and elsewhere on the web. I wasn’t sure that this was true, hence my qualifying my statements with terms like “apparently” or “probably.” There is clear evidence that the Spourdalakis family was offered help, both and . She refused help from the former, and was put in with an attorney by the latter. Dorothy Spourdalakis appears to have refused it because that help consisted of standard conventional treatments for autism. If Alex were transferred to a psychiatric hospital’s long-term care ward he would no longer receive the autism biomed treatments. At the time, I also noted that AoA contributor Lisa Goes portrayed Jeanna Reed as ranting and haranguing Alex’s doctors with pleas to read quack studies and claims that “many of these children present with bowel disease and mitochondrial dysfunction. He could have GERD, duodenitis, esophagitis, ulcers in the small intestines, colitis. How can we know if we don’t test?” As I pointed out at the time, this was pure autism biomed rhetoric, leavened with the arrogance of ignorance. When one of the doctors referred to autism as a “mystery,” Goes actually completely lost it, yelling, “No! No! It’s not. It’s a medical illness that causes bad behavior. All you have to do IS READ*!” Add to this Andrew Wakefield’s grandstanding visit to Alex in his hospital bed last spring, and the connection is clear. Most likely, AIM never “spontaneously” offered help, but rather Dorothy Spourdalakis probably reached out to Reed and/or Rubolino . Most likely the NCD and ASAN knew nothing of Alex’s case until after his murder because the only way they would have heard of it is if they were monitoring antivaccine websites, as I do. It wasn’t in the news then.
Unwittingly, Sharyl Attkisson has confirmed my worst suspicions. In her segment, an interview with Polly Tommey is featured prominently but her background is not mentioned. She is presented as nothing more than a concerned parent and autism advocate, rather than the antivaccine activist that she is. Nor are her close ties with Andrew Wakefield ever mentioned. Tommey opines that “His [Alex’s] death didn’t need to be. It was because there wasn’t anything in place for him.” However, that is not true, as I explained above. This leads us to Arthur Krigsman, which was the kind of help Dorothy Spourdalakis apparently did want.
Also featured prominently in Attkisson’s segment is footage shot of Alex Spourdalakis undergoing endoscopy by Arthur Krigsman for his GI issues. Footage of Alex becoming violent is featured, with Attkisson’s voice-over stating that Alex’s mother blamed the fits of violence on severe GI distress, saying, “Dorothy believed that Alex’s violent outbursts were triggered by severe gastric pain, but nobody seemed to know what to do with him.” We’re then told that a “glimmer of hope came” when “autism advocates” connected Alex’s family with a GI specialist. Yes, that GI specialist was Dr. Krigsman, who (it is not mentioned) used to be Andrew Wakefield’s partner at Thoughtful House when Wakefield was still the medical director there; that is, before Wakefield was in the wake of being struck off by the British General Medical Council (GMC), which found him guilty of several counts of egregious research misconduct, referred to him as “irresponsible and dishonest,” and had his infamous 1998 Lancet article retracted. Not coincidentally, Krigsman has been a coauthor with Wakefield on three articles.
Given that Wakefield and Krigsman were two of the most vocal promoters of the concept of “autistic enterocolitis” (in reality a ), it is not at all surprising that Dr. Krigsman immediately diagnosed stomach ulcers. To be honest, the images on the screen were there so briefly that I couldn’t tell if this looked reasonable or not, but I’d sure like to see a pathology report of gastric biopsies. Maybe one of my gastroenterologist colleagues could comment. In the meantime, it’s interesting to note that, testifying for the plaintiffs at the Autism Omnibus hearings, Dr. Krigsman stated that he because he claimed it restricted his privileges to do endoscopies because it was “concerned that the colonoscopies that were being performed on these children did not have proper indications of colonoscopy.” He has also been fined by the Texas Medical Board. In the wake of Wakefield’s disgrace, after having not long after Wakefield did, Krigsman soldiers on , the that Wakefield promoted and still promotes, just no longer at Thoughtful House. Indeed, Dr. Krigsman even last spring, as he frequently does.
CBS News: Epic fail
I could go on and on about how irresponsible and wrong Sharyl Attkisson is in promoting an idea that tries to absolve Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Agata Skordzka of guilt for the murder of Alex Spourdalakis just because he was autistic, large, and very difficult to handle, as have , , , the , , , , and have. I could go on and on again, as other and I have before, about how Attkisson has abused her trust as a journalist to promote quackery. (It is not for nothing that she has won a .) I could go on and on, , about how, through this story, Attkisson has whitewashed the brutal murder of an autistic teen in order to hide the involvement of Andrew Wakefield and other “autism biomed” advocates and, worse, to promote in a not-so-subtle way their message that it is better to be dead than severely autistic. But why bother? Attkisson appears to be beyond redemption, given her long-documented history of antivaccine sympathies and promoting autism biomed quackery.
It is CBS News that bears ultimate responsibility for airing Attkisson’s irresponsible and deceptive whitewashing of the Alex Spourdalakis case, presenting who opportunistically latched on to it as legitimate “autism advocates” and lying by omission about critical parts of the story. Producers obviously failed to do even minimal fact checking, even the most superficial of which would have immediately revealed the obvious connections between the Autism Media Channel and Andrew Wakefield, between Polly Tommey and the antivaccine movement, and between Arthur Krigsman and Andrew Wakefield. Fact checking would also have rapidly uncovered how Tommey and Wakefield had been collecting this footage most likely to be used in a reality TV show that they were developing, , whose trailer features autistic children screaming, hitting themselves and throwing tantrums, and featuring—you guessed it!—a team of “autism experts” including Dr. Krigsman as the only people who can help:
It sure looks to me as though the idea behind this show was to have parents with children with severe autism who are at their wits’ end call for help, and—whoosh!—The Autism Team swoops in, gives the child all sorts of biomedical quackery, and rapidly makes things better. It’s the classic reality show format, in which there is a problem and the reality show host comes in and almost miraculously fixes the problem, the way, for example, Caesar Millan corrects the behavior of unruly dogs in or the way Stacy London and Clinton Kelley fix the fashion-challenged in . Yes, it is just that crass and blatant, which is why I chose these two examples to illustrate my point, even at the risk of offending. Look at the video if you don’t believe me—if you can stand it. As :
That video shows autistic children in meltdowns, being self-injurious. One specific child is flown from the U.K. to New York to see Arthur Krigsman (just as Mr. Spourdalakis was taken from Chicago to New York to see Krigsman). In the trailer, after visiting Krigsman the child was shown happy, playing, and the parents were shown grateful. As we know, this was not the conclusion of the Alex Spourdalakis story. Whatever Mr. Wakefield and Ms. Tommey had planned for the video they had taken, the “treat bowel disease and everyone is happy” story was not to be. Instead, he has produced a video of the “medical establishment fails family, leading to tragedy” theme. I do wonder how he managed to work that theme around the facts that the tragedy (aka brutal murder at the hands of his mother) came to pass after Mr. Spourdalakis was seen by Mr. Krigsman.
Matt Carey is correct. As I’ve pointed out before, the entire narrative of the autism biomed movement is that autism “stole” the parents’ “real child” away from them. Since the idea that vaccines cause autism is basically holy writ for the autism biomed movement, that means vaccines “stole” the real child away by making him autistic. Parents who try to “recover” that “real” child are thus viewed as heroic, rather than abusive, because they’re willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the scourge of autism (and vaccines) in order to rescue the “real” child within. Dorothy Spourdalakis, having valiantly struggled against the demon autism, is thus to many a tragic and heroic figure, who strove, failed, and decided that life was no longer worth living for either Alex or herself. Worse, a disturbing number of people seem all too willing to accept that narrative, that “autism made her do it.” If the narrative that “autism biomed” can cure didn’t work out for the footage that Wakefield and Tommey shot of Alex and his mother, then another, more tragic narrative, of a mother so overburdened by autism, with no person or organization to help her, became so distraught that she killed her child, is to them a tragic but understandable outcome. Never mind that it’s a lie in that Dorothy Spourdalakis was offered help at least twice but turned it down, and having a disabled child who is difficult to handle does not justify killing him brutally.
CBS News failed in that its producers took at face value the claims of Polly Tommey and Dorothy Spourdalakis, as related by Sharyl Attkisson, that no help was offered to her. They failed in how they allowed Attkisson to frame this story so sympathetically to the plight of the mother, letting her surrogates, such as Polly Tommey, state virtually unchallenged the view that “autism drove her to it” and that if only Spourdalakis had had adequate “support” (what kind of “support” is not mentioned), then maybe she wouldn’t have murdered Alex. That the producers at allowed Attkisson to juxtapose a voice-over about the AMC movie project calling it “a rare visual prelude to murder” with carefully-selected footage designed to portray Dorothy Spourdalakis as downright saintly and only driven to murder by circumstances beyond her control is a journalistic failing of the highest order. Sure, there’s the obligatory interview with someone like Ari Ne’eman who quite correctly points out that it is a dangerous ideology that views those with severe developmental issues as less than human that was behind Alex’s death, but the overall message of the segment is loud and clear. After all, right after the interview with Ne’eman, Attkisson shows Dorothy’s suicide note, from which she quotes thusly, “‘Alex will no longer be treated like an animal or subjected to restraints,’ indicating she thought they both were better off dead.” Attkisson then concludes with a survey that claims that doctors aren’t sure what treatments are appropriate for autistic children and by stating that advocates hope that the case of Alex Spourdalakis will result in change.
I, too, hope that the case of Alex Spourdalakis will result in change. I hope that the way CBS News permitted Sharyl Attkisson to exploit it proves so embarrassing that there is change—at CBS News, where change is desperately needed, starting with preventing Sharyl Attkisson from ever reporting on autism or vaccines again. What CBS News has done is to do a story that is nothing more than a for Andrew Wakefield and Polly Tommey’s vision. It was beyond an epic fail on the part of CBS News. It was journalistic malpractice. Alex Spourdalakis demands justice.
ADDENDUM: If you think I’m exaggerating about how the antivaccine movement is reacting to this and how it is trying to do its best to absolve the mother of guilt for her crime, just read the comments after . One example is this :
WHO really killed Alex? …
The Doctors WHO shot him with Aluminum, thimerosal (Mercury) embalming fluid, fetal cells, rats brains, parts of cows, pigs, caterpillars, ether and more in the name of health. The SCHOOL system that did not send viable home services or place him a nurturing, caring environment, the Medical Staff that did not DETOXIFY him; the Spiritual Community too buy to help, the ER doctors whose training in Autism was close to nonexistent, the Neighbors who hid their eyes, the Insurance Companies that waged a battle, the MEDIA, that hides the increase of illnesses from the viewers as 1 in every 6 children have been afflicted with Developmental Disabilities starting in 1991 when all newborn babies get a shot for a sexually transmitted disease that they CANNOT get,the Psychiatrists that did not give him relief, and the surrounding communities which include all…. Shell of,”Recovering Autism, ADHD, & Special Needs.”
Notice that there’s no mention of the mother on the list of “who really killed Alex.” Apparently she isn’t the one who “really” killed him.