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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Chili's Controversy, Journalism, and "A Terrible Condition"

AP reports on the Chili's controversy:
To honor National Autism Awareness month, the restaurant chain had planned on donating a portion of its sales on Monday to the National Autism Association. The group, based in Attleboro Falls, Mass., says its focus is on safety issues for the autistic community. But a section of its website also states that it believes vaccinations can "trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children."
In another section of its site, the group says that "informed consent is critical and each parent should have the freedom and information necessary to make the best decision for their child."
The belief that the battery of vaccinations given to infants could lead to autism was spurred by a British study that has since been retracted. Repeated studies have discredited the link, but the issue has remained a point of contention in some circles. Seth Mnookin, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote "The Panic Virus" about the fears triggered by the now debunked study, noted that the National Autism Association has a lengthy history of connecting vaccines with autism.
Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, said in a phone interview that she was "shocked" by the backlash and "this group of individuals that is trying to pigeonhole us as anti-vaccine."
Fournier noted that the National Autism Association's doesn't have any programs related to vaccines.
"We haven't even looked at that page — it's been up there for years," she said of the section on the group's site that says vaccines can trigger autism.
"There has always been a lot of debate," Fournier said. "It hasn't been answered whether or not vaccines can cause autism."
For now, she said no changes would be made to the site because that might be criticized as well.
At The Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik writes:
"Cause-related marketing" -- the term should give you a clue to what it's really all about -- has become an inescapable part of the marketing and ad campaigns of countless consumer businesses. An essential factor in these campaigns is that the consumer "participate" by making a purchase, a portion of which is paid over to the chosen charity.
Philanthropy experts are troubled by these campaigns. For one thing, the best-marketed charities, not necessarily the most deserving, garner the most attention. Another drawback is that when customers' donations are made automatically at the cash register, they don't do much, or anything, to examine the charity they're helping. Why should they? They're not actually paying for the donation.
The Chili's case shows the other side of that coin: The merchants don't feel much need to scrutinize those charities either. Chili's may merely have thought, "Autism Awareness Month = marketing opportunity." There's no evidence that its executives bothered to educate themselves about autism itself, though the chain said its intent was "not to express a view on the medical or scientific positions related to autism, but rather to support the families affected by autism." (We assumed they didn't really intend to fund vaccine deniers.)

UPDATE: I have been taken to task, properly, for referring to autism above as "a terrible condition for its sufferers and their families." That's a narrow and ill-informed way of looking at a condition that many people on the autism spectrum feel has benefited their lives. "I'm a good reporter because I have incredible focus," says Mike Elk, the superb labor reporter for In These Times, who identifies himself as having Asperger's syndrome and appreciates the diversity of those in the autistic spectrum. Those seeking to know more should turn to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, whose president, Ari Ne'eman, serves on President Obama's National Council on Disability. [emphasis added]