In 171 stories during 15 years of morning and evening news shows, ABC, CBS and NBC reported heavily on the ongoing debate, giving time to prominent anti-vaccine celebrities and families who blamed autism on vaccines.
Many sources including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times attribute a CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Wakefield in 2000 for bringing his views to prominence in America. Since then, Wakefield lost his medical license amidst accusations of fraud and conflicts of interest, and The Lancet, the British medical journal that published his study, publicly retracted it.
Most of the interviews with Wakefield focused on those allegations of fraud, which were still unproven. But in the interviews none of the network journalists asked him to justify the puny sample size of his study, although they called it “small.” A quick examination of his 12 person study would have exposed serious flaws.
Instead, the networks insisted on debating the science. Matt Lauer’s May 24, 2010, “Today” interview with Wakefield was just one example. Dr. Ben Goldacre, a pro-vaccine physician, called that interview “staggeringly weak” while blasting journalists who “[say] ‘let’s debate the science.'” Instead, Goldacre suggested “press[ing] them hard on the obvious simple holes in their claim.”
More than simply covering the connection, some reporters, including former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson who reported anecdotes and interviewed many families convinced that vaccines caused their children’s autism.
Attkisson was particularly prone to report such anecdotes. Some segments, such as May 18, 2004, “Evening News” began and ended with minute long interviews with parent who blamed vaccines for their children’s autism. She even ended that story by asking, “How can it be wrong to err on the side of caution?”
In a similar broadcast on June 12, 2004, Attkisson included an anti-vaccination parent at a rally who claimed, “The CDC is going to become the Enron of the vaccine industry.” The Enron Corporation had recently collapsed in part due to fraudulent financial practices.
Years later, on April 21, 2014, Attkisson defended her vaccine reporting to CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” calling them “some of the most important stories I’ve done.”