DELICATE SENSIBILITIES

Posted in Rants on September 15th, 2011 by Ed

Yesterday, the following link/headline appeared on the front page of CNN.com: "Bachmann's HPV claims disputed." Here is a screen cap:

I will spare you the video clip where her statement is discussed by Many Serious People, but here is what she said during the most recent debate regarding Rick Perry's executive order to have the HPV vaccine required in Texas:

"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong," Bachmann said. "Little girls who have a potentially dangerous reaction to this drug don't get a mulligan," she said. "You don't get a do-over."

Afterward, she elaborated, explaining that "a mother" approached her after the debate:

She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn't know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.

Let's briefly overlook the terrifying fact that the woman who wants to be president was repeating this story into a camera almost immediately after a complete stranger (or so she claims) said this to her in a chance encounter. Apparently that's the Bachmann mental vetting process – "Someone came up to me and told me vaccines made their daughter retarded. The best thing is for everyone to draw their own conclusions about the efficacy of vaccines based on anecdotal evidence." But I digress.

Having seen her statements, look again at CNN's link headline, "Bachmann's HPV claims disputed," in reference to the AMA and other medical organizations resoundingly rejecting her crackpot anti-vaccine statements. Only in a media environment in which Fox News and the cultural right have truly Won would this be summed up with such a headline.

"Claims disputed" might be an appropriate tag for candidates bickering over tax proposals – "Perry says cutting taxes would increase revenues, but Paul Krugman disagrees in today's column." Bachmann's statement, aside from being dangerously flippant and not thought-out, isn't "disputed." It's wrong. In an honest world the headline would read "Bachmann wrong about vaccines" or "Major GOP candidate does not understand basic science" or "Bachmann chooses anecdote from stranger over science."

But of course we don't live in that honest world. We live in one in which the media have been thoroughly cowed into "treating both sides fairly" – treating opposing viewpoints as equally valid regardless of whether the issue is objective or subjective – and are hyper-sensitive about offending their core daytime audience of stay-home moms with medical degrees from Parenting Message Board University.

For all the accusations of elitism on the part of the media, this is an instance in which a sense of superiority would come in handy. The media see their job as stenography, to quote people and then "let the reader decide" which viewpoint sounds better. What they should be doing is reporting facts. Michele Bachmann is wrong about the HPV vaccine, and she is wrong to repeat a story told by some random yahoo when its central claim has no factual basis. In fact the evidence is overwhelming that nothing like what this stranger told Bachmann can be caused by the HPV vaccine. But instead of reading a headline like, "Bachmann repeats debunked pseudoscience, offers inaccurate statement on vaccines" we see that her statement is "disputed," as though it is controversial, actively debated, and as-yet unresolved.

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