ABCs Mercury Straw Man
World News Tonight gives exposure to environmental group, even as story discredits Robert Kennedys claims.
June 23, 2005
ABC devoted a four-minute segment of the June 22, 2005, World News
Tonight to a story they would later report was completely untrue.
The story featured environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., claiming
that mercury in childrens vaccines causes autism only ABC told
its audience minutes later that the claim was unsubstantiated.
The segment opened with what Charles Gibson called a controversy on the mind of all parents. The controversy that Gibson was alluding to was a mercury preservative called thimerosal, once prominent in childrens vaccines, but now little used. Kennedy was claiming this preservative can cause autism in children.
It is a disastrous thing to be injecting into children, Kennedy said.
The story noted Kennedy is neither a scientist nor a doctor, but rather an environmentalist appearing on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance. As Kennedy appeared on the screen, ABC identified him as the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, but then reported nothing about the organization. The Waterkeeper Alliance is an environmental group which last year started an anti-mercury campaign to combat what it sees as a risk posed by mercury in waterways.
There were two important aspects of this story that ABC explained to prove Kennedy wrong.
First, Kennedy argued that the government had covered up evidence that would support his claim. He pointed to notes from the Institute of Medicine that supposedly showed the Institute, in a study it was to conduct, was instructed to find no link between thimerosal and autism. But the IOM said the notes were taken out of context and that Kennedys claim was nonsense.
Secondly, ABC reported, the medical community believes that any link between thimerosal and autism is utterly untrue. No study has been able to provide a link between thimerosal and autism and, since thimerosal has been removed from most vaccines, there has been no decrease in the number of cases of autism. Regardless of all this evidence against Kennedys claims, ABC still went on to call the issue a debate.
Although Kennedys claims were rejected by the medical community, ABC found substantial time to report the bogus scare story. In fact, at the end of the segment, Gibson turned to ABCs medical expert, Dr. Tim Johnson, to ask him if Kennedys assertions had any bearing. Johnson reaffirmed that they were completely untrue.