The political firestorm that President Obama touched off with his Super Bowl Sunday bout of sanity on vaccinating children against measles quickly came back to roost. After Chris Christie waded in from across the pond, and Rand Paul also put his foot in it, a variety of mainstream media sources began peddling an old clip of candidate Obama as proof that he, too, once thought it was a matter of personal choice whether to eradicate diseases or not. For example, Ezra Klein’s Voxdid an explainer on Obama’s 2008 “pandering” to the anti-vaccine crowd that went something like this:
“We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”
–Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.
They later corrected (or “updated”) their story to note what is obvious from even the out-of-context video that Morning Joe used, which is that he was referring to someone in the crowd when he said “This person included.”
Same quote, but even in this clipped form, it’s pretty clear that Obama, and a good portion of the crowd, regard the anti-vaxxer’s skepticism with their own skepticism, but the full context of the quote makes clear that when the future president says “the science is inconclusive,” he means the science that connects vaccines and autism, not the science that says vaccines are safe:
“The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it’s very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like Polio. And so we can’t afford to junk our vaccine system. We’ve got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we’re seeing we’re never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that’s going to be necessary.”
Little Green Footballs’ Charles Johnson (the good Charles Johnson) called Vox out on their terrible reporting, but Vox stuck to their guns, fitting several “updates” around their narrative. Johnson also pointed out that candidate Senator Obama also pushed back directly against the anti-vaxxers:
Last Friday evening, September 5, 2008, I had the opportunity to ask Senator Barack Obama about childhood vaccine safety/choice. His response, “I am not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio.”
He went onto say in so many words that he is for more science and the funding of more science if it’s needed.
That response, and his response in Pennsylvania, are textbook examples of how you humor well-meaning kooks, and while Charles Johnson did a great job of smashing this bit of revisionist bullshit, there’s another important bit of context, because the dipshits on the right are also going after Hillary Clinton over this. She tweeted a pro-vaccine message Monday, but in 2008, when asked about it by an activist group, said:
“I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines. I have long been a supporter of increased research to determine the links between environmental factors and diseases, and I believe we should increase the NIH’s ability to engage in this type of research.”
Republican candidate John McCain made the strongest, wrongest leap when he said, in 2008, that “there’s strong evidence that indicates that [the sharp rise in the autism rate has] got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”
Now, McCain would have been wrong no matter what, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about Obama’s 2008 comments Tuesday afternoon, and he pointed out something that should be obvious to everyone trying to play “Gotcha!” with this:
His comments were from April of 2008, but the study that put the air into the autism/vaccine movement wasn’t retracted until 2010. It is true that there were loud voices discrediting the anti-vaccine movement at the time, but not only was the Wakefield study still on life support, the anti-vaccine movement was reaching the zenith of its popularity and media exposure. Obama’s remarks were made two months before Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey led a huge “green vaccine” march. Just a few months before Obama’s appearance, a federal court ruled in favor of a family who claimed their daughter’s autism was caused by vaccines, and even though that’s not really what they decided, it confused a lot of people. The CDC was still studying links between autism and vaccines.
In that context, Obama’s answer was more about not getting into an argument with a voter than anything else. He and the rest of the audience are practically laughing at the idea of vaccines causing autism, but at the time, these people were still being humored. And even then, he was still clearly pro-vaccine (including vaccine regulations, since he specified our “vaccine system”).
This isn’t about politics for me (or just about politics). When the media muddies the waters around medical issues, it is dangerous. Just as they did on 2008, and just as they did in 2011 when Michele Bachmann made crazytalk about vaccines, the media has consistently reported the controversy, not the facts. Breaking: You are allowed to change your mind when a new scientific development occurs. In fact, you’re supposed to.