I’ve been doing my best to ignore the farcical presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His noxious views on vaccines, the origin of AIDS, the alleged dangers of wi-fi and other forms of junk science deserve no wide hearing. Polls showing he’s favored by 20 percent of likely Democratic voters over President Biden are almost as laughable as Kennedy’s views. It’s early; he’s got iconic American name recognition; and there’s almost always an appetite, among Democrats anyway, for anybody but the incumbent. His lies have been thoroughly debunked by Judd Legum at Popular Info, Michael Scherer in The Washington Post, Naomi Klein in The Guardian, and Brandy Zadrozny on NBC News.
But I’ve come to believe I have a responsibility to write about Kennedy because of my own shameful role in sending his toxic vaccine views into public discourse: I was the Salon editor, in partnership with Rolling Stone, who 18 years ago published his mendacious, error-ridden piece on how thimerosal in childhood vaccines supposedly led to a rise in autism, and how public health officials covered it up. From the day “Deadly Immunity” went up on Salon.com, we were besieged by scientists and advocates showing how Kennedy had misunderstood, incorrectly cited, and perhaps even falsified data. Some of his sources turned out to be known crackpots.
It was the worst mistake of my career. I probably should have been fired, but since Rolling Stone founder and then-editor Jann Wenner was on the Salon board at the time, that wasn’t going to happen. Rolling Stone had taken responsibility for the arduous task of fact-checking (a process that, I learned later, was less than thorough). I had only been Salon’s editor in chief for four months. We dutifully (and increasingly anxiously and ashamedly) published correction after correction. At the time, I thought that was the responsible thing to do—leave the piece up, but assiduously correct it, in the name of transparency.
But as subsequent articles and books continued to debunk Kennedy’s conspiracy theory, it felt irresponsible to leave it up. Six years later, in 2011, my successor as editor in chief, Kerry Lauerman, in consultation with me and others, decided we should take it down. Rolling Stone later did the same. (In the interests of transparency, we preserved the corrections page.)
“I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link,” I said in our retraction. “But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do.” It was kind of Lauerman to let me be the voice of our decision (we were and remain good friends). I should have made it myself, years earlier.
Now, Kennedy insists, as the The New York Times paraphrases him, that “Salon caved to pressure from government regulators and the pharmaceutical industry.” He repeated the false claim in his three-hour podcast conversation with Joe Rogan, another conspiracy loon, rehashing the debunked claims of “Deadly Immunity” and claiming that Salon pulled the piece after “pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.”
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Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse
Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse
That’s just another lie. We caved to pressure from the incontrovertible truth and our journalistic consciences.
Eighteen years later, it’s hard for me to piece back together all the forces that contributed to the Kennedy debacle. We had an editorial partnership with Rolling Stone that produced several great articles. Ironically, one of them was Farhad Manjoo’s 2005 debunking of claims that nefarious forces messed with Ohio voting machines to deprive John Kerry of victory over President George W. Bush in 2004. I signed off on that debunking, knowing it wasn’t quite the conclusion Wenner thought we would reach. (Progressives like Mark Crispin Miller attacked me for publishing it, and a few actually clamored to have me fired.) A year later, Rolling Stone published Kennedy’s claim that the election was indeed stolen from Kerry in Ohio; Manjoo thoroughly refuted it in our pages.
On the Kennedy piece, I was the sole Salon editor, which was fairly unusual. I took it on partly because it was a huge task and everybody was overworked. As the Internet had made the news business a 24/7 endeavor, that was undoubtedly true. I also knew it was important to Wenner, our board member, along with David Talbot, my predecessor who remained on the Salon board. I say that as a partial explanation, not an excuse; I safely differed with Wenner and Talbot (who also remains my friend) on other articles and other issues; I could and should have done so on this one. But I didn’t.
I also fell for the Kennedy magic: I grew up in a family that revered Democratic President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, both murdered by assassins. As I do whenever I meet one of my father’s heroes, I warm up. And Kennedy had become a progressive star in his own right, for his environmental rights legal work with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and Riverkeeper.
In our many interactions, he was charming and funny. But gradually he became a charming bully, resisting my efforts to rein in some of his over-the-top rhetoric. As the editing process became more contentious, I commiserated with my counterpart at Rolling Stone. But since we trusted the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking—a mistake—we suppressed our misgivings and published.
The pushback began almost immediately. I’ve already linked to our corrections, which with hindsight seem not to correct what were revealed to be the worst errors. Seth Mnookin, who happened to also write for Salon occasionally, was one of the most dogged debunkers, and his 2011 book The Panic Virus, which features a chapter on Kennedy and the Salon/Rolling Stone mess, ultimately helped convince us to retract the piece entirely.
Mnookin showed, among other things, how Kennedy misrepresented what went on at a 2000 meeting on vaccine safety convened by the Centers for Disease Control, at the Simpsonwood conference center outside Atlanta, where the claims of a link between Thimerosol and autism were discussed. Mnookin wrote, “Kennedy relied on the 286-page transcript of the Simpsonwood meeting to corroborate his allegations—and wherever the transcript diverged from the story he wanted to tell, he simply cut and pasted until things came out right.”
He did that to make the assembled medical experts look like they were pulling off an enormous hoax, at times editing their statements to sound like the very opposite of what they believed. Out of all his mistakes and misrepresentations, I feel worst about that, because it slimed real live people. Good fact-checking would have caught those distortions, but the piece didn’t have that. I didn’t read the 286-page Simpsonwood transcript, which I had a printout of. I could have, but in fairness to myself (sigh), that was not my job. I was the big picture person. Even if I had, would I have caught the distortions and cutting and pasting that now seem to be willful?
Looking back, I had no business publishing a piece of that scientific and political complexity without help from other editors. If we together had debated Kennedy’s claims, we would have had a much better chance of finding some of the holes. My deference to Wenner, to the Rolling Stone legend, and to Kennedy prevailed over my normal editorial common sense. I really did tell myself I was shielding valued and chronically overworked colleagues from a brutal task, and that was part of it. But I was also shielding myself, protecting my relationship with two revered board members (Talbot, a friend with whom I regularly skirmish politically, has endorsed Kennedy’s presidential run.)
Part of my aversion to writing about Kennedy’s candidacy may be another form of shielding myself. Sure, some of it is also on principle—he really is getting too much coverage from a media craving a hot Democratic primary. But writing this piece has been tough, psychologically, even physically. I literally cringe as I reread the corrections we ran and the debunkings that drove us to retract it.
I tell this story, incompletely and imperfectly given the 18 intervening years, because Kennedy continues to peddle the lies he published and claim that dark forces cowed us and forced us to retract his story. The odious Joe Rogan has been going after vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez on Twitter, after Hotez tweeted that the Kennedy interview was “awful,” “absurd,” and promoting “nonsense.” He offered Hotez “$100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you’re willing to debate [Kennedy] on my show with no time limit.” Twitter troll and site owner Elon Musk has been amplifying Rogan and Kennedy and going after Hotez. On Sunday a Q-Anon believer came to Hotez’s Houston home demanding that he debate Kennedy.
“Let’s face it,” Hotez told MSNBC. “When you have RFK Jr. and Joe Rogan and Elon Musk all tag-teaming, those tres hombres at the same time… That probably includes just about every follower on Twitter. So, it’s pretty overwhelming.”
Will Kennedy retain his hold on a significant share of voters as his anti-vax conspiracy theories and other loony views are more broadly known? I sure hope not. NBC’s Zadrozny got Kennedy to talk about some of his public health priorities if he becomes president.
President Kennedy would order childhood vaccines, which have already gone through clinical trials and constant safety studies, to undergo bigger, double-blind controlled trials. That sounds scientific, but those studies, health professionals say, would needlessly and unethically deny children vaccines, offering them a placebo instead, in a quest to find out what we already know: that vaccines are safe and prevent myriad illnesses.
President Kennedy would gut the agencies that currently regulate, monitor and recommend schedules for childhood vaccines—the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and the expert advisory panels of doctors, scientists, and professors they rely on. The agencies have become “sock puppets” for the industries they regulate, he says, so he’ll impose more stringent conflict-of-interest qualifications and replace the bad guys with good ones. Kennedy won’t tell mem who he has in mind (“not until they’re vetted”), but says he’s got many names.
I regret the role I played in spreading Kennedy’s anti-vaccine propaganda, and however it helped foment the harassment of Hotez. The vaccine-autism lie isn’t the only big lie Kennedy’s told. But it’s the only one I can debunk personally.