It's never too early to be reminded how willfully awful the political press can be during presidential campaign season.
In early February, some 11 months before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, a four-day foofaraw over vaccines provided a template for the tendency of the Fourth Estate and the partisans who game it to direct coverage away from government policy and toward a falsely Manichean separation between Team Science and Team Stupid.
It all started innocuously enough, with President Barack Obama going on the Today show February 2 and being asked by Savannah Guthrie whether, in the wake of increasing measles outbreaks near Disneyland and elsewhere, "there should be a requirement that parents get their kids vaccinated." The president then said three things that just about everyone on allegedly opposing sides of the resulting debate would also stress over the coming week: that "measles are preventable," that "you should get your kids vaccinated," and-through his spokesman Josh Earnest the following day-that "it shouldn't require a [federal] law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing."
Given the volume and tenor of the ensuing brouhaha, you'd be forgiven for thinking that vaccine policy is largely determined by Washington. "The measles vaccine," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, in a sentiment shared widely among the political press, "has become the first important controversy of the 2016 Republican presidential primary."
Yet when my second daughter was born in late January, it wasn't the White House or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that dictated which shots would be given and recommended at the hospital, it was the city and state of New York. In January of this year, for example, New York City took the unusually aggressive step of mandating not just a measles or whooping cough vaccination but a flu shot for any child entering a city-licensed preschool or day care facility. (Parents can apply for medical or religious exemptions.) This despite reports from the CDC that this year's flu shot has an anemic effectiveness rate of 23 percent.
But journalists were not very interested in the areas of vaccine policy that are actually debatable. They just wanted to find fools and laugh at them. "The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives," wrote The New York Times in its news pages. Lefty commentators were more direct: "Republican Party Comes Out Against Basic Hygiene, For Freedom," went one headline in Wonkette.
Observers with memories longer than one week may recall that the anti-vaccination movement arose largely (though certainly not exclusively) from the progressive left, through celebrities such as Robert Kennedy Jr. and Jenny McCarthy and in publications such as Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post. The current measles outbreak is centered in the Democratic-dominated state of California, where local anti-vaccination rates correspond well with progressive concentration. There is some heavy-breathing skepticism from the fringes of libertarianism (sample 2014 headline from LewRockwell.com: "The CDC's Cover-Up On Autism and the MMR Vaccine"), but as a matter of overall policy and politics the American mainstream continues to be heavily pro-vaccine, and the anti- side is distributed pretty evenly across the political spectrum.
So why were Republicans in the crosshairs over immunization? Because presidential hopefuls Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) expressed their fundamental policy agreement with the president while using language that raised alarm bells among political reporters.
Christie, while traveling in London, was asked whether Americans should vaccinate their kids. He replied: "All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That's the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It's much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that's what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that's the balance that the government has to decide. But I can just tell people from our perspective, Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think it's an important part of making sure we protect their health and the public health."
To make this statement controversial, you have to assume that Christie is referring only to comparatively no-brainer vaccinations, like those against measles, rather than more questionable interventions, such as mandatory flu shots and infant immunizations against the comparatively less communicable Hepatitis B. Indeed, the governor clarified the next day that the measles mandate makes perfect sense. It also helps to be ignorant of the fact that 48 of the 50 states already allow parents at least "some measure of choice," in the form of opt-outs for religious and broader philosophical reasons.
Christie also pre-contributed to the controversy through his statement in 2009 that he will "stand with" parents of autistic kids in "their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates," thus seeming to lend credibility to a linkage that by then had already been discredited, and would soon thereafter be retracted by its source. (Though that didn't stop Hillary Clinton and John McCain from making similar statements the year before, for which their careers did not suffer.) In a world of politicized science, do-something journalism, and the structural incentives for the continuous expansion of recommended shots, worrying about the prevalence of vaccine mandates in an outlier state is healthy, not crazy. But linking it to autism is profoundly unhelpful.
That's what partly ensnared Rand Paul, when the journalism swarm moved his direction. In the course of agreeing with President Obama and Gov. Christie that vaccines are "one of the biggest medical breakthroughs that we've had" but should not be forcibly mandated, the senator said, "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." This is literally true-autism typically manifests at some point after the vast majority of infants receive vaccinations. But the implied linkage and resulting outrage was enough to prompt a quick clarification from Paul that he "did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related-I did not allege causation."
Let it be resolved that putting the words autism and vaccines in a sentence without the connective tissue of is not caused by is inadvisable at best. Now then: Should public schools refuse to admit children not inoculated against Hep B, a disease correlated strongly with high-risk behavior such as unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, and typically transmitted not through casual contact but via blood? Because that's the law in most of the land. Should state governments require annual flu shots for school kids? They do in New Jersey and Connecticut.
When commentators weren't busy congratulating themselves in February for being on the right side of science, they were writing agonized think-pieces about, in the words of Kelly Wallace at CNN.com, "How to persuade the anti-vaxxers to vaccinate." One suggestion that did not, to my knowledge, come up: Make damned sure every vaccine mandate makes scientific and philosophical sense, so as not to breed distrust over the ones that are more necessary.
You don't have to be paranoid to observe that the federal government has lied for decades about the medical properties of marijuana while changing its mind constantly about the food pyramid and the cost/benefit of salt. If you want less skepticism, stop earning it. And you don't have to be a crazed libertarian (or progressive!) to be creeped out by the government telling you what to inject into your child. The real debate isn't science vs. Jenny McCarthy, it's the scope and terms of the available exemptions at the state and local level, far away from presidential politics. That's a much harder question, one that the political press is uniquely ill-equipped to handle.