Mothering Editor Calls for Boycott of NBC's
Following the February 15,
2001 airing of an episode of the hit television show ER in which an
unvaccinated child dies from measles, Mothering Editor and Publisher
Peggy O'Mara has called for a boycott of the program because of its
misrepresentation of families who choose not to vaccinate and because of the
show's obvious ties to vaccination manufacturers.
Her letter to the
17 February 2001
To the Writers of ER:
Journalists around the world are threatened, tortured and murdered for
telling the truth. As journalists in the US we have immense privilege not
enjoyed in many other countries. With this privilege comes a responsibility.
You especially, the writers for ER, have a privileged platform from
which to tell the truth and instead you have used your privilege for
On the ER episode
that aired February 15, 2001, a child died from measles. This episode
portrayed the parents' informed choice not to vaccinate as irresponsible and
negligent, and implicated them in the death of their child. Not
coincidentally, Dr Carter's implication of the parents' negligence was
followed immediately by an advertisement for Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceutical's
Prevnar vaccine. Surely you have breached your broadcasting integrity by
aligning the message of your episode with the message of your sponsors. In
doing so you have breached the truth. Your transparent and one-sided coverage
of a very important issue only fuels belief in the "conspiracy"
that your character so vehemently derides.
Your depiction of parents
who choose to forgo vaccinations as irresponsible and negligent is simply not
borne out in fact. In reality, the total number of parents who
conscientiously object to vaccines is small, probably less than one percent
and they do not "free-ride" on other's immunity. Research at the
University of Pennsylvania concluded that parents in general were more likely
to do what everyone else did (that is, to vaccinate) than to
"free-ride" on the perceived immunity of others. It is the
inadequate access to health care of the unimmunized poor that is the greater
risk to immunization compliance than is the minority of well-informed and health
conscious families who do not vaccinate.
Scientific and ethical
oversight supports this view. The Institute of Medicine in their 1997
workshop summary Risk Communication and Vaccination stated "The
goal that all parties share regarding vaccine risk communication should be
informed decisionmaking. Consent for vaccination is truly
"informed" when the members of the public know the risks and
benefits and make voluntary decisions."
Your portrayal of the
parents ignored and patronized legitimate safety concerns that some parents
have about vaccines. It also ignored the legitimacy of informed consent, a
tradition in American jurisprudence for nearly 100 years. By definition, a
parent's right to informed consent means that he or she must not be coerced into
making a decision. Your cooperation with Wyeth-Ayerst in coercing the parents
of America is unethical. And, your portrayal of doctors who coerce parents
into making such decisions violates the ethical standards of the medical
Your portrayal was
further compromised by its blatant association with advertising. It is often
the case that the medical establishment places stories in the media prior to
a major policy statement or publication. Was this recent ER episode
meant to test public opinion for the upcoming American Academy of Pediatrics
recommendation of the Prevnar vaccine and the subsequent requirement of
Prevnar by the CDC?
I can understand the need
for the advance publicity. Prevnar is a vaccine for pneumococcal/pneumonia
and has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. However,
according to Erdem Cantekin, PhD, professor of otolaryngology at the
University of Pittsburgh and an international authority on otitis media,
"The big push for Prevnar came from its supposed prevention of otitis
media, even though it had not been approved for this use.... This vaccine is
the perfect example of profit-driven health care with no checks and
balances." Prevnar is one of the most expensive vaccines ever developed
and is expected to deliver sales of up to $500 million per year.
Prevnar is made by
Wyeth-Ayerst, the same company that made Rhotoshield, a diarrhea vaccine.
Rhotoshield was withdrawn from the market in 1999 after reports of numerous
cases of vaccine-associated bowel obstruction and amidst claims of conflicts
of interest between vaccine manufacturers and governmental agencies that,
critics say, knew of the vaccine risks all along.
Your portrayal of the
complexity of the vaccine decision was not only one-sided; it was also
inaccurate and therefore inflammatory. It was stated in the episode that the
death rate for measles was one in 500. While this was the death rate in the
prevaccine era, the death rate today is one in 5,000. As there are less than
1,000 cases of measles a year in the US, it would be rare for a US hospital
to witness a measles death. To terrorize parents with the threat of such a
rare occurrence is unconscionable.
In the episode, Dr.
Carter stated that there was no proof that measles vaccine causes autism
while, in fact, the evidence that implicates the MMR vaccine in autism is
compelling and should be taken seriously if we are genuinely interested in
It is not uncommon for
industry to use its influence in the media to frame stories. Increases in
breastfeeding rates, for example, are met with increased stories in the media
about the very rare and preventable "insufficient milk syndrome."
During a two-month period
in 1994, unusual cases of tragic infant dehydration were covered in The
Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and on Prime Time Live. More
recently, a 1998 episode of TV's Chicago Hope and a 2000 episode of Law
and Order also implicated breastfeeding in shows about "insufficient
milk syndrome." "Insufficient milk syndrome," a media
euphemism, is totally preventable if a new breastfeeding mother gets
appropriate information and support from her healthcare providers.
breastfeeding bashing has not been balanced in the media with public service
programming that encourages breastfeeding or portrays breastfeeding advocacy
in a positive light. This is particularly ironic in light of the World Health
Organization recommendation that all women breastfeed for at least two years.
Most babies in the US are weaned by six months.
Likewise, the January
2000 publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics' book on infant sleep,
a book that advocates an authoritarian approach to infant sleep, was preceded
by the co-sleeping caution issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission
in September 1999. Most media coverage of these official statements parroted
the viewpoint of the government and medical associations.
breastfeeding and questioning vaccines have in common is that they are the
minority choices that do not make money for anyone. Increasingly, the
conscientious viewpoints of a minority of citizens who question the status
quo in one way or another are looked upon as un-American. In fact, it is the
minority viewpoint that the US constitution was written to protect.
The American Academy of
Pediatrics minimizes parental concerns about vaccines by labeling them
misconceptions. ER suggests that informed choice is criminal.
The media and the medical establishment increasingly attack parents who
exercise legitimate, informed choice if that choice is controversial. All
states, however, grant religious exemptions to vaccination, and parents can
claim these exemptions based on deeply held personal beliefs as well as on
As an editor, I advocate
for parents to be able to make personal choices regarding the care of their
own family. I am for informed choice. None of us is safe to act on our deeply
held beliefs if one of us is unsafe. This is not about vaccines. It is about
informed consent. Whatever we believe or choose regarding vaccines is
irrelevant to the fact that we all want to reserve the right to choose
medical care that is appropriate to the needs of our particular family.
Standing by while broadcasters trample on the freedom of parents is something
I will not do.
Citizens are not
interested in watching television shows that are so obviously compromised. It
is bad enough that television programming on the public airways is a vehicle
of advertising for the few, but it is doubly bad when advertising is
disguised as programming.
If we are to have any
impact on the excesses of materialism, we will have to start by refusing such
ER has misused its position of media
ER has violated its own standards of
ER has violated broadcasting
integrity by overtly aligning the content of the episode with the interests
of the advertisers.
I am calling for a
boycott of ER for violating broadcasting ethics in their portrayal of
a medical establishment that justifiably coerces parents into making vaccine
Editor and Publisher
What you can do:
- Go to NBC's comment
page for ER on the web
and let them know you plan to boycott the show.
- For more information about
vaccination issues and how they were misrepresented by ER, go to Mothering's
Forum, where the episode is being discussed.
- For more information on
special interests and the media, visit the Fear & Favor 2000: How
Power Shapes the News report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
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