Will the media call out Trump on his anti-vaxxer nonsense?

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.

That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.

It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.

“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

In case you’re not up on all the details, Julia Belluz of Vox offers an overview of the “elaborate fraud” behind the thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. As for Trump’s spread-them-out advice and Carson’s and Paul’s weasely responses, science journalist Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes:

Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.

So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?

Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.

Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:

For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.

Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.

Instead, Carson bunted.

In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”

We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.

Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?

The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org and The Huffington Post.

Times lets Palin aide lie about gunsight map

The New York Times today fails to call a Sarah Palin spokeswoman on what has all the appearances of a flat-out lie.

In a story on the political fallout of the weekend carnage in Tucson that claimed the lives of six people and left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely injured, Times reporters Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg tell us that Palin adviser Rebecca Mansour denied that those were gunsights on Palin’s infamous map identifying House Democrats she had targeted for defeat. Zeleny and Rutenberg write of Mansour’s appearance on a conservative radio talk show:

Ms. Mansour said that the cross hairs, in fact, were not meant to be an allusion to guns, and agreed with her interviewer’s reference to them as “surveyors symbols.” Aides to Ms. Palin did not respond to interview requests on Sunday.

Yet we already knew otherwise on Sunday, as a Talking Points Memo reader dug up a tweet purportedly written by Palin herself referring to the map symbols in explicitly gun-oriented terms. Palin or her designated tweeter wrote:

Remember months ago “bullseye” icon used 2 target the 20 Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats? We won 18 of 20 (90% success rate;T’aint bad)

And let’s not forget that those symbols turned red whenever one of the targeted Democrats went down — just like surveyors symbols, eh?

Few people are blaming Palin for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, who has been charged with the Saturday shootings. Loughner appears to have been motivated by mental illness rather than politics. Still, Palin’s map was mind-blowingly irresponsible, as Giffords herself said some months ago. This should mark the end of Palin’s public career as anything other than a sideshow freak, much as Ann Coulter all but disappeared after she mocked 9/11 widows. Are the media really going to let Palin and her minions get away with this?

Traditional journalism is incredibly uncomfortable when given proof that someone is flat-out lying. But that’s no excuse for the Times’ ignoring the fact that there was already proof Mansour was lying — or, at best, was incredibly uninformed about her boss’ intentions.

Why did Brooks invoke Coulter?

One of my favorite conservative pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, goes off the rails today, writing, “Every cliché Ann Coulter throws at the Democrats is gloriously fulfilled by the Democratic health care bills.”

Here’s a list of Coulter witticisms about the Democrats, compiled by Media Matters:

  • “Democrats are racist, and they’re just stunned to find a black man who can walk and talk.”
  • “The Democrats want Saddam back.”
  • The Democratic Party is “a party that supports killing, lying, adultery, thievery, envy.”
  • “[Y]ou just expect Democrats to side with Al Qaeda.”
  • “I think the problem the Democrats have is, no one really believes they’re authentic patriots.”
  • “I understand why you are so terrified of letting us point out what racists the Democrats are and how they have a big problem with black women.”

As for health care, the issue at hand, I can’t find much of anything Coulter has said directly about the subject, which makes it doubly puzzling as to why Brooks brought her up in the first place. At AnnCoulter.com, though, I did find this gem from 2007:

  • “The only ‘crisis’ in health care in this country is that doctors are paid too little…. [T]he Democratic Party treats doctors like they’re Klan members.”

Every so often Brooks, as sharp an analyst as we have, feels the need to re-establish his conservative credentials in the most boneheaded way imaginable. Today was one of those days.

Coulter’s final farewell

At least Ann Coulter made her departure from the national scene entertaining, in a sick kind of way. “We just want Jews to be perfected,” she told Donny Deutsch. And goodbye, Ann. Don’t let the door to the gas chamber hit you on the way out.