Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a Democratic candidate for the presidency, went on the Jordan B. Peterson podcast on June 5 and told a wild and false story about me from 2005 that I want to tell you about.
RFK Jr. has made so many false and wild claims about any number of vital topics – most dangerously about childhood vaccines, per his own siblings – that my interaction with him 18 years ago is small potatoes. He told the story as “evidence” of TV news networks trying to censor the truth when it came to vaccines. In it, he mangles the facts and wildly misrepresents what actually happened.
The truth about it is instructive because of how untethered he is to facts.
Flash back to 2005. Kennedy was co-publishing a piece on Salon.com and Rolling Stone with his spurious since-disproven claims about autism and vaccines. (After amending the story with five significant corrections, Salon.com ultimately took it down. Rolling Stone, too, removed the piece but with less transparency.)
As Seth Mnookin wrote for Scientific American in 2017, “Kennedy made his name in the anti-vaccine movement in 2005, when he published a story alleging a massive conspiracy regarding thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been removed from all childhood vaccines except for some variations of the flu vaccine in 2001. In his piece, Kennedy completely ignored an Institute of Medicine immunization safety review on thimerosal published the previous year; he’s also ignored the nine studies funded or conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have taken place since 2003.”
Among the many, many errors, as CBS News reported: “Kennedy’s Rolling Stone article originally said that ‘… the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.’ But since The Lancet retracted the original piece of research that made that link, and since the British Medical Journal then revealed that the study wasn’t merely a mistake but an outright fraud, the entire notion that vaccination and autism are somehow linked has been thoroughly debunked.”
So back to 2005. I was a reporter with ABC News and Salon.com reached out to see if we were interested in doing a TV spot tied to the publication of the Kennedy Jr. piece. I interviewed him via phone, with a TV crew in his office, and prepared a spot for “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.”
In Kennedy’s bizarre retelling a few days ago (the relevant part starts at 27:55 into the interview), I worked with him “for three weeks doing this incredible documentary” (no and no) about his Rolling Stone story – please note he makes zero mention of the article having since been retracted and disappeared – and then “the night before the piece was supposed to run, he called me up and said, ‘The piece just got killed by corporate.’” (I didn’t say that in any way and the piece wasn’t killed.) “All my career, I have never had a piece killed by corporate and I’m so mad,” he said I said. (I hadn’t. I had been at ABC News for two years. I had had plenty of pieces killed. Not once did “corporate” play a role in killing any of them.)
RFK Jr. has been misrepresenting the content of this call for years. (I told him we were holding the story for a day.) Now in his retelling, a two-minute piece was an “incredible documentary,” a few days of work was three weeks, one remote interview was me working intensely with him, and a piece that got delayed one day so we could interview some actual experts is a piece that got killed.
For the record, the piece aired June 22, 2005.
In it, I reported that “Kennedy alleges a government cover-up, arguing the Centers for Disease Control, in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry, suppressed data about the dangers of Thimerosal,” a preservative that had been removed from vaccines years before. “Kennedy points to these minutes from a CDC meeting five years ago, in which doctors express concern about a study that seemed to indicate a link between Thimerosal and neurological problems. But the CDC argues that the study was unfinished at the time, and it subsequently concluded there was no link.”
We then had a soundbite from Dr. Tanja Popovic of CDC who said: “The vast majority of the scientific data does not support association of Thimerosal in vaccines with autism.”
I then noted that “Kennedy also claims notes from the respected Institute of Medicine show that body was instructed by government doctors to find no link. The IOM, however, says those notes were taken out of context. Members say any suggestion they were told to whitewash the truth is nonsense.”
Cut to Dr. Steve Goodman from that IOM panel: “We felt that our responsibility was to the parents and to the science, and to give them the same kind of reassurance that I got from looking at this evidence when I was faced with exactly this decision for my own child.”
I reported that “The medical community overwhelmingly disagrees with Kennedy, who is not a scientist or a doctor. They point out that autism rates are not decreasing, even though Thimerosal has been removed from most childhood vaccines as a precaution.”
So, yeah, we did the fact-checking for our piece that RFK Jr. didn’t do himself.
And he remains someone you cannot rely upon for facts, truth or accuracy.