Inoculation Against Criticism

Rolling Stone’s current issue carries a 630-word editors’ note in response to Robert F. Kennedy’s feature “Deadly Immunity,” which ran in the June 16th issue of the magazine. Kennedy’s piece stretched over 4,600 words and alleged that the government had tried to suppress research linking mercury-tainted vaccines with the dramatic increase in child autism.

The note, “Kennedy Report Sparks Controversy,” was the magazine’s public response to a month-long media backlash, which had included a front-page piece in The New York Times, a critical op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and a skeptical segment on ABC’s World News Tonight, which told viewers that Kennedy “is not a scientist or a doctor”–twice.

Rolling Stone‘s editors took particular issue with the 2,400-word Times account, co-written by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O’Connor, which described Kennedy’s piece as “arguing that most studies of the issue are flawed and that public health officials are conspiring with drug makers to cover up the damage caused by thimerosal.”

Rolling Stone‘s editors said the Times‘ use of “conspiring” was “a word that our story neither used nor implied.” Three hundred words into the editors note, however, the editors also addressed six errors in the piece that had gone undetected in fact-checking process–including a misattributed quote, an incorrect calculation of an infant’s exposure to mercury and an under-counting of the number of vaccinations a child received.

“We’ve been fully transparent,” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said by phone July 25, in response to the correction’s low placement in the note. “Even if there weren’t the fact-checking problems, we still would have run the note,” he said. “We had to answer the critics.”

After Kennedy’s piece ran last month, Dana said, the magazine received a flurry of letters about the it, and the strength of the response on both sides of the issue–coupled with the critical media reports–motivated the editors’ note.

“We were not backing down from the story,” Dana said. “Rather, we tried to frame the debate as we saw it with this note Our point is, the argument is more complicated than what was presented in the New York Times as fate vs. science. The conclusions we drew were that there’s not enough information to close down this argument. We were certainly citing some troubling questions.”

Gabriel Sherman

Inoculation Against Criticism