Last night, AOL finalized a deal to buy The Huffington Post for $315 million. From my perspective, the biggest news is that Arianna Huffington will, according to The New York Times, “take control of all of AOL’s editorial content as president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. The arrangement will give her oversight not only of AOL’s national, local and financial news operations, but also of the company’s other media enterprises like MapQuest and Moviefone.”
Much of the hand-wringing about Arianna’s ascension has focused on her liberal political views. (The headline on the Fox Nation website read, “AOL veers hard left, buys Huffington Post.”) I’m more worried about whether The Huffington Post‘s history of publishing baldly inaccurate stories about science and medicine will now infect the rest of AOL’s content.
I’ve written about the HuffPo‘s affinity for pseudoscience before. It’s hard to pick out any single example, but an article by Jay Gordon titled “There is no proof that cigarettes cause cancer” is one I find particularly offensive; it included the following line (it was underlined, bolded, and italicized in the original):
Let me state very simply, vaccines can cause autism.
This is not a matter of allowing someone to publish his or her opinion; this is a news outlet (er, content provider) publishing factually incorrect work. This wasn’t the first, or last, time Gordon was given license to mislead readers*; six weeks later, he contributed another piece which included this line:
Unvaccinated children do not pose a threat to vaccinated children or their families.
Anyone with even a casual understanding of virology and immunology would know this to be false. In The Panic Virus, I write about a family that learned this firsthand:
The notion that people should base medical decisions on what is “right for them” is particularly problematic in a public health context, where individual choices cannot be cordoned off from each other. Consider the case of Julieanna Metcalf, a fifteen-month-old, fully-vaccinated girl who was taken to the hospital on January 23, 2008 with what her mother thought was a particularly bad case of the flu. It was only after extensive tests that doctors discovered that Julieanna had a compromised immune system that rendered the vaccine for Hib ineffective. By the time she got out of the hospital almost a month later, Julieanna had suffered multiple seizures and had a buildup of fluid in the brain so dangerous it required emergency surgery. She’d also lost all of her motor skills—including the ability to swallow—and will require multiple immune globulin injections each week for the rest of her life.
Even with her weakened immune system, Julieanna might not have caught Hib if everyone around her had had their shots, but the Minnesota community in which she lived was a place where the same ethos emanating from Gordon’s and [Bob] Sears’s waiting rooms and [Oprah] Winfrey’s couch had taken hold. The outbreak that ensnared Julieanna also resulted in the hospitalization of four other children. One was a baby who was too young to have been vaccinated. The parents of the three others had all chosen not to vaccinate their children; one of those, a seven-month-old girl, died of the disease.
Gordon is not the only person who has been given free rein to post mumbo-jumbo on The Huffington Post: Jim Carrey, David Kirby, and Robert F. Kennedy have all written about vaccines and autism for the site. (Orac was covering this as far back as 2007.)
So: does this latest move mean that HuffPo-style quackery will be disseminated even more widely? Or will the new Huffington Post Media Group be more careful about monitoring the line between falsehoods and opinions?