Amy Wallace & Yellow Journalism
by Barbara Loe Fisher
On October 17, 2009 I was at the Atlanta airport on my way back to Washington, D.C. when I stopped at a newsstand. Like most weary travelers waiting for a plane, I was looking for something to read that would give me a break from my work, which included, two weeks earlier, hosting the large Fourth International Public Conference on Vaccination 1 for an audience of 700 concerned scientists, health care professionals, journalists, legal experts, ethicists and parents from around the world.
Suddenly, my eye caught the distorted, photo-shopped image of a baby with the word FEAR in bold letters imprinted on the baby’s chest. I paged through Wired magazine2 to find out who wrote the article and discovered it was a woman named Amy Wallace, one of the many journalists I had talked with in 2009, who had contacted the National Vaccine Information Center3, a non-profit, educational organization I co-founded in with parents of vaccine injured children in 1982.
As I scanned the article to find out why it was entitled “An Epidemic of Fear: One Man’s Battle Against the Anti-Vaccine Movement,” I quickly realized it was a puff piece for vaccine patent holder, Dr. Paul Offit, who alleges that vaccine injuries and deaths are largely a myth.
Then, I saw my name. And then, I saw the words, “She lies.”
I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach as I read the unsubstantiated, unchallenged slur made by Offit against me. And in those two words “SHE LIES,” I knew that the propaganda tactic of character assassination was being used to attack the credibility of my nearly 30 years4 of work as a vaccine safety consumer advocate.
Now, I have never met Amy Wallace. We have never shaken hands or shared so much as a cup of coffee together. We had one interview on the telephone in 2009. In a sworn statement5 she stated that she did not use any quotes from our telephone interview in her Wired article. No, she didn’t.
She also did not tell Wired readers what I told her, which is that I have always encouraged everyone to become educated6 about the risks of diseases and risks of vaccines and consult one or more trusted health care professionals before making an informed decision - just like every intelligent person should do before using any pharmaceutical product. Instead, Ms. Wallace said she based her description of me on a speech I gave at a conference, a speech that she did not attend.
Nobody at Wired magazine called me while they were presumably fact checking Wallace’s article to ask me point blank, “Dr. Offit said that you lie. Do you have a response?” Wouldn’t a responsible journalist or editor have made some attempt to verify such a serious attack on another person’s character? No, Dr. Offit’s defamatory statement remained in the article, unchallenged.
I was left with two options: 1) I could ignore it; or (2) I could take action to defend my integrity. After consulting Jonathan Emord7, a constitutional and libel law attorney, I selected option number two. I sought justice in a civil court, which is my constitutional privilege as an American citizen and my responsibility as the president of a non-profit organization, whose supporters depend upon the accuracy, honesty and integrity of what I say and do, as does everyone I know.
Requesting a jury trial in a U.S. civil court to sue for slander or libel is not for the faint of heart. You have to review and be prepared to defend the truthfulness of every statement you have ever made and every action you have ever taken in your life. You, your family, friends and colleagues could be subpoenaed and drawn into a potentially very public, drawn-out battle, especially if those you are suing are wealthy, influential and politically connected.
I had never sued anyone before and I certainly never thought I would find it necessary to sue a journalist. The majority of journalists I have worked with over the years have been honest men and women, who have taken care to do their research and fairly report the facts without prejudice, including accurately describing who I am and what I do.
This was different. I had never been defamed before and I knew I had no choice but to take steps to defend my integrity. I was confident that, if my case was presented to a jury of my peers, I would win. I had no doubt I would win on the facts because I do not lie and there was no evidence that could be produced to substantiate the defamatory statement made by Offit, amplified by Wallace, and printed by Wired magazine published by Conde Nast.
After Mr. Emord filed a Complaint with Demand for a Jury Trial8 on Dec. 23, 2009 in a Virginia U.S. District Court asking for one million dollars in damages, we waited for a response from the defendants. When I read the Motion to Dismiss brief filed on Jan. 22, 20109 by the defendants attorneys, I could not believe what I was reading. That CYA brief is better reading material than anything I can write or say here.
Instead of providing one piece of solid evidence to support Offit’s defamatory statement, Wallace claimed I could not sue her because she is a resident of California. And Offit, who has no trouble keeping a straight face when he states flatly that it is absolutely safe for a child to get 10,000 vaccines at once and 100,000 vaccines in a lifetime, claimed he was simply having an emotional meltdown when he hysterically told Wallace “flatly” that I lie. And to draw attention away from the seriousness of engaging in libel per se, the defendants’ attorneys argued that “the quoted remark ‘she lies’ is not capable of being proven true or false” because the civil court system cannot prove whether vaccines do or do not cause harm.
In my Opposition to Motion to Dismiss brief filed on Feb. 3, 201010, Jonathan Emord and his associates brilliantly outlined why it is inconceivable that the self characterized “dispassionate, objective” Dr. Offit described by Wallace in her article as a “mild mannered” rational man of “science,” suddenly would have lost his mind when maliciously calling me a liar. Mr. Emord points out that it is far more logical to conclude that Dr. Offit knew exactly what he was doing.
Mr. Emord also makes a compelling argument that Ms. Wallace knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote an article “void of balanced criticism” that set me up for ridicule as a person “unworthy of any professional association.” Mr. Emord rightly stated that the libel lawsuit we filed was not about “the intellectual debate surrounding vaccination,” it was about proving before a jury of my peers that Offit and Wallace defamed me in order to discredit my long, successful public record of consumer advocacy to defend the informed consent ethic in medicine11.
On February 12, 2010, the case was argued in front of Judge Claude Hilton, a Ronald Reagan federal court appointee. On March 10, 2010, a Memorandum Opinion12 was issued by Judge Hilton granting the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.
In his opinion, Judge Hilton explained why he would not allow me to face my accusers in a court of law in front of a jury of my peers. First, Hilton said that protection of First Amendment free speech rights are “at their zenith” in this case because Paul Offit and I are public figures debating an issue of “substantial public concern.” Second, he said there would have to be a discussion about “which side of this debate has ‘truth’ on their side” and that would be impossible to prove based upon a “core of objective evidence.”
Third, Hilton offered the opinion that Offit’s allegation “cannot be reasonably understood to suggest” that I am “a person lacking honesty and integrity” and that Wallace and Wired magazine were only reporting Offit’s “personal opinion” about my “views” and none of the defendants intended to make a “literal assertion of fact” that I lie.
In other words, they really didn’t mean it.
Seriously. That was the substance of their main defense – they really didn’t mean it – and Hilton bought it. However, if all three defendants really didn’t mean it, as they claim in their legal brief, then, ethically, all three defendants should have stated so publicly in a clarification published in Wired magazine to correct the public record. That has not happened.
I weighed the option of taking the case to the federal Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel would have reviewed Hilton’s opinion and had the opportunity to overturn it, as has happened in the past. However, if Hilton’s opinion were overturned on appeal, my case would have gone back to Hilton’s court for a jury trial and he would have been the presiding judge with an obvious bias.
So I did not appeal and moved on. However, Ms. Wallace continues to paint herself as the innocent victim of an uprovoked libel lawsuit, even as she becomes the shameful face of yellow journalism13, a nasty, lowbrow kind of tabloid reporting that “exploits, distorts or exaggerates” to create “sensation and attract readers.”
In an August 30, 2010 article14 published on the Internet, Wallace addressed fellow journalists about the difficulties of being sued for libel and complained about being called bad names by grieving parents of vaccine injured children, whom she had cruelly demonized in her article. Casting herself as a martyr with Offit for the cause, she said “The beast doesn’t tire, it seems, of taking whacks at those who dare to describe it” and suggested that she had been vindicated by Hilton’s opinion and the inclusion of her Wired article in an upcoming book on Best American Science Writing edited by a doctor with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, including vaccine manufacturers.
Sadly, Wallace is looking into a mirror when she describes the “beast.” She, Offit and Wired magazine have feasted on the shattered lives of vaccine injured children and their parents to sell magazines. They have taken delight in belittling vaccine victims and those who are trying to help them, while defending bad science and one-size-fits-all vaccine policies that create more vaccine damaged children every day. Amy Wallace, who wrote an article full of factual errors and silly quotes from a doctor hyping vaccine mandates like a used car salesman, is a classic example of the bully who can dish it out but sure can’t take it.
During the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s, I worked with award winning,15,16 truly professional print and broadcast journalists,17,18,19,20,21 who were committed to maintaining high journalistic standards and intelligently covering all sides of the multi-faceted vaccine safety issue. They did not sensationalize and dumb down the conversation to a black and white, “pro” and “anti” slugfest that is the hallmark of tabloid journalism.
There are fewer smart, responsible investigative journalists writing about the science, policy, law, ethics and politics of vaccination in America today. Perhaps that is because, today, health journalists are being warned by those in positions of authority to only report one side of the vaccine safety story.22
Do I regret my libel lawsuit, even though I didn’t get my day in court in front of a jury of my peers to prove who is lying and who is not? Not at all.
I know I did the right thing when I stood up to these schoolyard bullies, who are desperately trying to shut down all public discussion about vaccine risks, a subject that public opinion polls reveal concerns more than 50 percent of Americans today.23 Perhaps that is because, today, nearly everybody knows somebody who was healthy, got vaccinated, and then became sick or disabled for the rest of their life.
Doctors, journalists and judges in denial cannot change that harsh reality. It is a reality that the American people are not going to tolerate for much longer before they rise up, break free, and take back their health and their choices.
1 NVIC.org. Fourth International Public Conference on Vaccination: Show Us the Science & Give Us the Choice. Oct 2-4, 2009.
2 Wallace A. An Epidemic of Fear: One Man’s Battle Against the Anti-Vaccine Movement. Wired. November 2009.
5 Wallace A. Declaration of Amy Wallace, January 22, 2010 in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Motion to Dismiss by Amy Wallace and Conde Nast Publications, Inc.
8 Barbara Loe Arthur (aka Barbara Loe Fisher), Plaintiff, v. Paul A. Offit, M.D., Amy Wallace, Conde Nast Publications, Inc., Defendants. Civil Action No. 01:09-cv-1398. U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Complaint with Demand for Jury Trial filed Dec. 23, 2009 on behalf of plaintiff by Jonathan W. Emord with Andrea G. Ferrenz, Peter A. Arhangelsky, Christopher K. Niederhauser of Emord & Associates, Counsel for Plaintiff.
9 Barbara Loe Arthur, Plaintiff, v. Paul A. Offit, M.D., et al., Defendants. Civil Action No. 01:09-cv-1398. U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Motion to Dismiss filed Jan. 22, 2010 on behalf of defendants by John B. O’Keefe, Michael D. Sullivan, Seth D. Berlin of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz, Counsel for Amy Wallace and Conde Nast Publications, Inc. and John D. McGavin, Heather K. Bardot of Trichilo, Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath & Judkins, Counsel for Paul A. Offit.
10 Barbara Loe Arthur (aka Barbara Loe Fisher), Plaintiff v. Paul A. Offit, M.D. et al, Defendants. Civil Action No. 01:09-cv-1398. U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Plaintiff’s Opposition to Motion to Dismiss filed Feb. 3, 2010 on behalf of plaintiff by Jonathan W. Emord with Andrea G. Ferrenz, Peter A. Arhangelsky, Christopher K. Niederhauser of Emord & Associates, Counsel for Plaintiff.
11 Fisher, BL. The Moral Right to Conscientious, Personal or Philosophical Belief Exemption to Mandatory Vaccination Laws. National Vaccine Advisory Committee, May 2, 1997.
12 Barbara Loe Arthur, Plaintiff, v. Paul A. Offit, M.D. et al, Defendants. Civil Action No. 01:09-cv-1398. U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Memorandum Opinionfiled March 20, 2010 by Claude M. Hilton, U.S. District Judge.
13 The Free Dictionary. Definition of “yellow journalism” from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000). Also see the history of yellow journalism.
14 Wallace A. Covering Vaccines: Science, policy and politics in the minefield. Reporting on Health. Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California. Aug. 30, 2010.
15 Lea Thompson, Investigative journalist and producer of the Emmy award winning April 1982 NBC-TV documentary DPT: Vaccine Roulette plus news coverage of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and licensing of DTaP vaccine in 1996.
16 John Hanchette. Investigative journalist and co-author of The Vaccine Machine, a series of investigative Gannett news reports in 1985 on vaccine risks, gaps in science and operational flaws in the mass vaccination program. And a follow-up Gannett investigative series Vaccine Nation in 1999.
17 NBC News “Now Show.” Investigative report on DPT vaccine risks, “hot lots” and VAERS. Melissa Cornick, Fred Francis, Producers. Katie Courac, Correspondent. Mar. 2 and Aug. 31, 1994. Video Part 1:
February 2000. The Virus and the Vaccine: The True Story of a Cancer-Causing Monkey Virus, Contaminated Polio Vaccine, and the Millions of Americans Exposed. St. Martin’sPress. 2004.
21 Williams V., Schucker M. Prevnar: A Vaccine Investigation. WFAA-TV (ABC-Dallas). Broadcast Feb. 21-22, 2001. Recipient of 2001 award from Investigative Reporters & Editors.
22 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius quoted in an interview: H1N1: The Report Card. Readers Digest. March 2010.