In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.
The Chicago Sun-Times created controversy this month by hiring Jenny McCarthy—an actress-model, author, and activist who promotes the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism—to blog online five days a week and write a weekly print advice column about sex, love, dating, and parenting. (The USA Today story about it, taken from the press release, is here.) The Chicago native’s first print column appeared on October 28 in the Sun-Times’s new weekly style magazine, Splash.
It was the possibility that McCarthy might be writing parenting advice that most worried people. Despite popular support for the theory, science is certain: There is absolutely no link between vaccines and autism. But McCarthy, who started her career as a Playboy model and has been the host of an MTV show, is best known for promoting the idea that there is one. She is president of Generation Rescue and connected to AutismOne, both autism activist organizations that link vaccination to autism. After writing her memoir about her perhaps-autistic son, Louder than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism in 2007, she spoke about this supposed link on Oprah, Frontline, and Larry King Live.
According to Veronica Arreola, an opinion writer on feminism and women’s issues and the director of the Women in Science & Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, giving McCarthy yet another microphone is a problem. “She has built a career on anti-science rhetoric,” Arreola said in a phone interview. “She looks at her son and says, ‘Science tells me X, but I see Y, so I don’t believe science and neither should you.’ For someone of her stature to have a platform like this is really dangerous.”
Like Arreola, science writers across the country were upset. The headline for a blog post about McCarthy, written by a former medical writer at the San Jose Mercury News on the website ReportingOnHealth.com reads, “Chicago Sun-Times Hires Jenny McCarthy as Columnist. Science Weeps.” It was quickly retweeted by science writers and other journalists. Emily Willingham, a Pharma & Healthcare contributor at Forbes.com, writes, “If you’ve got an interest in autism, public health or critical thinking, that very name may have you wringing your hands - or slugging a nearby wall.” The science writers were doubly concerned because the Sun-Times already appeared to give McCarthy space back in May to promote her autism views.
But when I emailed with Susanna Negovan, Splash editor at the Sun-Times, she said that McCarthy was chosen to be a columnist because her light stories about motherhood, which she started writing occasionally in the spring, were a hit with readers. “Jenny will not be writing about vaccines or giving medical advice. The purpose of the advice column and blog is to entertain and engage our readers with real stories from a celebrity mom who has a loyal following in Chicago and beyond,” Negovan said. “Splash is held to the same journalism standards as any other feature section.”
This is all reassuring. Celebrities - or, let’s be honest, people - have all sorts of wacko beliefs. It is not untoward for one of them to be writing a light column in a style magazine. That McCarthy won’t be writing about vaccines is a relief to Michele Weldon, assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. But, she says, there’s yet another issue.
Weldon trains non-journalists to write op-eds as part of the OpEd Project, which has a mission to increase diversity of opinion in daily newspapers. In a phone interview, she said, “What disturbs me is that there is so much underreported and undiscovered valuable information and so many voices that need to be heard. This is just a waste of time. Use that ink and virtual space on the website to invite community leaders, the executive directors of nonprofits and other worthwhile causes to write about important issues of the day that critically impact the Chicago community. [McCarthy] already has enough of a platform.”
And that, I think, is the best criticism of McCarthy’s hire, considering the fact that she’s staying away from autism. Readers don’t need more entertainment—it proliferates on the Web and elsewhere. Meanwhile, newspaper budgets are shrinking. We need news organizations to report more news. Or at least provide a megaphone for those voices we never hear. McCarthy’s voice is loud enough.