This week, ABC announced that model, comedian, and anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy would be joining the hit daytime talk show The View. Bob looks at the controversy surrounding her hiring and at the media's description of McCarthy's "controversial" views.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, ABC announced a new cohost for its popular morning chat show, The View.
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Jenny McCarthy, nude model turned comedian, turned author, turned autism quacktivist will join Barbara Walters on the all-female panel show in September. No doubt, she’ll be a lively addition. She’s not afraid to do fart jokes, and it’s not as though the conversation is too lofty for her.
SHERRI SHEPHERD: I don't think anything predated Christians.
JOY BEHAR: No, no, no, that’s all the right - the Greeks came first.
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Then the Romans, then the Christians.
SHERRI SHEPHERD: Jesus came first before them, so I, I –
JOY BEHAR: No –
SHERRI SHEPHERD: Okay, all right, all right -
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BOB GARFIELD: But in the press release announcing the hire, ABC revealed something chilling. McCarthy, the network said, will stir things up with her parenting beliefs. Uh-oh! Jenny McCarthy's most notorious parenting belief is the extremely inflammatory allegation that vaccinating children is dangerous, based on some long discredited pseudoscience linking the preservatives in childhood vaccines to autism. Here was McCarthy a couple of years back, with Larry King.
LARRY KING: Isn’t the problem here, Jenny, that people sometimes casual or listen with one ear are going to panic and not vaccine at all?
JENNY McCARTHY: Probably, but guess what?
LARRY KING: And you’re going to go by -
JENNY McCARTHY: It’s, it’s not my fault. Why – the reason why they’re not vaccinating is because the vaccines are not safe. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Thanks to McCarthy's huge media profile, untold numbers of mothers have foregone the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, and others, for their children, with potentially catastrophic public health consequences. Outbreaks of measles and pertussis in the US over the past five years, after decades of virtual eradication, underline the stakes. Yet, here was McCarthy with Oprah Winfrey, explaining her credentials for dispensing medical advice.
JENNY McCARTHY: When I did get the diagnosis though –
OPRAH WINFREY: Mm-hmm –
JENNY McCARTHY: - boom, first thing I did — Google. I put in “autism” and I started my research.
OPRAH WINFREY: Thank God for Google.
JENNY McCARTHY: I’m telling you!
OPRAH WINFREY: Thank God for Google!
JENNY McCARTHY: The University of Google is where I got my degree from.
BOB GARFIELD: Problem is, the University Google sucks, because anyone can teach there, no matter how dishonest, how superstitious, how ignorant. On the University of Google, you can also learn about how the US government blew up the World Trade Center, how crystals magically heal, how Jews kill Gentile infants for their blood and how easy it is to get rich in real estate.
Apart from her Google degree, McCarthy cites the evidence of her own family. Her son Evan was diagnosed with autism in 2005. After having treated him for years as a spiritually endowed New Age indigo child, she decided that he had, instead, been poisoned by vaccines and processed food. Thus, she has used her media platform to prescribe so-called “detox diets” and agitate against the most life-saving medicines in human history. As she told Oprah, “My science is named Evan.”
So ABC hired this woman to talk to millions of other women every weekday.
Now look, this is America. McCarthy is entitled to say any stupid thing she wishes to, but how can a television network be so cynical as to enable her? As long as McCarthy is treated as a credible voice, the anti-vaccine canard will not die. Unvaccinated children, however, will. As Brendan Nyhan observed in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The damage is already being done. Such news organizations as the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Salon and the Associated Press characterized McCarthy's misinformation as controversial. But there is no controversy. She is simply wrong.
By dutifully reporting her ravings side-by-side with truth, they have framed anti-vaccine quackery as a debate. This latest outbreak of ABC's PT Barnum-ism – you’ll recall that last week we played you Barbara Walters interviewing a fake Dutchess of Cambridge - confers two lessons. One is that these people will do anything for ratings. The other is this: If you are a smoking hot Holocaust denier, get yourself an agent.
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This may be your time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, we now get to hear our own government’s broadcasts to the rest of the world, if we ask nicely.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
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STATION BREAK TWO
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The Smith-Mundt Act, passed in 1948, was intended to shield US citizens from US propaganda or, if you like, public diplomacy. That is, the original law authorized the State Department to conduct public diplomacy in person, in print and over the airwaves, but it also barred the dissemination of those materials on American shores, because some lawmakers distrusted the State Department. One congressman said it was, quote, “Chock-full of Reds.” Thus, our radios could never broadcast say Voice of America, which is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, until now. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act lifts that domestic broadcast band - a little - spurring BuzzFeed to charge that, quote, “Propaganda that was supposed to target foreigners can now be aimed at Americans.”
But Washington state congressional Democrat and bill cosponsor Adam Smith says not to worry.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: The bar on the US government doing domestic propaganda remains in place. What we amended was the ability of them, if asked, to provide that same content domestically. So one of the examples was that Voice of America had been providing, in Somalia and in those areas, sort of a counter-radicalization method. And in Minnesota, where they have a substantial Somali population, they had asked, you know, well, can we have that information. The Smith-Mundt Act barred them from providing it. So we amended it to say if somebody asks and if it's information that has already been created for an international audience, then yes, you can provide it. The government still cannot provide purely for domestic consumption any sort of information campaigns, so it was a very limited exception.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet is what has changed the conditions worldwide that prompted you to cosponsor this amendment, but is it not equally true that, let’s just say, those in the Somalian Diaspora in Minnesota who wish to see information that is not coming from some radical Islamist group –
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - need but go onto the Internet to find a drazillion sources of uninflected news and information from all over the world, without the assistance of the Broadcast Board of Governors or any other arm of the state?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Yeah, and I mean, look, there’s a thousand different sources. I just don’t see why the Broadcast Board of Governors - what they’re providing for a foreign audience shouldn’t be one of them.
And that’s the other thing about the notion of somehow the Broadcast Board of Governors having some sort of control [LAUGHS] over what information we as Americans receive. In this era, it’s absurd. They are but one voice out of gosh, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. But what they’re providing for a foreign audience, if the domestic audience requests it, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be open to hear it.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, you have been in Congress for 17 years. You have seen a number of administrations be granted certain powers and authority and immediately overreach. Are you not concerned that the State Department, either under the Obama administration or under a future administration, will use these revisions to do exactly what the BuzzFeeds of the world fear , which is to use State Department resources to try to influence the opinion of Americans in America?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Well, they would be violating the law if they did that. I mean, I'm always concerned about the Executive Branch violating the law. This law doesn’t make it any easier to do that. I mean, they could have done that already. You can always violate the law, but the law here is very clear. Anything created purely for domestic consumption is illegal. It can’t be done.
BOB GARFIELD: Congressman, thank you very much.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Thanks, appreciate the chance.
BOB GARFIELD: Congressman Adam Smith of Washington cosponsored the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.
So was US government domestic propaganda ever really that much of a threat? Absolutely, says historian Thomas Fleming, author of The Illusion Of Victory: America in World War One. The First World War was the occasion for the government's most ruthless battle for American hearts and minds.
THOMAS FLEMING: World War I is the war in which we can see where the federal government decided they had to control, as much as possible, all the information that was going out to the public. And so, in concert with an ex-newspaperman named George Creel, C-R-E-E-L, a very fascinating volcanic type character, President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, which soon became a gigantic federal monster. They had 150,000 people working for them by the time the war ended, which was – didn’t last that long. You know, it was only a year and a half. And yet, it became a huge operation.
BOB GARFIELD: It was very much the ministry of propaganda.
THOMAS FLEMING: There’s no doubt about it. These people were into everything. They actually published an official federal newspaper, 32 pages, tabloid size, every day. It was a daily paper. It went out to every newspaper in America.
BOB GARFIELD: Brooke, in her book, The Influencing Machine, talks about the Committee for Public Information and said that its role was to spread war fever by suppressing bad news and equating dissent with disloyalty.
THOMAS FLEMING: Everybody who wasn’t enthusiastic about the war was liable to get in a lot of trouble under something called the Espionage Act, which Wilson had put through Congress. Anybody who said anything against the government or against Wilson, in particular, could be sentenced to jail. One farmer in the Dakotas – I’m not sure which, North or South - told a young man, “Don’t join the Army, this war is a lot of foolishness.” He got five years in jail.
If you were riding on a streetcar and you happened to say to the man next to you, “I think President Wilson is an idiot,” if he reported you to the Committee on Public Information or to the American Protective League, which was their enforcement arm, you could do a lot of time in jail.
BOB GARFIELD: And how did the government egg people on to denounce their neighbors and family members and friends? What did the propaganda look like?
THOMAS FLEMING: They had a huge team of people who traveled around the country. They were called the Four Minutemen. And very often you’d go to a movie and the screen would go dark and one of the Four Minutemen would walk out and he’d give this rousing speech how we have to fight, we have to believe in America, we have to make the world safe for democracy, all the clichés that Wilson had put into his speech declaring war. This was all drummed into the minds of people at every level, all the way across the nation.
BOB GARFIELD: During World War I, the propaganda machine was a vast juggernaut. What happened in World War II? How did Roosevelt try to influence public opinion?
THOMAS FLEMING: World War II we had a president who had been in Washington during World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the Navy, and he really saw how the Wilson administration operated, and he realized it was a mistake, this whole thing. And he also felt that keeping the American public involved in the war and loyal to it was a matter of some fragility. So many people had emerged from World War I totally disillusioned. And so, Roosevelt relied on voluntary participation by the media in promoting the war in various ways.
One example that struck me as unusual, and I only discovered it after quite a lot of research, was that he persuaded them for the first 18 months of the war never to show a picture of a dead American soldier or sailor. And not until Life Magazine had a cover with some dead American soldiers on an island that they had attacked in the South Pacific – by this time thousands of Americans had been killed, but that was the first time that they allowed the public to see the reality of death in the war. But this was the general pattern. He did not use the kind of force and, and intimidation that Wilson relied on.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, after World War II, Congress, perhaps understanding the dangers of propaganda, passed the Smith-Mundt Act. As of this month, there has been a revision to the Smith-Mundt Act, which does permit, under certain circumstances, some foreign propaganda – that’s to say, Voice of America broadcasts, and so forth, to be rebroadcast in the United States. Do you see this as an ominous development?
THOMAS FLEMING: No, I really don't. I think that as long as our own media is full-fledged and operating, they can correct any of the extremes to which a government organization might go. I can see why this new regulation has been put in. There are many immigrant groups in the United States from countries like Somalia who need to hear some of the propaganda that we are sending to Somalia. They’re now trying to become Somalian-Americans, but they don't have access to a great deal of reporting on their individual countries. But this would be corrected by the Voice of America, being able to brief their radios and television.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you very much.
THOMAS FLEMING: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Fleming is author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War One.