The Blog

Factchecking <em>People</em>

It's a problem I myself have been pondering: reputable news sources whose standards of truth are slipping. I've been thinking, in fact, aboutmagazine.
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I enjoyed today's column in The New York Times by my friend David Leonhardt for its savage, long overdue takedown of Lou Dobbs, who is not just a blowhard but, as Leonhardt points out, a liar. But what really hit home was that CNN continues to provide a platform for such lies. It's a problem I myself have been pondering: reputable news sources whose standards of truth are slipping. I've been thinking, in fact, about People magazine.

Friends are usually surprised when I tell them that I subscribe to People. In fact, I learned to read with People. My parents subscribed from the moment the magazine debuted, with Mia Farrow on the cover, in 1974, the year I was born. It was an instant success. Its genius was that, unlike the Hollywood gossip rags that had existed for decades, People would serve up a mix of Hollywood gossip and true stories from middle America, and in a format that was decidedly not salacious. It would be respectable to learn about Mia Farrow from People in a way it was not respectable to get news from the National Enquirer. What's more, the standards of truth would be higher.

And so it has been, for over 30 years. People fact-checks. People gets stories right. What's more, People has a little class: it doesn't out closeted celebrities, for example. Sometimes its deference to stars' sensibilities goes too far: People, like Vanity Fair, can be a big suckup. But at least it tries not to print lies.

Which is why I was especially disturbed by an article in this week's issue on the actress Holly Robinson Peete, whose young son has autism. Tucked into one paragraph is Peete's assertion that her son developed his first symptoms of autism shortly after getting his vaccinations. She never says that his shots caused his autism, but the implication is clear. Never mind that informed medical opinion completely rejects the argument --much beloved of pharmaceutical-industry-conspiracy theorists-- that the thimerosal in certain vaccinations is a cause of autism. In fact, no sooner did I read the People article than I read an excellent article by Slate's Arthur Allen, yet again debunking this pernicious myth.

(For further reading, check out this devastating piece by Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist, that I ran when I was editor of the New Haven Advocate.

The People editors were quite clever in not allowing Ms. Peete to explicitly draw the fallacious link between the vaccines and autism, but they left in her implicit claim, thus ensuring that of the millions of People readers, several thousand will be a little more skeptical of vaccinations, and perhaps a few dozen will forgo vaccinating their children, putting their lives at risk.

How bad is it that CNN broadcasts the lies of Lou Dobbs? Bad, quite bad. But it's part of a weakening culture of truth in journalism, one that plagues People, CNN, and too many other outlets to count.