Tribeca Follies

As the dust settles, it becomes increasingly clear that the Tribeca Film Festival organizers made a terrible decision to include the pseudo-scientific documentary "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" in the festival screenings. After an angry backlash from scientists, filmmakers, and others, the festival, with a weird explanation, reversed its decision to show the film, but not without some collateral damage. The controversy has given the film's creator, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who is one of the most reviled and discredited medical hucksters of the generation, a public moment to continue to spew his junk science. The film is all about his discredited work. Too, Tribeca's reputation has been sullied not only by its decision to show the film in the first place but also by its dishonest promotion of the film. Finally, the subject of the documentary, an inflammatory polemic seeking to resuscitate what every responsible scientific study has debunked - namely, a causal link between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism - will continue to handcuff the minds of scared and gullible parents whose decision not to vaccinate their children continues to inflict serious illnesses not only to their own children but in the larger community.
Tribeca's decision to screen the film undoubtedly was influenced by the Tribeca co-founder, the great actor Robert DeNiro, whose own child suffers from autism. DeNiro noted he wasn't endorsing the film but merely wanted to illuminate the "issue of autism." However, the promotional materials and film trailer on the Tribeca website suggest that Tribeca was something less than a disinterested and objective venue.
Indeed, and quite shockingly, none of the Festival literature contains the following well-documented information:
- Wakefield's 1998 study of a possible link between MMR vaccination and autism, published in the British Medical Journal "Lancet," contained falsified data, including, most egregiously, falsified facts about each of the 12 children he and his team studied. Lancet retracted the study based on Wakefield's misconduct, and Wakefield's team members have retracted their interpretations.
- After a lengthy hearing the British Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of dozens of counts of dishonesty, fraud, and abuse of his medical authority for subjecting the children to unnecessary and invasive medical procedures. Based on his "elaborate fraud" the Council stripped him of his license to practice medicine in the U.K.
- Wakefield's study was covertly subsidized by a U.K. lawyer who was preparing a lawsuit against MMR vaccine manufacturers; the parents of the children in the study were selected by this lawyer for the study; Wakefield and the hospital conducting the study were covertly paid over one million dollars by this lawyer.
- Wakefield himself applied for a patent for his own anti-autism vaccine before doing his Lancet study.
- There is no evidence anywhere, by any respected scientist, demonstrating any causal link between MMR vaccine and autism.
The Festival literature mentioned none of this. It promoted Wakefield's film by stating, misleadingly, that "The Lancet study would catapult Wakefield into being one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine." Similarly, the Festival trailer for the film depicts on a black background, set to dramatic music, a waft of billowing smoke apparently coming from a syringe, and the words "Are Our Children Safe?" Included are comments from a discredited whistleblower who worked for the Center for Disease Control who claimed, in an interview with a rabid anti-vaccine activist, that the CDC suppressed evidence of a link between MMR and autism. To repeat, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim.
It's not clear what the "issue" is that DeNiro wanted aired. The film was dropped because DeNiro believed it would not meaningfully contribute to "dialogue or discussion about the issue." What is the issue for public discussion? It cannot be whether there is a link between MMR vaccine and autism; there is none. To show the film, while not necessarily endorsing Wakefield's discredited views, self-serving motives, and blatant misconduct gives this huckster a large and ready-made platform in a distinguished artistic venue to promote his financial interests. This is not a case of free speech and censorship. It would be astonishing if the Festival agreed to screen a documentary depicting, let's say, the "Hoax of the Holocaust," made by an avowed Holocaust denier; or a documentary by an anti-evolutionist proving that God created heaven and earth, say, on April 23, 3076 B.C., at 3:30 p.m. EST. To be sure, there are serious documentaries attacking the credibility of controversial scientific theories, "The Syndrome" coming quickly to mind, which discusses the now-discredited Shaken Baby Syndrome. But Wakefield's is not a serious documentary; it's a self-serving work.
There are two main problems with Tribeca's initial willingness to show Wakefield's film. First, it sends a bad message to serious documentarians that personal and political interests of festival organizers can override artistic merit. Much more dangerous, however, is that by its promoting the most odious type of misinformation and pseudoscience, the festival, by showing the film, encourages parents to make unscientifically unsound decisions. To the extent that Wakefield and his ilk have contributed to parental paranoia, they should share some of the blame for the rise in multiple measles outbreaks in the U.S. and U.K., a disease once thought to have been eradicated, and now reappearing.
Tribeca did the right thing in pulling the plug on a charlatan's con game. But it should never have let itself be conned in the first place.