Vaccines, Crusades & VicariousThrills

Ever since measles, a criticized speech by President Obama, and a network news scandal hit the media I’ve been trying to identify common denominators to the disparate stories, involving vaccine bundling, possible rhetorical bungling, and Brian Williams.

Each story is complex in ways that are ignored in the sound bytes that substitute for “breaking news.”   In the case of the measles outbreak and the debate about immunization, interesting legal and parental rights issues arise. But it’s also important to understand the facts about measles and vaccines used to prevent “the most deadly of all childhood rash or fever illnesses” as the CDC puts it. 

Measles spreads rapidly and is a disease that can kill.  Before widespread vaccination an estimated three to four million people got measles every year in the U.S. Nearly 500 of them died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed encephalitis.  I understand the fear of links to autism (which may be reduced by unbundling vaccines) but international research has never established empirically a causal effect. People who don’t remember the sound of a child with whooping cough gasping for breath or the summer terror of polio have room to question immunization.  But for those of us who do remember, and for millions of children alive today in the developing world because of vaccinations, the jury seems to be in.

As for President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February in which he invoked the Crusades and the Inquisition to point out that Islam should not be judged unique among religions that have fostered terrible acts, I am among those who saw nothing inflammatory in his honest assessment.  Let the right wing naysayers remember that, to cite a few examples of Christianity run amok, abortion clinics and the people who serve them have been bombed and murdered by zealous Christians, the KKK is predominantly Christian, and Hitler, a self-proclaimed Christian, said that eliminating Jews was “doing Christianity a great favor.” 

I believe the president “wanted to be provocative in his remarks” as his staff said, “because he wanted to make people think about the need to stand up against those who try to use faith to justify violence, no matter what religion they practice.” Could he have done it better or in a different forum? Perhaps. Still, to me, his motivation was right on.

The suspension of Brian Williams because he lied about being in a helicopter in Iraq, and possibly more, shook the news-cum-entertainment world.  A longtime NBC face, Williams had a distinguished, award-winning career.  Some people think he was too severely punished for possible failures of memory. Others, including me, see him as having betrayed all that is sacred and ethical in journalism. 

But the purpose of this piece is not to debate the merits of vaccines, presidential speeches or news people who mess up.  Rather, it is to reflect upon what these three news stories had in common. There seem to be several themes:  Credibility and Trust, Honesty, and Judgment.

Any government agency, especially one invested in keeping us healthy like the CDC, any president or other national leader, and any member of the Fourth Estate needs to be credible and trustworthy.  The skepticism Americans feel about government, politics and media is alarmingly high and growing, and for good reason. The fact is, a growing number of us no longer trust agencies, politicians, or news people to do their jobs, free of corruption and guided by moral decision-making because we’ve been betrayed too many times. It’s not just an American problem and it’s not new, but it’s something we need to recognize as serious in its implications.

Honesty is at the heart of behaving morally. That’s why I do not fault the president on his choice of venue or his remarks about religiously motivated violence. We need to recognize, as Mr. Obama has done, that terrible things have been done throughout history in the name of religion, because without that kind of truth there is no end to violence, and no reconciliation. And the critical issue of honesty is why I believe Mr. Williams cannot be exonerated.  You cannot lie to people and remain a trustworthy conveyer of what is happening in the world. We need to know that what you tell us is true and real, not from the perspective of a media star, but of a common man doing the common good.

In the end it all comes down to judgment.  Whether CDC scientists or the President of the United States, or a media golden boy, that’s what we rely on.  We need to trust that people in high places and public arenas to whom we look for sound information, carefully considered guidance, unadulterated facts and occasional reminders about our better selves will exercise good judgment. We need to know they will not cheat or manipulate us and that they will take risks, rhetorical or otherwise, to help make us alert and aware. That is the challenge of the laboratory, the oval office, and the newsroom. It is the challenge for all of us.