NEW YORK -– With some 2016 Republican presidential contenders facing criticism Monday for suggesting that parents shouldn’t be compelled to vaccinate their children, several news outlets reported that President Barack Obama had, as a candidate in 2008, also given credence to the discredited theory that vaccinations may cause autism.
Vox reported Monday afternoon that Obama had “pandered to anti-vaxxers in 2008” by questioning "the validity of vaccines." Sarah Kliff, the author of the Vox story, cited a quote from Obama in 2008, which she sourced to a blog post by Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan.
"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."
--Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.
The quote, as cited in Nyhan's April 22, 2008, post, would suggest Obama had been personally "suspicious" that there might be a connection between autism and vaccines.
But a closer look at Nyhan's post shows that he relied in part on a column from the same day by The Washington Post's "Fact Checker," which had raised questions about Obama's remarks. The Post's column was updated later the same day it was published to include a video, supplied by then-Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor, that added important context to the exchange. The video clearly shows that Obama pointed to someone in the crowd, presumably the questioner, when he referenced “this person" as being "suspicious" of vaccines.
It's not clear whether Nyhan referenced the Fact Checker column before or after it was updated with the video clarifying Obama's comments. Still, Kliff's original story didn't acknowledge the video or its implications at all. Vox later added an update at the bottom of the story acknowledging that Obama was describing someone else as "suspicious," but kept the truncated, out-of-context quote at the top of the piece.
In fact, not only was Obama referring to an audience question when he said "some people," he went on to argue for the importance of vaccines.
“Part of the reason I think it’s very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio,” Obama said in a video of the event that was uploaded to YouTube on Monday by the PAC American Commitment. “And so we can’t afford to junk our vaccine system. We’ve got to figure out why it is that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism.”
As a response, several writers took issue with Vox's representation of Obama's comments, including the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik, Little Green Footballs blogger Charles Johnson and The Washington Post's Terence McCoy.
Hiltzik argued that the video indicates that Obama was saying the science behind the causes of autism was “inconclusive," not -- as Vox and some others contended -- that it was “inconclusive” whether or not there’s a link between autism and vaccines.
But in a Tuesday email to The Huffington Post, Vox Editor-in-Chief Ezra Klein defended his site's headline -- "Obama supports vaccines now — but pandered to anti-vaxxers in 2008" -- and its framing of Obama's response.
There seem to be two things going on here. One is who Obama was gesturing towards. The video is clear that Obama is gesturing towards a member of the audience. The other issue, which is where the post focuses, is Obama's comment that the science is inconclusive around the rise of autism. I think the video there is clear that Obama is saying more research is needed into that question, including into theories, like the one from the audience member, that vaccines play a role. As Sarah writes, by that point, the science was quite conclusive.
Which is to say, Obama was asked a question by a vaccine skeptic about the link with autism. He said the science around the question was inconclusive rather than saying ‘there is absolutely no reason to believe, even for a second, that vaccines are linked to autism,’ though, from other comments, that appears to be what Obama believed. When you soften your answer so as not to offend a possible voter, that's pandering.
Of course, the online news conversation is constantly evolving, and news outlets routinely update items as new information emerges. But the episode with the Obama video shows how even a few hours of promoting an out-of-context snippet of comments a candidate made two presidential cycles ago can dramatically shift the conversation. Instead of focusing primarily on the comments made Monday by Republican presidential hopefuls Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, some conservative outlets and journalists on Twitter began citing Obama's 2008 remarks to suggest that politicians of both parties were guilty of pandering to fringe constituencies like the anti-vaccine contingent.
Klein isn't alone in sticking with the interpretation that what Obama was calling "inconclusive" was whether a link exists between autism and vaccines.
A few hours after Vox published its story, Politico similarly reported that Obama had said he was "suspicious" that vaccines caused autism. As of Tuesday morning, the story's lede said the president was “not always such a staunch believer in getting children vaccinated," based on the April 2008 comments.
Following a question from HuffPost about that framing, however, Politico tweaked the lede Tuesday to instead state that Obama “once appeared to call a purported link between autism and vaccines ‘inconclusive.’”
The New York Times also reported Monday that Obama said in 2008 that he was “suspicious” of a vaccine-autism link, as part of a broader story about how the current measles outbreak is influencing the 2016 presidential race. The Times has since corrected the story to acknowledging Obama was instead “pointing to a member of the crowd.”