Daytime television has not been the same since Rosie O'Donnell took a pugnacious seat at the talkative table known as The View. Rosie has pumped more heat and energy into that show than a year's worth of colorful coffee-filled mugs.
Love her or loathe her, Rosie O'Donnell has shown the nerve to think out loud - a rare and valuable commodity in the overly scripted world of television. She has injected the show with some Nielsen-loving controversy and ratcheted up revenues in the bargain.
So when I heard that Rosie and The View were doing a one-hour special on autism (airing Monday 1/29), I assumed the subject would be handled with the same feisty, fearless, take-no-prisoners aplomb as usual.
After all, autism and controversy are practically siblings. If ABC would let Rosie trash Trump, bash Bush and oppose Oprah, surely they would let her wade into the burning contretemps of why 1-in-166 American kids are struggling with autism today.
I was even more encouraged when a producer invited me to the show. They were asking several experts to sit in the audience, who might be called upon to answer questions. She couldn't guarantee that I would be called, but asked if I could be there "in case the question of causation comes up," (My book was about mercury, vaccines and autism).
"Causation," of course, is the autism question of the century. Why do we have so many sick kids? Is this all simply genetics? Then why is there so much more autism now? What changed, and what are we doing to find out?
You won't find out on Monday's program.
Instead, The View presented a respectful and sometimes teary portrait of families living with autistic children-- their daily struggles and special needs. Several kids were onstage, some verbal, some not, and they handled themselves very well. It was a fine show about autism awareness, and the producers are to be lauded for it, especially for asking what will happen when so many disabled, dependent kids turn 21.
During the breaks, however, I could hear women in the audience murmuring to each other: "But what causes it? Why so many children? What about mercury? How can I get more information?"
During the final break, I asked Rosie when the question of causation would come up.
"We're not doing that," she said, bluntly. "We're focusing on families and their kids."
"Rosie," I replied, "I think a lot of people are wondering about what's causing this."
"We don't know what causes it," she said. "You just want me to ask so you can talk about mercury."
Stung, I explained that her audience members were asking, and that production staff had also asked me about causation privately backstage.
"We're not doing causation," Rosie repeated. "In fact, I told them not to book you."
So, a deliberate decision had been reached before the show to avoid the elephant-in-the-room question. Then why did they book me, I wondered?
As Rosie turned away, I blurted out: "Would you at least take a look at my book?"
She spun around and met my eyes. "I read your book. I thought it was very good."
This was encouraging, if a bit bewildering.
"I think mercury may have something to do with it," she said. "I just can't say that right here."
My head spun as the show wrapped up. Had The View finally squelched Rosie O'Donnell? Did mercury trump Trump? Was this the heavy metal that dare not speak its name, at least on a network flush with Pharma ads?
It's hard to say for sure. Last year, former host Star Jones posed the vaccine-autism question on the air, (but then again, look what happened to her).
After the show, Rosie approached me again, this time with the polite tact of a Sunday school teacher.
She apologized. She said there had not been enough time to cover the causation issue, and that the producers decided to focus only on families.
Families, I said, want to know the cause, too. The View could easily have done just one segment on it, presenting all sides.
"I don't run this show," Rosie said with a soft smile. She promised to try for a special on causation, perhaps later this spring.
Again, I don't know why the decision was made. But I do know it was a bit surreal to sit through an entire show dedicated to autism without anyone asking why kids develop it.
I am not complaining because I wasn't chosen to speak (I've been on TV before, including The View.) But I do know this: You can't discuss causation without discussing the environment. You can't talk about the environment without talking about mercury. And you can't mention mercury without mentioning vaccines.
So for now at least, the cause of autism is a topic too hot for The View to have a view.
But I imagine Rosie will not stifle herself forever. She knows The View was overwhelmed by emails before the taping- from supporters and opponents of the mercury hypothesis. She knows that pregnant women on staff were upset to discover that their flu shots were preserved with mercury (one mother-to-be who asked me nearly cried). And she knows that the show left viewers discomfited that their own causation questions were roundly unaddressed.
"I am so tired of 'coping with autism,'" one young mother told me afterward. "How about stopping it? We don't need more sob-fests. We need answers."
In preparing the show, producers called on the National Autism Association, which supports mercury-autism research, for information. NAA President Wendy Fournier sent them everything she had, but nothing relating to causation was aired.
"You know the staff will be questioning vaccines for their kids and looking into it for their own benefit," she said to me, "but they won't share that information to protect the children of America."
I hope ABC will let Rosie be Rosie, and let her express her real autism views on The View. But I am not holding my breath. Perhaps the Queen of Controversy will have to find another venue before she can finally say what's REALLY on her mind.
(NOTE: Rosie did say on the air that causation issues could be found in books listed on The View's website. Producers told me they would put my book "Evidence of Harm" on the site, for which I am very appreciative).