Nothing spreads a lie faster than a smile: ABC's "The View" is being roundly criticized for its hiring of Jenny McCarthy by people who fear her belief in a phony link between vaccines and autism will hurt children.
The objections aren't just to McCarthy's views, but about a culture so fixated on image that a pretty face can trump decades of research.
There may be no greater testament to the power of celebrity than the fact that so many people are willing to treat this as a debate with two equal sides. Almost the entire medical establishment believes that vaccines save children's lives. But many parents believe otherwise, thanks in large part to a woman who became famous by posing naked.
"McCarthy, former 'Singled Out' host, columnist, and Playboy model, is telegenic and outspoken. She's also the single most visible celebrity spokesperson for the discredited, literally dangerous belief that childhood vaccines can cause autism," wrote Time's James Poniewozik. "On her side is her anecdotal claim that vaccination gave her son autism, and a debunked study from 1998. On the other is, pretty much, the entire pediatric community.
McCarthy's son was diagnosed with autism in 2005. She has claimed that it was caused by vaccines, and that he has since been cured. Besides anecdotal experience, her evidence is a study by former intestinal specialist Andrew Wakefield that the British Medical Journal has debunked as "an elaborate fraud."
Although every medical association promotes immunization, a 2011 University of Michigan study found that a quarter of parents still place "some faith" in celebrities counter-claims on vaccinations. McCarthy is the most prominent celebrity making the link.
Sometimes news outlets strive to appear neutral in order to treat even far-out opinions with respect. Not this time.
"By choosing Jenny McCarthy to be a host on "The View", ABC made a decision that could end up costing lives--even worse, the lives of children," wrote Dr. Claire McCarthy (presumably no relation) in the Boston Globe. "Jenny McCarthy believes that vaccines caused her son to be autistic. Never mind that it's not clear that he was actually autistic, none of the claims she has made about vaccines and autism are backed up by, um, any medical evidence."
Continues McCarthy (the one who went to medical school, not the one from "Singled Out"): "Vaccines save lives. So many fewer children get sick from polio, diphtheria, measles, chicken pox, tetanus, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable illnesses."
ABC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Neither did McCarthy.
This isn't about discrediting Jenny McCarthy because of her looks. No one would be complaining if the facts were on her side. And it isn't to ignore the obvious fact that lots of celebrities get more attention to their views than they should because of their looks. (That's why it's such a miracle when one of them also happens to be right about something.)
But McCarthy rose to fame because of her appearance and vivacious personality, not her rigorous research. And doctors became doctors through years of study, not through modeling gigs and hosting game shows.
What critics are asking, in the end, is that everyone stay in their respective lanes.