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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 05:03 PM ET, 09/16/2011

Bachmann on HPV: Fact-check!

Michele Bachmann on Monday night put a heavy load on the shoulders of the media. Following a debate with her fellow GOP presidential hopefuls, the Minnestota congresswoman was interviewed about the controversial HPV vaccine, a flashpoint of the night’s polemics.

Here’s what she said:

“The problem is...it comes with some very significant consequences. There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine. There are very dangerous consequences. It’s not good enough to take ‘a mulligan’---where you want a do-over. Not when you have little children’s lives at risk.”

In another interview, she said this:

Well, I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn’t know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.

Clearly, Bachmann has drawn her own conclusions — conclusions that have no basis in science. None whatsoever. The stuff she is spouting puts her in complete whack-job territory, both in terms of her beliefs and the methodology she uses in arriving at them. Both of the transcripts above show clearly that she took at face value the representations of a woman who she clearly acknowledges she’d never met before — and uses them to make categorical statements about medicine.

News outlets have a responsibility to report just how irresponsible that is. Below we look at two samples:

Outlet: AP in San Jose Mercury News:

Story: “Michele Bachmann in California for GOP Convention”

Relevant Passage:

She’s coming off a bumpy stretch in which she shuffled senior staff, saw her standing in polls erode and, this week, was put on the defensive after suggesting that a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, known as HPV, was linked to mental retardation, a claim disputed by medical experts.

Verdict: Weak. Saying that the claim is disputed by medical experts gets us nowhere near the neighborhood. It makes it sound as if reasonable people can differ on this question, when there isn’t even a question to begin with. Better: “...a claim that Bachmann sourced from a woman she met after a GOP debate and for which there is no scientific evidence.”

Outlet: Los Angeles Times:

Story: “Michele Bachmann links Rick Perry on HPV vaccine to Solyndra”

Relevant Passage:

Bachmann received credit for calling Perry out on the matter during a debate Monday night, but she quickly stumbled by claiming that the vaccine was dangerous and could cause “mental retardation.” According to the CDC and physicians, even among those who have the most severe reactions, the vaccine does not cause cognitive disability.
Bachmann repeatedly refused to walk back her remarks, saying she had heard from a mother whose daughter experienced such a reaction.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I was just relating what the woman had told me about her daughter,” she said.
Bachmann, who shook up the GOP field when she entered the presidential contest this summer but has been eclipsed in recent weeks by Perry’s entry, made the remarks to reporters after speaking to about 100 people under dreary skies at the Orange County fairgrounds. An appearance by Perry last week in nearby Corona del Mar drew 1,000 supporters.

Verdict: Better! Only drawback here is that the Los Angeles Times allows Bachmann’s claim about not being a doctor-scientist to go unchallenged. Look at the transcripts above: In those interviews, the candidate speaks unequivocally and unapologetically as an authority on the topic. At no point did she insert any disclaimers about her lack of scientific background on the question.

By  |  05:03 PM ET, 09/16/2011

 
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