Things got pretty hot in the vaccine debate on Monday as the lines of an emerging culture war were sketched out. On one side, there was President Obama, who urged parents to get their kids vaccinated, calling the science behind vaccines “indisputable. … I just want people to know the facts and science and the information. And the fact is that a major success of our civilization is our ability to prevent disease that in the past have devastated folks.”
On the other side were likely Republican presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Both said parents should have more choice in whether to their kids get vaccinated. Paul took it further, citing “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
The divide seemed clear. But wait. Was it? Or had Obama, while campaigning in 2008, actually said something different? That’s at least how Vox called it on Tuesday afternoon. Its headline: “Obama supports vaccines now — but pandered to anti-vaxxers in 2008.”
“It turns out Christie isn’t the only one who has questioned the validity of vaccines,” reporter Sarah Kliff said. “Both President Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did so during their presidential runs in 2008.”
She then quoted Obama, drawing from a 2008 Washington Post Fact Checker column by Michael Dobbs. “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” Dobbs quoted Obama saying. “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.” The quotes then leaped to Politico, Reason, and NewsBusters, all of which dinged Obama for agreeing with the vaccine skeptics.
But this story wasn’t so clear cut.
Kliff linked to and quoted from Dobbs’s column. But it’s unclear whether she read the whole thing. Dobbs’s story was updated the same day he published it, adding video from the Obama speech itself. It showed that Obama wasn’t talking about himself when he said “this person,” as Vox implied. He was talking about a member of the audience, as he indicated by pointing to someone out of camera range when he said “this person.”
Then Obama elaborated in comments that were lopped off in Monday’s articles. “The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it,” he said. “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. 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.”
From those comments, it’s too close to call whether Obama was referring to the purported link between autism and vaccines when describing the “inconclusive” science — or the autism rate itself, as Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik claimed. (And just to be clear, at that time almost all of the research showed no link between autism and vaccines. But that famed Lancet paper, which had first floated the possibility, was still circulating. It was fully retracted, following an earlier partial retraction, in 2010 — two years after Obama made those remarks.)
Kliff, for her part, updated her story after The Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote to her on Twitter. But she has neither amended the headline, nor added in the body of the article that Obama was talking about someone else when he said “this person.”