On Monday, I raised questions about when it’s appropriate to give voice to climate and vaccine denialists. I hung the discussion on two stories: A profile of climate-denier John Christy in The New York Times, which I thought was inappropriate; and a profile of vaccine-denier Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in The Washington Post, which I thought was appropriate.
I was shocked, shocked! to discover that not everyone agreed.
The author of the Kennedy piece, Keith Kloor, acknowledged some of the responses himself in this tweet:
Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate, led the charge:
Kloor has been pretty matter-of-fact about RFK Jr.’s bizarre claims, so I expected this would be a pretty tough profile. It wasn’t. Now, I don’t mean that Kloor treats RFK Jr. with kid gloves; the article actually shows his claims to be dead wrong and portrays him as an outcast from the mainstream. That’s all fine. I just don’t think Kloor really showed RFK Jr.’s true nature…
That’s an unusual sort of criticism. Plait is right–Kloor is far from a pushover. And he does write that Kennedy is dead wrong and an outcast. So what can it mean to say that Kloor didn’t show Kennedy’s true nature?
Plait doesn’t say Kloor was wrong to do the story. His anger is directed at Kennedy, for his continuing campaign against vaccines, which, Plait writes, “is more than just irresponsible–it’s dangerous.” I think Plait is just angry at Kennedy, very angry–and he needed to vent. Which is fine–especially because Plait also linked to other posts, including two by his editor, Laura Helmuth.
In one of those pieces, from last June, Helmuth wrote:
For a guy whose family has such a distinguished record of public service, Kennedy says some pretty awful things about government employees: “The lies that you are hearing and printing from the CDC are things that should be investigated.” He spoke to one scientist (he named her but I won’t spread the defamation) who, he said, “was actually very honest. She said it’s not safe. She said we know it destroys their brains.”
For the record, Helmuth called that scientist, who denied saying that.
And in another piece, last Sunday, Helmuth wrote:
When I read the Post story, I worried that some readers would see Kennedy as a heroic underdog. Kloor disagrees that the story depicts him in that way, and I hope he’s right. “I think he comes off as an obsessive, tone-deaf crusader on an issue that nearly everyone he respects in his professional sphere thinks he should drop immediately. … The fact that he’s been willing to keep at it, even while he’s alienating close friends and associates—truly pissing them off—astounds me. That level of stubbornness and self-righteousness is fascinating in a public figure like Kennedy, and it’s one of the elements that convinced me this was a legitimate story.”
Slate wasn’t the only news organization to react to Kloor’s piece, At TIME, Jeffrey Kluger
writes that Kennedy, once a voice of reason on climate change, “has taken a disreputable plunge into the world of anti-science.”
I urge you to take a look at these pieces. Kennedy won’t be the last peddler of dangerous nonsense (in Kluger’s words), so we will have to confront this issue again: When does writing about a nonsensical and dangerous message do more harm than good–spreading the nonsense even while trying to demolish it?
It can be a very tough call.