Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I seem to have gone back on blogging sabbatical. That probably won’t last much longer. I’ve got a few things on my mind, and some of them will likely lead to more frequent writing on my part.

In the meantime, we finally got a response from the Chicago Tribune to our open letter stating our reasons for canceling our subscription. Frankly, I’m a little surprised we got a detailed response at all. Curiously, although we received it just yesterday, it is essentially the same as a letter received approximately three weeks ago by acquaintances of ours who wrote their own letter referencing ours.

As I put our letter out there for the world to see, it is only fair to acknowledge the response by the Tribune’s Standards Editor in a similar manner. So here it is:
Monday, Feb 22

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Rankin:

I’m responding on behalf of Tony Hunter, who asked me to review your letter. As you note, autism is indeed a very complex and often controversial subject. At every step, the Tribune journalists have been mindful of how sensitive and difficult a topic this is, and how vital it is to address an important public health concern. I’m sorry that you are so disappointed in the articles and have chosen to cancel your subscription.

The reporters and editors decided, early on, that the topic required more depth than a summary of one group says this while another group says that. The Tribune reporting team took months to analyze and seek mote evidence about some of these alternative therapies. The question was not just why or how some treatments work but if they work. Our reporters found, in just one example, that some of the widely touted research papers fail to meet standards of respected medical journals.

There has been varied reaction. Some, like you all
[sic], have felt strongly that these articles have unfairly characterized the alternative therapies. But we also hear from parents, scientists and physicians in the autism community who want to know more.

But it’s not a matter of how many people like, or dislike, coverage. Rather, the Tribune is obligated to seek more answers and truth about such issues that affect so many people. You suggest that the Tribune has failed to amplify the seriousness of the situation with these articles. I would differ with you on that point. If anything, the Tribune’s articles will do exactly what you suggest is important: amplify the seriousness.

There will be more stories, to be sure. Treatments will continue to change, too, as researchers continue their work.

Again, I’m sorry that you are so disappointed with the coverage and hope that at some point you will reconsider.

Margaret Holt

Let me make it clear. Our problem with the Trib’s reporting was not that it was negative, or showed an editorial bias. Rather, it was that they feigned balance and fairness in presenting a biased series of reports. Our complaint is not that the Trib is ignoring the seriousness of the need for effective treatments; it is the fact that they focus on particular treatments without pointing a finger at the equally (and in my estimation, more dangerous) treatments utilized by mainstream providers. And they do so without acknowledging there is a crisis caused by the unprecedented explosion in ASD diagnosis.

The very first amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of a free press. The drafters of the Bill of Rights understood that a free society needs the healthy and unfettered exchange of ideas and principles. The media therefore has the right to maintain its own editorial bias. A corresponding right vests in the people to ignore a media outlet and call it to task if the editorial bias hinders, rather than aids that healthy and unfettered exchange.

Writers and editors of newspapers, like the Tribune, are not evil if they slant the news to match an honestly held belief. But they have a responsibility to acknowledge (if only to themselves) their bias, and to avoid deception in presenting what they present as “accurate.”

Moreover, as citizens, if not as journalists, they also had a responsibility to acknowledge that there is a growing public-health crisis. The Tribune failed in its responsibilities.

I’m not sure what efforts the reporters went to when they “took months to analyze and seek more evidence.” The articles read much like the standard talking points we so often hear, mostly prepared by interested parties who have never raised or treated an autistic child. Clearly, however, the reporters chose to ignore the thousands of “anecdotes” showing improvement in our children. Is it just a coincidence that the “evidence” the Trib chose to highlight serves the interest of an industry that delivers a substantial amount of advertising revenue?

The one point on which Ms. Holt and I agree is that “[t]reatments will continue to change . . . as researchers continue their work.” Unfortunately, improvements in treatments will not change fast enough for many of us, given the public persecution of scientist and practitioners who are seeking answers. That persecution is fueled primarily by the mainstream press, which is more interested in sensationalism and revenue streams than it is in accuracy.

Okay, Ms. Holt, we’ve reconsidered. The Chicago Tribune, in my estimation, still lacks integrity and credibility. We will continue to get our news elsewhere.