Owned by Disney, the ABC Network might have wanted to burnish its family-friendly credentials as it scoured the land for a new co-host for its all-female daytime talk show, The View.
Surprisingly, perhaps, they plumped this week for Jenny McCarthy, onetime Playboy cover girl, sex author and comedienne.
But this hardly gives McCarthy, now 40, her due. She is also outspoken on family health and has made the case, with a book, TV appearances and on the lecture circuit, that vaccinating infants is not without risk.
It is her campaigning on this issue which has led some commentators and medical professionals to describe McCarthy as “dangerous”. Equally harsh words are now being directed towards the network that hired her. James Poniewozik, Time magazine’s TV critic, said ABC’s decision to put McCarthy on The View was “irresponsible and shameful” and would “legitimise [her] dangerous anti-science” views. Alex Pareene, a writer for Slate, went further, saying the decision would “kill children”.
McCarthy is mightily telegenic. She’s also articulate, she talks directly to young mothers and she’s controversial. The perennially popular talk show and its creator and current (but soon to retire) chief host, Barbara Walters, must have thought they had found themselves the golden ticket. But who in their right mind would deny their offspring proven protection against potentially fatal diseases like mumps and measles? As many people watch The View as live in Iowa. That’s a big audience and it tunes in every day. Could it be that McCarthy is set to become the most dangerous person on American television?
Her foray into medical scholarship followed the birth of her son, Evan, in 2002 and a subsequent diagnosis of autism. Any parent confronted with that sort of crisis is entitled to speculate on its source. But she described the tie between vaccinations and autism as fact and used her fame to peddle it, partly through her book, Mother Warrior. Her then partner, the actor Jim Carrey, lent his voice to her anti-inoculation quest. She has said latterly that Evan has since overcome his autism, in part by good diet choices.
The idea that autism might be caused by vaccines – specifically the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine – was not new, having been mooted notably by a British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, in 1998. But the paediatric community widely debunked the theory and has blamed McCarthy for scaring parents in the US into depriving children of life-saving protection. Some implicate her in a whooping cough outbreak in California in 2010, the worst in 40 years, that killed 10. A website, www.jennymccarthybodycount.com, tracks with a digital counter the number of preventable deaths among non-immunised youngsters.
“Her information, at least when it comes to vaccines, is absolutely baseless,” Dr Edgar Marcuse, a professor of paediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, noted last week. “It has no scientific support whatsoever.”
The impact of the autism-vaccination claims were notably dissected in The Panic Virus, an award-winning book by Seth Mnookin published in 2011. The author focuses first on Dr Wakefield but dedicates a chapter to McCarthy, whom he accuses of having “worked methodically and relentlessly to undermine public health”. Last week he observed: “In this country, certainly she is the single most important figure in popularising this notion that vaccines are dangerous and could potentially cause autism.”
Could it be that this casting choice will come back to haunt Walters, who means herself to retire from television entirely next summer?
The growing pressure on her to change her mind would suggest so. Letters of protest have swamped ABC headquarters in New York City, including one from Every Child by Two, which runs its own campaign to ensure parents are not tempted to skimp on infant vaccinations.
“McCarthy’s unfounded claims that vaccines cause autism have been one of the greatest impediments to public health in recent decades,” it said. “These false assertions… have spread fear among young parents, which has led to an increased number of children who have not received lifesaving vaccines.”
Critics are particularly concerned because young women make up such a large share of The View’s daily audience. “While Jenny cannot deliver direct medical advice, she is definitely influencing many young mothers as to what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in terms of childcare and immunisations,” Dr Shilpi Agarwal, a family doctor, told Fox News.
“I suspect she will get a lot of pushback, which may be exactly what a show like The View wants.” Maybe so, but it may not be the kind of legacy the retiring Walters wants.
Jenny McCarthy: In her own words
“Let me see if I can put this in scientific terms: think of autism like a fart, and vaccines are the finger you pull to make it happen.”
“The reason why [the medical community] is reluctant to talk about it is because there’s such a huge business in pharmaceuticals.”
– Speaking to CNN in November last year.
“If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the measles.”
– To Time in February 2010