Reactions to the Kennedy Profile

By Keith Kloor | July 22, 2014 12:28 pm

My recent Washington Post magazine piece on Robert Kennedy Jr. has prompted numerous reactions in media outlets, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. Generally speaking, readers have found the story both compelling and maddening. What folks seem to be divided on is how Kennedy comes off in the story.

Laura Helmuth at Slate says I was “remarkably generous” to Kennedy, “presenting him as dogged and genuine.” I disagree, in part. I don’t believe my story can be read as “remarkably generous” to him, but yes, he is portrayed as relentless and sincere.

Phil Plait, also at Slate, similarly felt that I should have been tougher on Kennedy:

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; something we here at Slate have seen for ourselves.

This perplexes me, since I thought where the piece most succeeds is in showing Kennedy’s true nature. Some science journalists appear to have picked up on that.

Nonetheless, I think both Helmuth and Plait offer valuable perspectives and I appreciate them engaging respectfully with my story.

Writing in Forbes, Steven Salzberg confirms, based on his own experience, what I discovered:

What was shocking to me, the first time I heard Kennedy talk about thimerosal in vaccines, was how absolutely certain he is that he is right. Today’s Washington Post article describes a man who remains utterly convinced, despite the mountain of evidence against him.

For some commentators on the piece, it doesn’t matter that Kennedy is sincere. That’s beside the point. As Jeffrey Kluger puts it at Time magazine:

Kennedy may deeply believe the rubbish he’s peddling—but science doesn’t care about your sincerity; it cares about the facts.

True, but I still think it’s worthwhile drilling down into what’s motivating Kennedy. I’m glad that Paul Raeburn at MIT’s Knight Science Tracker noted the tricky terrain I was on:

Kloor did a nice story, explaining Kennedy’s views at some length without seeming to endorse them. It’s a good example of how stories about questionable science, or even pseudoscience, should be done. (For more on Kloor’s thoughts about the story, see his Discover blog post.)

Not everyone is so charitably inclined to the story. Newsbusters, a conservative media outlet, says my piece revives anti-vaccine hysteria. Hmm. On the contrary, I thought I did a decent job illuminating Kennedy’s mindset while also leaving no question that his position was widely rejected by the medical and scientific establishment. Some recognized this delicate balancing act:

Additional reactions from Ronald Bailey at Reason and at Scienceblogs from Orac. If there are more responses to the story, I’ll post the links.

UPDATE: Russell Saunders, a medical doctor writing in the Daily Beast, laments Kennedy’s access to the corridors of power. Saunders writes that Kennedy “is doing harm to public health, even if he doesn’t sway policy.”

UPDATE: Paul Raeburn has a really interesting post on the responses from Slate and Time.  At the end he asks:

When does writing about a nonsensical and dangerous message do more harm than good–spreading the nonsense even while trying to demolish it?

  • lilady R.N.

    We are all anxiously awaiting your analysis of the content of Mr. Kennedy’s book, Mr. Kloor.

    Please be aware that for many of us in the autism and science communities, any additional “research” from Kennedy and his camp of anti-vaxxers, open old wounds dating back to Kennedy’s 2005 scurrilous article.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Because the book is not officially due out until Aug 4, I have to wait a bit longer to post a review. Hang in there. I appreciate that you think my analysis merits reading, but in fairness I have to wait until early August. I apologize for jumping the gun and setting expectations.

      • lilady R.N.

        I’ll just have to be patient, then.

        I see the promotion blurb for Mr. Kennedy’s book at his publisher and he is listed as the “editor”…not the author, which to me is quite unusual.

      • lilady R.N.

        Mr. Kloor: There have been multiple book reviews which have appeared on a notorious anti-vaccine blog.

        A close friend who is pro vaccine (and pro science) ordered the book on Amazon.com and received her book days ago.

        The Amazon.com website which has been shipping the book to its customers has 10 or more book reviews…all favorable…and all posting under their names/’nyms who are the denizens of that anti-vaccine blog.

        Today is August 4th, the official release date of Mr. Kennedy’s book.

        When will you post your review of his book?

        • Keith Kloor

          Yes, it it will appear soon. Hang in there.

  • http://briandeer.com/ Brian Deer

    I thought the generous stance towards Kennedy was a function of the place the story was printed. Why would the Washington Post magazine profile a whack-job, immune to reason or evidence, even if his name is Kennedy, without at least spending a great deal more time and money on what would then be seen by some as a hatchet job?

    Therefore, the logic is to move the fulcrum in his direction, or produce unusable copy. Similar thing happened with an NYT mag profile of Wakefield a few years back. “The crash and burn of an autism guru.” A what?

  • mem_somerville

    I’ve been very interested to see the responses to this. I was worried that giving RFK ink/electrons would be awful enough. But it looks to me like all the fractures went down existing fault lines–like all other heated debates.

    The good news was all the ripples of discussion at all those other locations seemed to be very dismissive of the Kennedy/Hyman claims. So the additional reach of those folks was valuable, and it amplified the science side more, seems to me. I’d have to say net gain.

    How was your hate mail?

  • trueptbo

    Giving this guy ink because his name happens to be Kennedy is no different from debating young earth creationists: it merely legitimizes and opens the mainstream door to these anti-science ideas. So, he’s a crackpot? Great. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

  • Moms Who Vax

    I thought your article was fair. Anti-vaxxers are human, too. Sad story about a sad man.

    Just a journalistic question. I worry about journalists writing blog posts about their own journalism. I don’t know why, but as a former journalist myself, this makes me feel really uncomfortable. We’re supposed to be “objective,” so engaging with the criticism of a piece (positive or negative) feels like stepping outside the bounds of journalism. Thoughts?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Moms Who Vax,

      You write: “We’re supposed to be ‘objective,’ so engaging with the criticism of a piece (positive or negative) feels like stepping outside the bounds of journalism.”

      With all due respect, that’s an antiquated view of journalism. I’m more than willing to engage with respectful criticism of any of my stories–or blog posts. In fact, I think it’s crucial that I do this–not just for myself, but for readers. I believe doing so is even more necessary when the issues I write about have public health implications and are emotionally and politically charged.

      Additionally, over the years it has become apparent to me that there is much confusion over the different types of journalism. People often lump all the forms together–narrative magazine features, op-eds, news stories, etc–as if they were the same. They are not.

      A long magazine-style profile has a different objective than a straight news or investigative piece. Of course, as a former journalist, you undoubtedly understand this. But many people don’t make the distinction. For that reason, it’s important to engage with critics who object to Kennedy getting ink or object to how he was portrayed.

      Lastly, thank you for your assessment of the story. I’m glad to hear you think it was fair.

  • RogerSweeny

    I wonder if part of the reaction is because most everyone has an “intention heuristic”: If you intend to do good, you must be doing good. Stated so boldly, it sounds ridiculous, but most people who graduate from a university believe that people who work for non-profits do much more good than people who work for for-profits.

    Anyway, since you show that Kennedy is sincere and isn’t making money on this, he comes off as well-intended and that means people are more likely to take him seriously. In the back of their minds, pro-vaccination people know that the readers of your article will come away with a relatively positive view of the man and thus be more likely to believe his anit-thimerosal crap.

    • Paul Shipley

      Calling one side Pro-vaccination people only lets the anti-vaccination nuts in with being credible which they are not to the majority of the population. There are no sides to this debate, in fact there is no debate.

      • RogerSweeny

        But people are debating–or at least talking past each other. What you really mean is that there is no legitimate debate because you know you are right and you know anti-vaccination people are wrong, wrong, wrong.

        I agree with that. Unfortunately, there is a debate. We can’t make it go away by saying it doesn’t exist. Maybe we should avoid getting involved but that is a matter of tactics.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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