“Meet Mr. Smith And Mr. Wesson”: The Right's War On Vaccines

On Tuesday morning, following the second consecutive Republican presidential debate in which candidates ganged up on Texas Governor Rick Perry over his decision to sign an executive order mandating HPV vaccinations for young girls, Michele Bachmann appeared NBC's The Today Show. During the interview, Bachmann relayed the following story about vaccinations:

BACHMANN: I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night -- I didn't know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusion.

Bachmann's remarks were soon picked up by the media, and the presidential candidate came under criticism from scientists, reporters, and her primary opponents. Several conservative media outlets turned on Bachmann over the suggestion that Gardasil could lead to mental retardation. Rush Limbaugh, for example, said that Bachmann may have “jumped the shark.”

As Alex Pareene explains at Salon, vaccine conspiracies are generally considered “liberal conspiracy” theories. And much to their discredit, outlets like the Huffington Post have published numerous vaccine/autism conspiracy articles from people like Jenny McCarthy.

However, fearmongering about the supposed dangers of vaccinations has gained traction on the right -- including some of the same figures who are calling out Bachmann -- often as a way to scare people about big government.

For example, during a few weeks in the fall of 2009, with concerns over the swine flu (H1N1) on the rise, Alex Jones basically took over as the assignment editor for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and parts of Fox News.

Despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, Health and Human Services, and several other experts were on record affirming both the safety and importance of the vaccine that had been developed to prevent a potential outbreak of H1N1, conservative media figures saw an opportunity to sow fear about the government and the Obama administration, so they ran wild.

During an October 2009 broadcast of his radio program, Rush Limbaugh read an email stating that it “sounded like you didn't think [Louis] Farrakhan's kind of loopy here for saying that the swine flu [vaccine] is developed to kill people.” Limbaugh responded that it was “hard to disagree with [Farrakhan] on this.” Limbaugh explained that while he would usually think Farrakhan had “lost his marbles,” his theory “seems perfectly within the realm of reality to me with all the other news that's going on out there” such as “death panels in Florida.”

Limbaugh made a big show about he was “never going to take” the swine flu vaccine, at one point saying “Screw you, Miss Sebelius,” and explaining that he wouldn't be taking the vaccine “precisely because you're now telling me I must.”

Glenn Beck devoted numerous segments on both his Fox News program and his radio show to cultivating fears about the vaccine, suggesting during one radio show that it was possible that the vaccination could “turn out to be deadly.”

During a different radio segment, Beck fantasized about a scenario in which the government would be coming to seize his children because he refused to vaccinate them, and he would tell them to “Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Get off my land. Period.”

BECK: But here's why it has to be drawn. Because, vaccinations. You don't give your kid vaccination -- how many people do you know that ten years ago people said, “Oh, vaccinations, please stop with the vaccination thing.” How many people do you know who are really smart, who have really done their homework, who have children with autism, and say, “Don't do the vaccinations thing”? A lot.

BURGUIERE: There's a lot of people who believe that.

GRAY: I've got very close friends who, and they swear by it. Vaccination thing. Swear by it.

BECK: My children? We're not getting the flu vaccine. No. The state comes and says my kids have to have the flu -- go to hell. Go to hell. Get off my porch. You want to take my kids because of that? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Get off my land. Period.

GRAY: And do you know there are doctors who won't treat kids who haven't been vaccinated?

BURGUIERE: Well, that's their choice, though.

BECK: That's their choice.

GRAY: That's their choice.

BECK: That's their choice.

GRAY: But I'm just saying, the pressure right now is almost unbearable. Can't go to school without it. You can't get treated by doctors without it.

BECK: You know what? To me, all of those things, as long as those are individual choices -- if somebody in a school district says, you know, the school district, the local school district, says, you know what, we don't want to have vaccinations, then I will take my children, because it will be more important than my job, my house, my car, and I'll live under a bridge if I have to, I will live in a cardboard box, and my children and I will be fine. We will make it, but I will go find a community that believes in the things that I believe.

Even though numerous studies have failed to find a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, Beck invoked the link in his hypothetical scenario, and the baseless connection was invoked elsewhere during the right-wing panic over the H1N1 vaccine.

Fox News' Greg Jarrett hosted Dr. Kent Holtorf on Studio B, and asked him about H1N1 ingredient thimerosol, which vaccine conspiracy theorists have repeatedly tried to link to autism. Jarret said,“it's an antiseptic preservative. And hasn't that been linked in some cases to autism?” Holtorf responded that thimerosol had indeed been linked to autism, prompting Jarrett to ask Holtorf if he would give the H1N1 vaccine to his kids, to which Holtorf responded “I definitely would not.”

Rush Limbaugh later pointed to this exchange on his radio program as a reason to not believe what the government was saying about the H1N1 vaccine.

After the swine flu vaccine freak-out, Fox has continued to dabble in vaccine conspiracies, even as any evidence linking autism to vaccinations has continued to fall apart under scrutiny. Last September, more than six months after the main study upon which vaccine/autism conspiracies were based was formally retracted by the British medical journal that published it, Fox was running segments about vaccine-related lawsuits not being compensated by the government with chyrons featuring text like “Autism Correlation Coverup?”

In May of this year, Fox's Jenna Lee introduced a story about a West Virginia judge mandating parents get children vaccinated for school by saying that a pediatrician calling for vaccinations and a mother pushing the baseless vaccine-autism link present “two strong sides.”