How Hollywood Stars, Trump and Scientologists Inflame the Vaccine Wars: "It's Spurious but Effective"
Illustration by John Gall

How Hollywood Stars, Trump and Scientologists Inflame the Vaccine Wars: "It's Spurious but Effective"

Despite a new state law intended to reduce the ranks of unimmunized students in California schools, the battle against public health experts continues — fueled by the very public efforts of A-listers like Robert De Niro and Jim Carrey, contemporary torch bearers in the discredited-but-unrelenting anti-vaccination campaign begun by Jenny McCarthy.

Throughout Southern California, kids are heading back to school, the time of year in which the childhood immunization debate reaches full boil, uniting everyone from Scientologists and Donald Trump to A-list stars like Robert De Niro and Jim Carrey against stalwart scientific consensus. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of Hollywood heavyweights to keep alive widely discredited views, say medical experts, a potential public health crisis continues to loom.

This was not supposed to be the storyline at the start of this academic year — the first since the July 1 enactment of California’s Senate Bill 277, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to curtail what had been a spiraling parental practice of submitting “personal belief exemptions” in lieu of giving their children shots. The law passed after student vaccination rates dropped to dangerously low levels, particularly at affluent, industry-oriented schools, in the midst of a 2014 pertussis epidemic and a subsequent measles outbreak that began at Disneyland.

But even though SB 277 has been characterized as one of the toughest legislative crackdowns in the country, the bill is full of holes. The biggest issue is a generous grandfather clause for exemptions filed before the end of 2015, meaning a first grader whose vaccination-adverse parents put her paperwork in order last year won’t be forced to get her shots until she reaches middle school. To complicate matters, the law allows loosely defined medical exceptions (which could be exploited by lenient doctors), and contains a list of total vaccinations that fall substantially short of the full U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggested schedule.

The surprising reality is that throughout Los Angeles, classes remain full of unimmunized children — and will be for years to come.

In the meantime, vaccine refuseniks, who bitterly fought the passage of SB 277 and later failed to petition for a referendum to overturn the measure (in July an advocacy group sued in federal court to overturn it; late last week U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw squashed the attempt), are digging in for a long fight. Among the movement’s Hollywood thought leaders is Grown Ups actor Rob Schneider, who was dropped as the face of State Farm Insurance in 2014 after he went public with his views. He released a statement in June, which cast conspiratorial aspersions on, among others, the pharmaceutical industry, the media, public health officials, Congress and the Supreme Court. It read in part: “If choice is taken away and people are forced to use any drug or vaccine licensed and mandated by our government, then we are no longer a free people but live in state sponsored medical tyranny.”

Rob Schneider (Photo: Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Schneider’s commentary followed Robert De Niro’s April 13 appearance on NBC’s Today, during which he re-embraced Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a documentary about the supposed evils of childhood vaccinations, whose premiere he’d previously attempted to stage at his Tribeca Film Festival before backlash stymied the plans. (Its director, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, is an anti-vaccine activist who lost his license to practice and earned the enduring ire of fellow physicians after his notorious 1998 study in the British medical journal The Lancet, which suggested a link between vaccines and autism, was discredited and retracted.)

“I think the movie is something that people should see,” De Niro explained. “There’s a lot of information about things that are happening with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the pharmaceutical companies; there’s a lot of things that are not said. I, as a parent of a child who has autism, I’m concerned. I want to know the truth.”

The Today appearance, in which anchors Willie Geist and Savannah Guthrie refrained from directly challenging De Niro as he went on to express his fringe beliefs at length before their 5 million viewers, was a coup for the anti-vaccine faction, which has otherwise been aggressively and relentlessly debunked. Indeed, the movement’s unkillable tenacity owes in remarkable part to the continued gullibility of outspoken stars in a celebrity-obsessed, social media-driven era where their voices often carry further and resonate more effectively than anyone else's, and emotional appeals undergirded by free-floating modern anxiety trump doctors’ detached facts and statistics.

Robert De Niro on Today (Photo: Screenshot/today.com)

Stars have played a key role in stoking vaccine alarm and shaping the narrative around immunization suspicion. That atmosphere of doubt helped contribute to a decline in childhood shot rates across the country over the past decade, including across L.A. Jenny McCarthy’s outright connection of shots with autism has been the most conspicuous example of celebrity engagement. While many others, including Schneider, Toni Braxton and Aidan Quinn, share this concern, high-profile dissident behavior runs the gamut. It can be advocacy of irregular, choose-your-own immunization schedules unsupported by medical authorities (Holly Robinson Peete, Alicia Silverstone) to protesting SB 277 as a matter of government overreach thwarting individual rights (Danny Masterson, Jim Carrey).

Whatever the talking point, their Q Scores significantly amplify it. “A celebrity saying something gives it a lot more attention — period,” says Michael Sitrick, CEO of L.A. crisis management firm Sitrick and Company. “It’s the same reason why marketers have celebrities endorsing products.”

The vaccine-skeptical celebrity crowd is, on the whole, in line with the movement at large, which oftentimes overlaps with those attracted to natural products, attachment parenting, alternative medicine, organic foods, environmental activism and a generalized corporate distrust. Such sociological correspondence can be keenly leveraged: “You’re borrowing credibility from one thing and bringing it to another,” observes Julie Fairchild, a partner at Lovell-Fairchild Communications, a film-marketing firm specializing in faith-oriented projects.

A notable number of the highest-profile immunization dissenters are Scientologists, from Masterson and Juliette Lewis to Jenna Elfman and Kirstie Alley. In a statement to THR, the Church of Scientology, which has a troubled public relationship with many established mental health treatments, insists it “takes no position one way or the other on this issue.” (Tabloid stories were written after the death of church member John Travolta’s 16-year-old son Jett, who was said to have been improperly treated for autism.) Yet Scientology did host a June 2015 event at one of its Los Angeles community centers where issue activists Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and biochemist Brian Hooker, Ph.D., promulgated their views ahead of California Gov. Brown’s signing of SB 277 weeks later.

Ex-Scientologist critics observe that a mistrust of immunization, while not official doctrine, is an unsurprising consequence of members’ credence for the principles surrounding the church’s controversial cleansing “purification rundown” program, which allegedly treats drug abuse and toxic exposure. “In that school of thought, vaccines could potentially be hurtful too,” says Claire Headley. In addition, they note, members find familiarity and even righteousness in the experience of holding lonely, lambasted views. “Smugness is an understatement,” says Spanky Taylor. “It’s an arrogance.”

What everyone in the vaccine-wary community appears to have in common is a severely held sincerity that is frequently underscored by an intimate proffered narrative of domestic trauma involving a loved one, most often their own child. Exhibit A is Quinn, who insists his daughter only began exhibiting signs of autism after a 106-degree fever immediately followed her measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) injection at 14 months in 1990. (Neuroscientists and neurologists note that the disorder often begins to manifest itself in a previously “normal” child after the age of 1.) “For me it’s extremely important to speak up, when I see someone is having a child, or have a chance to talk in the media, to tell the truth,” he says, adding: “I get nothing out of this — I get to be made fun of and castigated and called crazy, even by some of my best friends who can’t open their minds — except the fervent hope that others won’t have to live through what my family has to live through.”

Immunization skepticism is a social contagion spread through persuasion, and vaccine refuseniks have become proactive about carefully cultivating their cause. The marketing team behind Trace Amounts, a documentary positing the supposed malign effects of the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal, held influencer-oriented, salon-style screenings at private homes throughout the spring of 2015 in the Hollywood-heavy pockets of Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills, Silver Lake and Calabasas. “A lot of it has been based on everybody’s [known] connections,” the film’s publicist, Jenni Weinman Voake, told THR that July. “You know how this town works.” (Thimerosal was removed from kids’ shots except for some flu vaccines years ago, and there’s broad scientific consensus that it’s not a threat.) Attendees included Silverstone, Alley and Adrian Grenier. Cindy Crawford’s Twitter review: “Must see film!” Trace Amounts director Eric Gladen explained to THR, “We’re having to circumvent the mainstream news media [to promote Trace Amounts], so it's no doubt important to have these high-profile people helping us get the word out. The momentum is building."

De Niro himself was pictured with Kennedy, Carrey and Gladen in a photograph Carrey posted to Twitter the evening De Niro appeared on Today (see below). A subsequent report by Jezebel drew attention to how De Niro became active on the issue only after acting in Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by Rodriguez’s ex-wife Elizabeth Avellan — both outspoken supporters of Dr. Wakefield, who now resides in Austin, where the film was shot.

From left: John Raatz, Jim Carrey, Grace Hightower De Niro, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Robert De Niro and Eric Gladen (Photo: Eric Gladen/Facebook)

A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 9 percent of Americans believed vaccines to be unsafe, while an additional 7 percent volunteered they didn’t know. It’s this latter uninformed group — the vaccine-undecided demographic — who are most likely to be swayed by star power. “These people of prominence don’t necessarily need to bring an expertise to the subject matter,” says Robert Greenwald, who runs Brave New Films, which specializes in grassroots marketing for hot-button documentaries of social import. “They bring their well-known-ness, just making you aware of it. It’s the trusted-messenger theory.”

The burden of proof in this situation is low: not to demonstrate inarguable vaccine-damage causality, but merely to imbue a sense of unease, often under the alluring guise of public-spirited contrarianism — a questioning of perceived conventional wisdom, no matter how discredited. “It’s a rhetorical strategy,” explains Allan Mayer, who heads top Hollywood PR firm 42West’s Strategic Communications Division, “to be beaten down by the facts and then claim there are questions that are being ignored or facts that aren’t being heard or voices that are being suppressed. They are also always changing the terms of the discussion whenever you paint them into a corner. It’s spurious but effective.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise that GOP nominee Donald Trump, who’s proven his ability to understand and seize on the latent anxieties of Americans, has been a loud autism-connecting vaccine skeptic on Twitter for several years, culminating in a Republican presidential primary debate in September 2015, when, citing anecdotal evidence, he criticized what he described as an overly aggressive schedule of too-intense doses. “I mean,” he said on stage, “it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not a child!”

Celebrities are, of course, just like us: prone to confirmation bias, fuzzy thinking, logic leaps, heart-over-head pleas, conspiracy theories, imaginations run amok, context-free statistics, conflating the consultation of WebMD with that of a real MD. How they are different is that their fame amplifies all of it. Jim Carrey is one man with 15.3 million Twitter fans, ranting about the perfidy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, that federal agency speaks to only 685,000 Twitter followers.

“The mere fact that we continually have to think again and again about these discredited questioning views helps keep the myth alive,” explains University of Alberta Health Law Institute research director Tim Caulfield of this social media effect. (In January, he published the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.) “Since celebrities have so much more influence over our evolving public discussion these days, they play an ever-larger role in confirmation bias, enabling echo chambers around their beliefs.”

While the movement has had a rough ride with journalists over the past two decades, its most famous adherents can, through their dominating social platforms, simply elide them, spreading their message unchallenged. For this story, THR contacted nearly 20 of the most high-profile vaccine skeptics in the entertainment industry. Only Quinn agreed to an interview.

As for De Niro, while promoting Hands of Stone at the Cannes Film Festival in May, he told Vulture that he’s quietly working on another project pertaining to his newfound immunization advocacy. And this one will meld outsider views with insider savvy. He revealed he’s brought in master Hollywood showman-distributor Harvey Weinstein (who declined to comment to THR about the project for this story). “I don’t want to talk much about it,” De Niro said, “because when I talk about it, something happens.”

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