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Sharyl Attkisson says science-based websites are astroturfers

Once upon a time, I was told of an article published on the website of “journalist” Sharyl Attkisson where she accused a lot of people of being astroturfers, including this old snarky feathered dinosaur. Now I admit to not being up-to-date on every cultural term that flows through the internet every day (who could?), but I had to find out more.

Well, what is an astroturfer? Supposedly, it’s a pejorative term that describes a fake grassroots effort. Astroturf is fake grass, so that’s its roots (pun intended).

I’m not really sure of the logic of placing science writers and evidence-based websites into the “astroturf” category, but she does it. It’s like the Big Lie, I guess if she keeps repeating it, people will think it’s true.

Of course, let’s not forget that if we’re going to accuse any person or group of being astroturfers, we should straightaway look at anti-vaccine groups led by Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. I mean they are the epitome of astroturfers. To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What did Sharyl Attkisson say?

According to Sharyl Attkisson, author of the astroturfer accusations,

The many ways that corporations, special interests and political interests of all stripes exploit media and the Internet to perpetuate astroturf is ever-expanding. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There’s an entire PR industry built around it in Washington.

Fine. I agree. Like my example of the right wing group, Americans for Prosperity, it’s clearly true and is certainly a problem. Wealthy right wingers give money in an attempt to create a political and social movement, but it’s not real.

Oh, but wait. I guess her version of astroturfers is far beyond the body politic. She thinks those of us who advocate for evidence-based scientific discourse are astroturfers. This is her top 10 list, except for the fact that it includes more than 10. Here is her list of so-called astroturfers:

  1. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown
  2. Media Matters for America
  3. University of California Hastings Professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Dr. Paul Offit
  4. “Science” Blogs such as: Skeptic,, Orac’s Respectful Insolence, and (apparently, I am a plural).
  5. Mother Jones
  6. Salon and Vox.
  7. White House press briefings and press secretary Josh Earnest, who worked for President Barack Obama and is no longer in the White House.
  8. Daily Kos and The Huffington Post
  9. CNN, NBC, New York Times, Politico and Talking Points Memo (TPM)
  10. MSNBC, Slate, Los Angeles Times and Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and Jon Stewart

I have no clue why she called it a “Top 10” list, since it’s way more than that. Maybe it’s the top 10 groups that annoy her, who knows.

Of course, let me thank Ms. Attkisson. Her inclusion of this website along with respected individuals such as Dorit Rubinstein Reiss and Dr. Paul Offit, along with science and journal websites such as Respectful Insolence, skepchick, Mother Jones, Vox Media, the Daily Kos, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times is overwhelming to me.

I’m humbled. It’s like winning the Academy Award (if it were awarded by a right-wing journalist) and standing next to George Clooney, Emma Stone, and Neil Patrick Harris.

I’d like to thank my fiancée, my good friend, my daughters, and Sharyl Attkisson for all of their support in getting this website to such an honored status.

Oh wait. You also included me with Jon Stewart? Seriously, I might cry. I’m overwhelmed.  Ms. Attkisson, where can I send you the check for mentioning me.

To be honest, I didn’t even know I was on Ms. Attkisson’s radar. But as a good liberal/progressive, I guess it’s a badge-of-honor to be attacked by her.

So how should I respond? Well, first of all, if I’m some well-funded PR/special interest/political group, then I must have some different definition of well-funded than most people. But if Big Pharma and Monsanto want to pony up some cash for a new Ferrari, I’m still going to call you on t he carpet whenever you do something stupid. Which is pretty often.

Mostly I write about vaccines and GMOs, but I wander off into some other fields of science denialism that interest me. I love to bash pseudoscience of any sort. It’s a good sport, though sometimes a bit too easy.

I advocate for vaccines because their safety and effectiveness are settled science, based on the vast mountain of published evidence. And it is not an attempt (fake or otherwise) at a grassroots movement. And I’m certainly not being funded by anyone to write these articles.

And vaccines do not cause autism.

Vaccine safety and efficacy is a scientific fact, so including myself or Dr. Offit or Professor Reiss or Orac in an “astroturfing” crowd is kind of odd.

Now the Daily Kos is certainly a grassroots effort of progressives to have a voice in the political and culture wars. But as one of the many bloggers there (unpaid, by the way), it’s not a fake grassroots effort. It’s real, it’s from the heart, as opposed to the nuts at Americans for Prosperity (accurate only in the sense that they want prosperity for a small percentage of Americans).

Who is Sharyl Attkisson?

Once a person engages in a really lame ad hominem attack (I laughed more than I got upset, by a landslide), then they’re open to a critical review of their background. So, Sharyl Attkisson, this is your life:

  • Ms. Attkisson is simply an apologist for and sycophant of one Andy Wakefield. For those of you who don’t know, MrAndy Wakefield fraudulently alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism which has had the effect of suppressing vaccination rates in many countries. His claims were based on a retracted paper published in the Lancet, a mostly respected medical journal who seemed to have forgotten how to do proper peer review back in the late 1990’s. If one’s “journalistic” reputation is based on critical thinking skills, her continued apologies for Wakefield definitely is a good argument for being discredited.
  • Sharyl Attkisson, a former news reporter for CBS, has been a shill for the antivaccine groups who think that vaccines cause autism (for which there isn’t one nanogram of evidence).
  • She has penned a report that linked vaccines to autism because of DNA transfer from the vaccines to human cells, exhibiting all of the disreputable “false balance” type of reporting that seems to be commonplace in scientific journalism (and she is not even close to being scientific).
  • There was a report by Attkisson on CBS This Morning, an American morning news show, about the brutal murder of Alex Spourdalakis, a 14 year old severely autistic child. She based her report on documentary by an antivaccination fringe group called  Autism Media Channel. Alex was murdered by his mother and a caretaker claiming that his autism made it impossible to handle him. Atkisson, instead of focusing on the murder, blamed everything on vaccines–supported by Mr. Wakefield.

If anyone is an astroturfer, it’s Sharyl Attkisson. She left CBS partially because of her troubles with the liberal bias of CBS News (which, from my own liberal point-of-view, isn’t all that progressive). I think someone should be true to their beliefs, and if Attkisson is a conservative, and she wanted to leave, that’s her right. However, sometimes being the politically opposite voice in a news organization can be useful, but it’s her choice.

However, I would never accuse her of being an astroturfer, because as far as I know, she does not meet the basic standards of such–she isn’t sponsored by a wealthy benefactor.

No, I don’t particularly like Ms. Attkisson, but not because of her political leanings. I don’t like her because she simply is a proponent of misinformation about vaccines. Her implicit and explicit support of Andy Wakefield is simply indefensible.

Her antivaccine articles are filled with ignorance and nonsense, so it’s hard to take her seriously on the subject.

At least she doesn’t mention climate change. I think.


Michael Simpson

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