Last month, Del Bigtree stood behind a podium at a Texas rally, his flowing gray hair blowing in the wind, to talk about the supposed perils of government-mandated vaccines—a speech he has given all over the country.
This time, he had a prop: Near the end of his speech, he affixed a yellow Star of David to his coat. It was a symbol, he said, of solidarity with New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is in the throes of a measles outbreak.
Condemnation of the stunt—from the Auschwitz Memorial Museum and the Anti-Defamation League, among others— was swift. But Bigtree said he wasn’t worried about the criticism.
“Honestly, I was doing what I thought I was raised to do, which was stand up for minorities,” he told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “A Jewish community was going to be quarantined and not allowed to go into their own synagogues during Passover. To me it seems so obvious that smacks of the issues in Germany.”
He was equally unfazed by the New York measles crisis that has sickened nearly 300 people, mainly children in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and pushed authorities to implement emergency orders, including fines for refusal to vaccinate.
“I think the last death from measles was 2003 or 2005, somewhere in there, so it seems shocking to me to call something a state of emergency when it really doesn’t have an effective death rate,” Bigtree said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the last death from measles in the U.S. was in 2015. And New York City officials say at least 21 people have been hospitalized in the current outbreak.
Bigtree is one of the most visible members of the growing anti-vaxxer movement. He produced the headline-grabbing film Vaxxed, and his nonprofit raked in more than a million bucks in 2017. He has 13,000 Twitter followers and 114,000 likes on the Facebook page for his streamed show.
What he doesn’t have is a medical degree or scientific training, though he does say he read a lot of medical material while working as a producer on the TV talk show The Doctors.
Health officials have warned that anti-vaccine proselytizers like Bigtree are helping to fuel the spread of a disease thought to have been largely eradicated in 2000.
While deaths from measles in the U.S. are unusual, the CDC warns exposure can cause long-term health problems. One in 20 infected children contracts pneumonia.
The World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global threats in 2019. It notes that measles has seen a 30-percent increase globally and “some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.”
As of last week, there have been 465 confirmed cases in 19 states in the U.S., according to the CDC—the second worst outbreak since 2000 and on pace to overtake the 2014 outbreak which had 667 cases.
Opposition to vaccines has spread and become more organized over the past few years; several states now have political action committees that endorse like-minded candidates. Protests have sprung up at state capitols where lawmakers are scrambling to close loopholes that allow parents to opt out of childhood vaccinations while anti-vaxxers rail against attempts to curtail parental rights.
Bigtree is a regular on this circuit. In May, he’ll speak at the AutismOne Champagne Brunch, “Vaccines—The Evolution of Bad Science.” In June, he’ll present at the Red Pill Expo in Hartford, Connecticut, joining 9/11 Truthers and other conspiracy theory enthusiasts to “understand how the world really works.” He’s already booked at a fall “Vaccine Awareness Event” in Minnesota.
Bigtree’s flair for the dramatic precedes his role as vaccine choice crusader. A graduate of the Vancouver Film School, Bigtree spent a few years directing small films and plays. A review of a show he directed at Hollywood Fight Club Theater in 2007 said: “Although it lacks the complexity and length of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's Oleanna is no less worth pondering and no less astonishing. David Mamet's 1992 script receives a fresh Hollywood rendering from Director Del Matthew Bigtree at the Hollywood Fight Club Theater with Randy Robertson playing John, the college professor and Ruby Laurelle Staly playing his challenging pupil Carol.”
But it was when Bigtree joined the production team of Dr. Phil’s primetime TV show that same year that he found his true passion.
“As a television producer on a medical show on CBS called The Doctors and prior to that I was a producer on the Dr. Phil Show, so I had about 10 years of working first in psychology and then in medicine and surgery and cutting edge techniques in science as form of entertainment,” he said. “I would read medical journals while looking for stories that I saw were interesting. The things that always grabbed my attention were really brilliant surgeons... surgeons who had used less invasive techniques, do less damage to the body but achieved the same goal.”
Bigtree’s experience on The Doctors gave him the confidence to leave the show to delve into a new project, the documentary called Vaxxed with disgraced physician Andrew Wakefield. It centered on the debunked theory, championed by Wakefield, that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine caused autism and the government covered it up.
It was that movie and the bus tour that followed that helped launch Bigtree into anti-vaccine stardom.
“I think there’s a belief—whether it’s true or not, it has nothing to do with me—that if I show up that people will come because they like to see me speak,” he said. “So I guess I have some sort of draw and they really want me to speak [about] what I’ve learned through the investigations that I’ve done.”
Off the stage, he said, he walks around government buildings hoping to sway lawmakers. When President Trump set up a meeting between prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the National Institutes of Health early in the administration, Bigtree was there, as well, peppering officials with questions.
He maintains that he’s not an anti-vaxxer, a term he says is derogatory and made up by the pharmaceutical industry to discredit skeptics like him.
“I still believe that, for the most part, vaccines are effective. The question I have is are they safe and that’s the investigation I began and that’s why I started a non-profit to get to answers to that question,” he said. “When we say vaccines are safe, how do we determine that?”
His nonprofit, the Informed Consent Action Network, was formed in 2016, the same year Vaxxed was released, with the aim of finding out what, as he puts it, the government is hiding from the American consumer. From 2016 to 2017, the donations to the group went from $120,000 to more than $1.4 million. Of that, more than $670,000 was spent on legal fees associated with Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
Bigtree also hosts an online show called HighWire. Most Thursdays, he sits on a set designed to look like a news show, talking straight to the camera about the latest vaccine-related outrage or protest. Sometimes he interviews guests; he once conducted a mock debate with a video of a scientist he disagreed with.
The program regularly garner tens of thousands of views. HighWire’s Facebook page also promotes Bigtree’s media appearances on conspiracy theory hub Infowars.
Bigtree often promises to reveal the “explosive” results of ICAN investigations.
In one such “investigation” in 2018, ICAN appeared to score a legal victory by forcing the government to submit to a FOIA that, Bigtree said, revealed Department of Health and Human Services had failed to comply with a 1986 law mandating it meet with Congress every two years to brief them on vaccine safety.
“What we discovered through our lawsuit was that in the last—it was supposed to be every two years since 1986 and they never met with Congress once,” Bigtree said.
If that was the case, it would indeed be striking. But like many so-called truths that careen through the anti-vaccine or vaccine choice movement, it is not accurate.
At a March 2019 hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said the reports were actually required within two years of the law’s implementation, not every two years.
And, Alexander said, “the HELP Committee has two reports from the Department submitted to Congress dated May 4, 1988, and July 21, 1989.”
Bigtree disputes that the HHS reports were provided in accordance with the statute.
“If the two documents provided by Lamar Alexander do in fact fulfill the requirements at the heart of our lawsuit then we have just been provided with grounds for another lawsuit against HHS who would clearly be held in contempt of court for hiding these two documents from us when they signed a court stipulation stating that they could not find any documents required by our lawsuit,” he said in a statement. “I doubt HHS stands by these documents as it would be at their own peril.”
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law who specializes in medical issues like vaccines and the law, said Bigtree’s lack of a science or medical background shows.
In a post on Skeptical Raptor about ICAN’s HHS FOIA last year, Reiss pointed out that HHS has commissioned multiple studies over the years and four different federal entities within HHS “look at vaccine safety from different directions.”
Reiss said some of Bigtree’s errors are basic, like his false claim that the HepB vaccine contains a “sexually transmitted disease.”
“There is no reason to assume his understanding of science is very good, in fact his statements suggest otherwise,” she told The Daily Beast.
Criticism from highly credentialed experts is unlikely to stop Bigtree, who used the end of his show on Thursday to issue a call to action to supporters, encouraging them to keep pushing and demanding answers.
“All of this is coming to a head, this is such an exciting time. Do you feel it? Do you feel what’s happening? This one is not going to be easy it would be boring if it was...” he said.
“This is our time. You’ve got to feel it. It’s so exciting.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the yellow Star of David worn by Del Bigtree did not include the words "no vax."