The Tribeca Film Festival’s Dangerous Anti-Vax Documentary

Robert De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival should not be legitimizing the bogus claims of Andrew Wakefield, a quack whose film draws a direct link between vaccination and autism.


What sustains a lie except repetition? Deceit cannot persist without retelling, after all. A falsehood unrepeated is a falsehood eventually forgotten.

The Tribeca Film Festival is breathing life into a lie.

When the festival announced its lineup this month, tucked into the list of films selected for screening was the documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. As its two-minute trailer makes unambiguous, the film draws a direct link between vaccination and autism, and asserts a cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to hide this link.

Its director is Andrew Wakefield.

For those who are unfamiliar with Wakefield, he is the person perhaps most responsible for promulgating the notion that vaccines can lead to autism. His 1998 study in the prestigious journal Lancet suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) had triggered an intestinal infection in subjects who later regressed developmentally. With its publication, the anti-vaccine movement gained credibility and momentum.

It was built on lies.

Eventually it was discovered that Wakefield had significantly altered the data for all 12 subjects included in his study. In 2010, Lancet took the extraordinary step of retracting the study outright, citing his dishonesty, violation of ethical rules, and callous disregard for the well-being of children. A rival journal BMJ later conducted its own investigation and called Wakefield’s study “an elaborate fraud.” These ethical violations also led to his being stripped of his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom, his home country.

This is the man responsible for the documentary the Tribeca Film Festival has deemed worthy of inclusion, a thoroughly exposed charlatan.

It is important to pause and consider the scope of what the anti-vaccine movement is actually saying. While the film seems to make a lot of hay about the so-called “CDC whistleblower,” a manufactured controversy that amounts to nothing, the issue isn’t just about some obscure scientist nefariously meddling with little bits of data. The ramifications are much broader than that.

Were the link between vaccines and autism to exist like Wakefield and his fellow travelers say it does, it would require a massive conspiracy involving essentially the entire medical establishment across the globe. It would mean that physicians worldwide, myself included, are colluding—for reasons I cannot begin to imagine—and administering immunizations we know to be neurotoxins to children. Everyone from the CDC to (almost certainly) your own personal doctor to the Rotary Club is in on a crime of staggering proportions. All of us deliberately poisoning kids. Such a conspiracy is not only absurd on its face, but would surely have collapsed under its own weight ages ago. And yet people still believe it. Why? Because its proponents are still being given platforms to spread it.

Of course, the actual science about a possible link between autism and vaccines is entirely settled. No such link exists. In order to believe vaccinating your kids will cause autism, you have to be willing to reject the whole apparatus of medical science.

But reject it some folks do. They reject it because, in defiance of all evidence, a few prominent people tell them to, including the man steamrolling his way toward the GOP nomination. (It is a testament to the unrelenting odiousness of Donald Trump’s rhetoric that his anti-vaccination views are among the lesser reasons detractors despise him at this point.)

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And now the Tribeca Film Festival has given a platform for this thoroughly debunked lie to be repeated all over again. How lovely.

In a statement about the ensuing controversy, festival co-founder Robert De Niro said the following:

“Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

On a personal level, I can understand why De Niro would have a particular interest in the issue. As the parent of a child recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder myself, I absolutely want there to be an ongoing conversation about possible causes. The more we understand about it, the better.

But being the parent of an autistic child does not absolve De Niro, or by proxy the festival’s organizers, of their responsibility to ensure that screened documentaries meet a baseline standard of probity. There is no ongoing scientific question around this issue. And even if one believes otherwise, nobody should be letting a proven liar provide his skewed version of answers.

In an open letter to the festival, director Penny Lane (herself a Tribeca Film Grantee) rightly notes that Tribeca’s reputation for excellence lends legitimacy to films it screens, and by including Vaxxed they have already judged it as having merit.

“There is a big difference between advocacy and fraud, between point of view and deception,” she writes. “For you to claim there is no difference helps to perpetuate Wakefield’s fraud.”

This is exactly right. The Tribeca Film Festival is helping perpetuate a fraud, one that has been debunked again and again and again. Their decision is disgraceful, and I fervently hope they reconsider it.