Is Media Colluding to Silence Autism Study?

Report Blaming TV Called 'Junk Science'

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Three years ago a bunch of shrinks took aim at advertising targeted at children. Then the do-goodniks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a bunch of guidelines urging TV networks, movie studios and food marketers to change how they communicate to kids.

Last fall -- as if network and cable TV executives, and the marketers who support them didn't have enough headaches -- an economist put TV in his crosshairs. Cornell University economist Michael Waldman, in a study announced last October, suggested a link between early childhood TV viewing and the onset of autism. The study is the subject of a Page 1 leder in today's Wall Street Journal. (Subscription required.)

Consider what might happen if Professor Waldman's research is popularized: Parents could turn off their TVs -- forever. It's a media and marketing executive's worst nightmare!

Then again, there might not be much to worry about. Waldman is an economist, after all. And a number of people have questioned his research. And the Journal story makes sure to point that out. "This is junk science," the WSJ story quotes Alison Singer, parent of an autistic child and senior VP of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness of autism and funding research into its causes, prevention, treatment and cures.

TV is not autism's cause, according to Singer, who says in the Journal piece that "Autism is a genetic disorder. The only thing the parents do wrong is have the wrong genes."

Singer and Autism Speaks aren't the only ones calling Waldman's work junk science. Which is probably a good thing, considering Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 by media bigwig Bob Wright, formerly CEO of NBC Universal, which owns NBC and CNBC.

And just yesterday, we received an e-mail in our inbox announcing that Autism Speaks is adding some serious media-and-advertising brainpower to its board. BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson and General Motors' Mark LaNeve, North America VP-vehicle sales, service and marketing, are joining current board members Philip Geier, former CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos. and Mel Karmazin, former head of CBS and now CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio.

Why, just looking at that list of names, we could jump to all sorts of dubious conclusions -- which is sort of what Greenwald did with his research into cable television penetration autism.

Still, no matter who is right, we are pretty sure that Mr. Wright and those that run his nonprofit understand well the potential power of stories in national outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Time and Slate. Sadly, consumers of science pieces in general audience publications are just as gullible as some of the reporters who retype a press release from a group with an ax to grind research them and the TV journalists who hype them up into scare pieces on the local news. (Oddly enough, we don't remember THIS report being the subject of one of those hysterical pieces.)

But junk science or not, Waldman's theory -- as flimsy as it is -- could lead to more negative commentary about TV. (Unless he's silenced by the media conspiracy!)