Shout Out: An Open Letter to Oprah
Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2009
In keeping with Carl Sagan’s adage that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, I want to pass along something which I think does just that. I recently blogged about Oprah Winfrey’s ill-conceived decision to give anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy her own show.
Personally, I have been at a loss as to how to respond – but fortunately, Shirley at the “I was lost but now I live here” blog has a great response, and I wanted to share it with you here. Please consider passing it along, so that perhaps we can get Oprah to rethink her decision…
I have to confess, I have never watched more than a few minutes of your show. Probably not the best way to start a letter to you, but I want to be honest. And the truth is, I think you’re making a terrible mistake.
Last weekend, I spent more time listening to and watching you than in the rest of my life combined. My family and I were sitting in the Duke stadium, looking down on the thousands of giddy graduates (including my older brother), the esteemed faculty in their rainbow regalia, and the charming, if a bit over the top, fake castle festooned with flags representing the different academic schools. I had no idea you were the commencement speaker until the student speaker, Robert Paul Jones, pretended to get a cell phone call from Parking & Transportation services about your limo double-parked in front of the chapel.
Having only seen you in short commercial clips and on the cover of your magazine, I wasn’t sure what to expect from your speech. I was pleasantly surprised. You were warm and funny, your voice clear and yet dressed with feeling, and I am sure you meant every word. Over the course of those 20 or 30 minutes, I developed a great respect for you as a talented speaker.
But I couldn’t leave the stadium wholly inspired by you, as I’m sure many others did. To me, it is clear that a significant number of people look up to you, and trust your advice and judgment. That is why it is such a huge mistake for you to endorse Jenny McCarthy with her own show on your network.
Surely you must realize that McCarthy is neither a medical professional nor a scientist. And yet she acts as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement, a movement that directly impacts people’s health. Claims that vaccines are unsafe and cause autism have been refuted time after time, but their allure persists in part because of high-profile champions for ignorance like McCarthy. In fact, ten of the thirteen authors of the paper that sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement retracted the explosive conclusions they made due to insufficient evidence. Furthermore, it is now clear that the study’s main author, Andrew Wakefield, falsified data to support these shaky conclusions.
We have come close to eradicating life-threatening and crippling illnesses because of vaccines, but are now struggling to prevent outbreaks because of parents’ philosophical beliefs that vaccines are harmful. Realize this: when someone chooses not to vaccinate their child, they aren’t just putting their own child at risk, they are putting everyone else around them at risk. Diseases with vaccines should normally be of little concern even to unprotected individuals due to herd immunity – with the majority of the population immune, unprotected individuals are less likely to come into contact with the pathogen. Unfortunately, herd immunity disintegrates as fewer people are vaccinated, putting everyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated at greater risk for infection. Now, the rates of infection by diseases for which we have safe and effective vaccines are climbing, thanks to anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy.
You reach millions of people everyday and your words and endorsements carry an incredible amount of weight. If you say to buy a certain book, people will buy it. If you do a segment on a certain charity, people will contribute. And if you say that what Jenny McCarthy is saying has merit, people will believe you.
As your speech drew to a close on Sunday, you mentioned that you still make difficult decisions from time to time. You told us about a show where you had the exclusive first interview with the author of a prominent book on the Columbine tragedy. Despite days of promos and confirmed broadcast schedules, you decided to cancel the show at the last minute because it had a negative energy, and you didn’t want to be responsible for sending that dark energy out into the world. You didn’t want to be responsible for someone seeing that show, feeling that dark energy, and going out to commit another Columbine. You said that you followed your gut to make the right decision.
Maybe your gut is being silent on this one, so let me speak up on its behalf. You have another decision to make. Pull your support from Jenny McCarthy and her platform of anti-vaccination. Because while the Columbine segment raised the specter of potential future tragedy, anti-vaccination propaganda is causing more and more people – mostly children – to fall sick and die from preventable illness as I write this. Jenny McCarthy could be considered responsible for a significant number of these; you can imagine what might happen if you give her influence over your audience of millions.
So Oprah, I hope you take my letter, and the well-intentioned if sometimes harsh criticisms from many others in the blogosphere, to heart. Because even though I still don’t watch your show, others do, and they listen to you. Probably not the best way to end a letter to you, but I want to be honest.
P.S. My dad – for whom English is his second language – calls you “Op-er-a.” Isn’t that cute?