A case study in how allegedly neutral analysts hired by publications or social media can effectively cancel good-faith questions and opinions because they challenge dominant narratives.

But times have changed. Today, an entire fact-checker industry has emerged to check your opinions, making sure you have not strayed beyond acceptable limits for public discourse. These professional fact-checkers are often brought in after publication of a controversial article, opinion piece or podcast to quell a controversy. Acting more like business consultants, they help media platforms large and small stay on the right side of government officials and corporate sponsors.

COVID-19 has been a boon to the fact-checking industry. Big outfits like Politifact and Factcheck.org have special divisions just to police COVID “misinformation.” Like the Ministry of Truth imagined by George Orwell in his epic novel, “1984,” these outfits will tell you what you can and can’t say about the lockdowns, masks, and the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna.

I got a window into the world of professional fact checkers last November after I published an op-ed for the Chicago Reader called, “Vaxxing our Kids, Why I’m not rushing to get my six-year-old the COVID-19 vaccine.” In it, I considered the arguments for and against the official policy to vaccinate every child. And I apparently crossed a line by including opinions held by a significant number of prominent scientists and physicians who believe healthy children don’t need the vaccine because their risk of severe COVID is minuscule, the vaccine may do more damage than good to children, and it does little to stop the spread of COVID.

Vaxxing our Kids was my 21st column for the Chicago Reader. Founded in 1971, the free and freaky Chicago Reader has a long history of taking on centers of powers and inviting controversy, including articles exposing the Chicago Police department’s systematic use of brutal torture to extract confessions from murder suspects (1990-2007), the Catholic Church’s role in covering up allegations of child molestation by priests (1991), and the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (2002-05).

In 2018, the Chicago Reader was insolvent and faced dissolution. I partnered with a Chicago real estate developer to purchase the Reader for $1. We assumed its debt and helped pay its operating expenses with the intention to transition the paper to not-for-profit status as the best way to assure its survival into the future.

In 2019, I began writing a semi-regular opinion column for the Reader. Taking advantage of its fifty-year history of providing a space for dissent, I focused on subjects that would not be welcome in mainstream papers, such as the connection between convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and U.S. Intelligence[1], the persecution of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning[2], the Obama Foundation’s move to privatize 20 acres of historic public parkland on Chicago’s South Shore and cut down a thousand trees in order to build a 235-foot-high museum tower on the shores of Lake Michigan[3], and the collaboration between corporate-friendly federal judges in the Southern District of New York and the Chevron Corporation to punish a lawyer who is trying to make Chevron pay for its deliberate destruction of a large section of the Ecuadorian Amazon.[4] Scheerpost co-published several of these columns.

But apparently expressing concerns about giving my six-year-old daughter an mRNA vaccine that was not tested on humans until 2020, and that has been approved only for “emergency use” in kids, took me into forbidden territory. Like all my columns, Vaxxing our Kids was submitted on deadline, fact-checked and edited. At publication, my editor thanked me for taking on the difficult topic and pronounced my research to be “bulletproof.” She predicted that the piece would be controversial, but that many parents of young children would appreciate hearing a different point of view. This prediction was accurate. Vaxxing our Kids received 772 likes on Twitter and 323 retweets even though the Reader did not support the column. Dozens of parents reached out to tell me that they too were struggling with the decision whether to give their young child an mRNA vaccine and were grateful for information that could not be found in other media. On the other side, a small but angry group of readers and pro-pharma operatives lashed out, demanding that Vaxxing our Kids be taken down off the Reader website and that I be fired as a columnist.

Scheerpost co-published Vaxxing our Kids.[5] But the way Scheerpost and the Chicago Reader handled the exact same content and the ensuing controversy could not have been more different. Scheerpost put the column front and center on its website and invited readers to comment and debate. Last I checked, there were 105 on-line comments and a robust debate, for and against the policy of mass vaccination of children. Many of the posters on Scheerpost shared knowledge, research and expertise on the questions raised in the op-ed, a shining example of how the First Amendment is supposed to work.

The Chicago Reader took a different approach. Rather than embrace the controversy and welcome a debate over an important issue of public health, the Reader let “the mob ha[ve] the final edit” as one journalist remarked in the Chicago Tribune.[6] After disabling all comments on its website, Reader management hired an external and anonymous “fact checker” to rewrite my column and issue a report with nine points of disagreement, later expanded to fifteen points of disagreement. The publisher offered me two options: either remove the column from the Reader website, or replace it with the new version that was “extensively modified” by the fact-checker, to be followed by the fact-checker report. I asked to publish a rebuttal to the fact-checker report and was told: “As for rebuttal: Your side is the actual column. The rebuttal is not a ‘side’ it is a fact-checker’s report.”

At this point, the Reader’s board got involved to protest management’s handling of the controversy over the opinion column. The board passed a resolution demanding that the Reader guarantee a space for dissenting views before it transitions to not-for-profit status. Management has dug in and refused to engage with the board’s demands, leading to a stalemate which threatens the future of the Reader.

I accept that it is theoretically possible that I could publish an opinion column that, although extensively researched, edited and fact-checked pre-publication, could be so riddled with factual errors that it needed to be either taken down or extensively modified. On the other hand, I have written more than thirty op-eds for a half dozen publications and never once had to correct a single factual assertion after publication. So it seems highly unlikely that there could be fifteen factual errors in Vaxxing our Kids.

Also, a careful examination of the fact-checker report reveals it to be highly dubious. Most of the items in the report begin with a declaration that a sentence in my column is “untrue” or “misleading,” followed by a convoluted word salad that winds up by conceding that what I wrote is 100% accurate. The remaining items in the report are just disagreements with the opinions of the experts that I accurately quote in the column.

In other words, in the age of the fact checker, an opinion columnist is required to credit the official word of government bureaucrats, even when those bureaucrats are clearly lying, as they were in this case.

For example, item number one in the report takes issue with the following sentence of my column: “Moreover, by not advertising their vaccines by name, Pfizer-BioNTech and other drugmakers are not obliged, under current FDA regulations, to list the risks and side effects of the vaccine.” The fact-checker report pronounces this sentence to be both “untrue” and “misinformation.” The report then confirms that, “Vaccine manufacturers have not advertised their vaccines at all” and then adds, “If Pfizer begins to advertise its vaccine, which received FDA approval earlier this year, it will have to follow regulations and list side effects.” In other words, the report confirms that what I wrote is 100% accurate but nevertheless labels it “misinformation.”

Items two and three assert that it was “misleading” for me to criticize the FDA for going “to court to resist a FOIA request seeking the data it relied on to license the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.” But here again, the fact checker concedes, in convoluted fashion, that what I wrote is 100% true – the FDA did in fact go to court to resist a FOIA request for the “raw data underpinning the trials.” So how is what I wrote misleading? According to the fact checker, I should have credited the FDA’s explanation that, because of “its small department of ten FOIA officers (who are already handling hundreds of other requests)”, it needed 55 years (until 2076) to go through the documents and redact “patient information and trade secrets.”

In other words, in the age of the fact checker, an opinion columnist is required to credit the official word of government bureaucrats, even when those bureaucrats are clearly lying, as they were in this case. How do I know they were lying? In early January, about a month after Vaxxing our Kids was published, a federal judge in Texas ordered the FDA to release all the data it relied on to license Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine at a pace of 55,000 pages a month, rejecting the FDA’s argument that its short-staffed FOIA office only had the bandwidth to review and release 500 pages a month. The FDA has so far complied with the court order. And in March, as was widely reported in the media, the first batch of vaccine-trial data was released revealing that Pfizer was aware of 1,291 adverse side effects from its vaccine when it applied for FDA approval.[7]

Most of the other items in the fact-checker report criticize me for accurately quoting opinions that the fact-checker disagrees with. For example, my column cites recent statements from Mexico’s health minister, Jorge Alcocer Varela, “who recommends against vaccinating children, warning that COVID-19 vaccines could inhibit the development of children’s immune systems.” The fact-checker asserts: “There is no evidence that this is the case with COVID vaccines or any other vaccines.” But the mRNA vaccines have only been given to children for about a year. No one knows for sure what the long-term effects will be. Dr. Alcocer Varela believes this vaccine could hinder the learning of a child’s immune system. He may be right and he may be wrong. But he is entitled to his opinion. And considering his credentials as an immunologist, researcher, teacher, healthcare professional and government official, parents like myself have a right to consider his views in making health-care decisions for our young children. People who disagree with Dr. Alcocer Varela are also entitled to express their views in opposition. That is the way free speech is supposed to work.

I got additional insight into the anonymous fact-checker report after a journalist from the Poynter Institute wrote an article weighing in on the controversy at the Chicago Reader.[8] The Poynter Institute is a self-appointed leader in “accountability journalism” through its International Fact-Checking Network. The Poynter journalist wrote that “Goodman’s column [Vaxxing our Kids] received backlash from readers and staff due to inaccuracies and misleading statements within the piece.” In an email, I demanded that the journalist identify these “inaccuracies and misleading statements within the piece.” She responded in part that my article cited the views of Dr. Robert Malone; but an article at Politifact.com explains “why he cannot be considered a ‘reputable’ source on the COVID-19 vaccines.”[9]

In other words, Dr. Robert Malone has been cancelled by Politifact. Therefore, op-ed columnists are not permitted to cite Dr. Malone’s views even though he is one of the original inventors of the mRNA vaccine technology and scores of people around the world are interested in what he has to say.

I should also point out that the Poynter Institute owns Politifact.

I wrote twenty columns for the Chicago Reader, most of which expose connections between government officials and their corporate partners. But it was only after I questioned the official narrative on COVID vaccines that the Reader felt compelled to bring in the professional fact checkers to justify censoring my opinions and cancelling me as columnist.

I suspect that the real objection to Vaxxing our Kids has nothing to do with factual errors. Rather, the piece may have stumbled onto some uncomfortable truths about our official policy to vaccinate every child in America for a virus that poses almost no risk to healthy children. Perhaps the bigger concern was the following excerpt from my column that escaped entirely the fact-checker’s red pen:

“This year, Pfizer has banked on selling 115 million pediatric doses to the U.S. government and expects to earn $36 billion in vaccine revenue. Congress is so in the pocket of Big Pharma that it’s against the law for our government to negotiate bulk pricing for drugs, meaning taxpayers must pay retail.”

That kind of money flowing to a corporate partner makes it hard for government officials to focus on the science.

Moreover, data now becoming available shows the vaccine to have been ineffective in kids. As recently reported by NBC News, “Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine offer almost no protection against coronavirus infection in kids ages 5 to 11, according to new data posted online — a finding that may have consequences for parents and their vaccinated children.”[10] Also, more than 17,000 doctors and scientists recently signed onto a declaration that “healthy children shall not be subject to forced vaccination.”[11]

These developments, coupled with the court-ordered release of the data from Pfizer’s vaccine trials showing more than a thousand undisclosed side effects, may explain the mad scramble to shut down dissenting voices.

As a WWII Air Force pilot was reported to have said: “If you’re taking flak, you’re over the target.”

Since the age of Socrates, truth has been discovered through reasoned debate and discourse. As the places in media to host that debate keep disappearing, some brave board members at the Chicago Reader are fighting to rescue the paper from the dark forces of censorship and to preserve its fifty-year tradition of embracing dissenting views.

ENDNOTES

Leonard Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense lawyer and Adjunct Professor of Law at DePaul University.  AUTHOR SITE


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