It's never too early to be reminded how willfully awful the political press can be during presidential campaign season.
In early February, some 11 months before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, a four-day foofaraw over vaccines provided a template for the tendency of the Fourth Estate and the partisans who game it to direct coverage away from government policy and toward a falsely Manichean separation between Team Science and Team Stupid.
It all started innocuously enough, with President Barack Obama going on the Today show February 2 and being asked by Savannah Guthrie whether, in the wake of increasing measles outbreaks near Disneyland and elsewhere, "there should be a requirement that parents get their kids vaccinated." The president then said three things that just about everyone on allegedly opposing sides of the resulting debate would also stress over the coming week: that "measles are preventable," that "you should get your kids vaccinated," and--through his spokesman Josh Earnest the following day--that "it shouldn't require a [federal] law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing."
Given the volume and tenor of the ensuing brouhaha, you'd be forgiven for thinking that vaccine policy is largely determined by Washington. "The measles vaccine," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, in a sentiment shared widely among the political press, "has become the first important controversy of the 2016 Republican presidential primary."
Yet when my second daughter was born in late January, it wasn't the White House or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that dictated which shots would be given and recommended at the hospital, it was the city and state of New York. In January of this year, for example, New York City took the unusually aggressive step of mandating not just a measles or whooping cough vaccination but a flu shot for any child entering a city-licensed preschool or day care facility. (Parents can apply for medical or religious exemptions.) This despite reports from the CDC that this year's flu shot has an anemic effectiveness rate of 23 percent.
But journalists were not very interested in the areas of vaccine policy that are actually debatable. They just wanted to find fools and laugh at them. "The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives," wrote...