What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”
I’m not aware of any common noun for a bad actor of this sort. But there’s a proper noun: Jenny McCarthy.
For much of the past decade, McCarthy has been the panicked face and intemperate voice of a movement that posits a link between autism and childhood vaccinations and that badmouths vaccines in general, saying that they have toxins in them and that children get too many of them at once.
Because she posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.
And then, earlier this month, she said the craziest thing of all, in a column for The Chicago Sun-Times.
“I am not ‘anti-vaccine,’ ” she wrote, going on to add, “For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, ‘pro-vaccine’ and for years I have been wrongly branded.”
You can call this revisionism. Or you can call it “a complete and utter lie,” as the writer Michael Specter said to me. Specter’s 2009 book, “Denialism,” looks at irrational retorts to proven science like McCarthy’s long and undeniable campaign against vaccines.
McCarthy waded into the subject after her son, Evan, was given a diagnosis of autism in 2005. She was initially motivated, it seems, by heartache and genuine concern.
She proceeded to hysteria and wild hypothesis. She got traction, and pressed on and on.
In 2007, she was invited on “Oprah” and said that when she took Evan to the doctor for the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, she had “a very bad feeling” about what she recklessly termed “the autism shot.” She added that after the vaccination, “Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.”
In an online Q. and A. after the show, she wrote: “If I had another child, I would not vaccinate.”
She also appeared on CNN in 2007 and said that when concerned pregnant women asked her what to do, “I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate.”
Two years later, in Time magazine, she said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the measles.” I’ve deleted the expletive she used before the second “measles.”
And on The Huffington Post a year after that, she responded to experts who insisted that vaccines didn’t cause autism and were crucial to public health with this declaration: “That’s a lie, and we’re sick of it.” Over the last few years, measles outbreaks linked to parents’ refusals to vaccinate children have been laid at McCarthy’s feet. The British study that opponents like her long cited has been revealed as fraudulent. And she and her tribe have gone from seeming like pitifully misguided dissidents to indefatigably senseless quacks, a changed climate and mood suggested by what happened last month when she asked her Twitter followers to name “the most important personality trait” in a mate. She got a bevy of blistering responses along the lines of “someone who vaccinates” and “critical thinking skills.”