The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore’s replacement for The Colbert Report is off to an “eh, it’s good enough” start. The jokes are inconsistent, occasionally clever, occasionally predictable and creaky. But, for a show like Wilmore’s, jokes aren’t the most important thing. Truth is.
In one of his first shows, he received wild praise for bluntly tackling the spate of Bill Cosby rape accusations.
“People are innocent until proven guilty in the court of law, but this is the court of public opinion, and this is my show — that f-cker did it,” he said.
Good for him. As a comedian, he has the license to throw out the toxic “false-balance” philosophy of cable news. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for his show about vaccine fears last week. To his credit, his opening monologue was actually perfect.
“Parents are opting not to vaccinate their kids. And their kids are opting to get sick.” Wilmore joked.
“We ask the question, are vaccinations dangerous? Yes, if you don’t get them!” He dove into "how awful measles’' are, the silliness of trusting Jenny McCarthy’s opinion, and the absurdity of skipping shots.
“A trend! This your children’s health, not coulettes!” he roared. He pointed out how the false vaccine-autism link stemmed almost entirely from a fake study by Andrew Wakefield and how the skepticism over vaccination is a frustrating byproduct of their successes.
Then everything went downhill, in a way that exposes a fundamental danger of Wilmore’s panel format.
His panel discussion consisted of two comedians; CBS News medical and health contributor Dr. Holly Phillips; and Zooey O’Toole a member of a group called Thinking Moms’ Revolution.
O’Toole has a purple sweater, gray hair, and looks exactly a wise and kindly grandma. Her age instantly makes her seem more authoritative than Phillips. And remember, for many viewers, a skeptical mom who deeply loves her son carries more weight than a thousand peer-reviewed studies.
Contrast that with how John Oliver illustrated the 97 percent scientific consensus about man-made global warming. Here, the consensus is even greater, the consequences are even grimmer, but Wilmore treats it as a 50/50 proposition.
And the first question he asks is one, not of “how can we get kids more vaccinated or “sum up the vast quantity of scientific research discrediting vaccine fears,” but of skepticism. He asks Phillips is the link between autism and vaccines, completely disproven, or is there still a tiny possibility?
And Phillips starts her answer with a weak “No one ever wants to say never…” and concludes with “this is one of those times were you’ve got to let science trump [a mother’s] intuition.” It’s a mediocre answer where she basically asks mothers to said aside their love for their kids and embrace the cold steel arms of Scientific Data.
Contrast that with O’Toole’s answers.
“The important thing to remember is that we all want to do what’s best for our children,” O’Toole says, smiling warmly. “My main fear would be for my children’s health.”
She brings up pharmaceutical profits from vaccine manufacturers and references a CDC “whistleblower” who she says exposed a cover-up in an autism-vaccine connection study. A comedian on the panel, brings up the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, as a reason not to trust the government on vaccines.
All of these claims have rebuttals or responses. Many of them, however, require a lots of explanation – tough to fit into a 5-minute TV segment. Debunking misconception is always trickier than repeating it. In this case, nobody on the panel, not the least Wilmore, was the slightest bit prepared for the responsibility.
Instead, the strongest pro-vaccine pushback comes from the wry comedienne who says she proudly vaccinated her kids.
“But are you absolutely confident you haven’t done anything to harm them?” Wilmore asks her.
“I’ve done a lot of things to harm them, but those had nothing to do with vaccinating them,” the comedienne banters back.
You get why that is terrible for convincing parents to vaccinate your kids, right?
If he had to do a panel discussion, and had to include an anti-vaxxer, Wilmore should have brought on a guy like Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus. He’s been fighting the anti-vaaxer crowd for years, who knows how to debunk them clearly and quickly. (I asked Mnookin on Twitter if he watched the Nightly Show episode. “After hearing reports of what it was like, I couldn't bring myself to watch it,” he said.)
Look, it’s a tough topic to cover. Anti-vaxxers, have been inoculated by enough half-truths to become immune to full truths. Barrage them with scientific studies, and they’ll dismiss them as scientific conspiracies.
It’s like that Kids in the Hall sketch, where the admonition to “never put salt in your eyes” quickly becomes misremembered as “always put salt in your eyes.” Except replace eyes with “kids” and salt with “deadly diseases."
So it’s a cultural, not an intellectual challenge. That’s why cultural authorities, like, say, Oprah, are so important. When far-right icons like Ted Cruz, Erick Erickson and Ben Shapiro praise vaccines, that’s good news for convincing skeptical anti-government Tea Partiers to vaccinate their kids. But with the outbreak from measles occurring mostly in unvaccinated liberal strongholds, it’s even more important liberal cultural figures (including, yes, comedians) respond well.
Comedy shows are rightly holding Republican politicians like Rand Paul and Chris Christie accountable for their lukewarm and deceptive statements on vaccines. But when they screw up, letting ignorant guests on speak from positions of authority, as Larry Wilmore and Jon Stewart have, they should hold themselves accountable as well.