How Robert De Niro Got Himself into the Vaccine-Autism Debate Cross-Fire

Jake Anderson
March 28, 2016

(ANTIMEDIA) Last Friday, Robert De Niro, actor and cosponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival, announced a documentary about vaccinations made by controversial anti-vax doctor Andrew Wakefield would be screened at the festival. One day later, DeNiro changed course, announcing the film had been pulled from the lineup.

Wakefield’s documentary, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Conspiracy, argues there is a conspiracy by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conceal the medical links between vaccines and autism. The gastroenterologist has been vocal on the issue for over a decade, despite harsh condemnation from critics who believe Wakefield has been completely disgraced and his theories debunked.

The highly divisive issue pits a large contingent of vaccine ‘truthersrecently buoyed by none other than Donald Trumpagainst an even larger community of scientists who say there is no evidence that vaccines used to immunize infants cause autism.

Left in between are confused parents, who are increasingly anxious about the issue and the competing campaigns of information (or, what the respective sides would declare disinformation). DeNiro, whose son is autistic, took to Facebook on Friday to defend the screening of the film:

“Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening ‘Vaxxed.’ I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

Due to overwhelming outside pressure, DeNiro reversed course almost immediately and on Saturday posted an update to his previous statement:

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” he wrote on the festival’s Facebook page. “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

The vast majority of scientists and doctors maintain that extensive research by the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine and the CDC soundly discredits anti-vaxxer claims. However, there is still a large and passionate movement of activists who continue to believe vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) put infants at greater risk of autism. In 1998, Wakefield published a study purporting to prove this link, but it was almost unanimously rejected by the scientific community. Critics claimed Wakefield used fraudulent data and his medical license was revoked. The very journal that published the study eventually redacted it.

The Tribeca Film Festival originally described Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Conspiracy on its website as containing “revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today.”

After an outpouring of dissent, including harsh responses from Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzick and filmmaker Penny Lane, the festival pulled the film.

DeNiro defended the decision, saying, “The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy.”

The trailer for the documentary opens with the question: “Are our children safe?” It proceeds to feature the voice of a whistleblower who claims it’s actually the CDC that has committed fraud, not Wakefield.

Though she praised the festival for yanking the film, Lane says the damage has already been done as Wakefield and his anti-vaxxer supporters can use the ban as a symbol of censorship “and that will add to his conspiracy theory aura.”

This article (How Robert De Niro Got Himself into the Vaccine-Autism Debate Cross-Fire) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Jake Anderson and Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. Image credit: David Shankbone. If you spot a typo, email