Let's talk about WWE having anti-vaccine misinformation on their website

They've been made aware that it's there, but 3 months later, nothing's changed.

Jenny McCarthy is introduced so she can promote Generation Rescue during the final episode of WWE Saturday Night’s Main Event, which aired on NBC on August 2, 2008. (Screenshot Source: WWE Network)
Jenny McCarthy is introduced so she can promote Generation Rescue during the final episode of WWE Saturday Night’s Main Event, which aired on NBC on August 2, 2008. (Screenshot Source: WWE Network)

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WWE’s final Saturday Night’s Main Event special on NBC in the Summer of 2008 is best-known for being just that, the final episode of the series to date. Taped on July 28th of that year alongside a live Monday Night Raw and aired five days later, it was a complete throwaway as a wrestling show. But the point was not to be a wrestling show by any traditional metric. The wrestling was a sidelight to heavy promotion for an “autism awareness” charity that snuck anti-vaccine misinformation onto WWE.com that’s still there as of this writing in 2020. That’s the same 2020 where vaccine skepticism poses an immediate danger thanks to the disturbingly large percentage of the American population unwilling to take the vaccines that may be our greatest hope of ending the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s also the same 2020 where pushed WWE wrestler Nia Jax posted vaccine misinformation in her Instagram Story and WWE Hall of Famer/WWE über-legend Hulk Hogan chimed in as a vaccine skeptic in a conventional Instagram post (archived here and here).

“It appears the change came, in a sense, as a result of the fallout of Chris Benoit,” wrote Dave Meltzer in a cover story about WWE moving towards “PG”/”family-friendly” content in the August 25, 2008 issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “The company now wants to be cooperative with the media, and not only is increasing its charity work, but increasing the publicity associated with such work. Even though the cause was controversial, they sacrificed promoting matches for an NBC show to promote that they were working to help fight autism. The idea is to make wrestling and WWE more acceptable in society, with the goal of getting a higher class of advertisers.”

The “controversial” autism charity that this particular episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event was devoted to pushing was Generation Rescue, the organization run by actress/former Playboy Playmate of the Year/game show hostess/WrestleMania XI celebrity guest Jenny McCarthy. Though just a few years old at the time, it was not exactly a secret that the organization’s version of “autism awareness” was deeply rooted in debunked conspiracy theories about a link—again, already disproven by then—between vaccines and the rise in autism diagnoses.

“Generation Rescue blames the increase in autism on environmental issues, but also targets a preservative (thimerosal) put in children’s vaccines as a cause,” Meltzer wrote in the August 11, 2008 Observer. “That is a view at odds with the medical community which claims there is no significant scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism or their view that dieting and drugs can help cure it. I actually learned about this because in our area, there are parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated over the autism fear, while doctors insist the fear is unfounded. General Rescue also has a web site called ‘Put Children First’ which claims the Center for Disease Control is covering up that vaccines are a part in recent increases in autistic children.”

It would stand to reason that the CDC was a target of Generation Rescue because the government agency’s “Timeline: Thimerosal in Vaccines” page is one of the easiest resources to find to debunk thimerosal conspiracy theories. According to a time limited Google search, the timeline was first posted in February 2008, and it just scratches the surface of information available from the CDC website debunking thimerosal conspiracy theories. As noted in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) in 2000, for example, the mercury-based preservative was never in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. More recent CDC resources explain this—and other vaccines that thimerosal was never in—even more clearly, but I don’t want to belabor this too much. The point is that this had all long been debunked by mid-2008, with the flash point for the conspiracy theory, Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study in medical journal The Lancet, having been disowned by 10 of his 12 co-authors in March 2004.

It’s not entirely clear why WWE threw in with Generation Rescue of all charities for that SNME special, as it was already evident to anyone willing to look into it that the organization was built on unscientific, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. I recall there being public speculation that no reputable charity was willing to hook up with WWE for the show given the company’s reputation just over a year removed from the Benoit murder/suicide and ensuing fallout, but that doesn’t feel like a realistic explanation. WWE has long had partnerships with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics, for example, and both started long before 2008. Though I couldn’t find any news stories or press releases about WWE and the Special Olympics from that year, there are plenty about WWE and Make-A-Wish, which renewed its formal relationship with WWE months before the Generation Rescue team-up. It could be as simple as as desire to help a newer, less cash-rich charity; we just don’t know.

Look, as much as the decision to go with Generation Rescue was a black eye, even for a company that constantly walks into punches, there’s a reason that I’ve never bothered to write about this before: WWE seemingly learned from this and never dealt with Generation Rescue again. But when I was reporting out the story I did for VICE in September about Drake Wuertz, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), and QAnon, it got me thinking about WWE’s past flirtations with extremism. SoI took to Google to search for the references to Generation Rescue on WWE.com. That’s when I discovered “More on Generation Rescue” (archived here, here, here, and here), which was more or less a republication of the organization’s mission statement from its own website. Unlike the other contemporaneous posts about Generation Rescue on WWE.com, this one contained anti-vaccine misinformation (emphasis mine):

Our children are experiencing epidemics of ADD/ADHD, Asperger's, PDD-NOS and Autism.

We believe these neurological disorders ("NDs") are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as "biomedical intervention," is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the cause includes the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (with unstudied ingredients like mercury, aluminum and live viruses); growing evidence also suggests that maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines, heavy metals like mercury in our air, toxic ingredients in our water, pesticides; and the overuse of antibiotics are also implicated. Generation Rescue's mission is to support continued research on causative factors and treatment approaches for NDs.

Again, while WWE should have done further due diligence and partnered with one of a litany of other charities for the SNME special, this, while nonetheless egregious and concerning, is entirely forgivable. They weren’t alone here, with People, for example, publishing quotes from McCarthy about how she “undid vaccine damage” to her son among other things in a story hyping the show. Still, that’s the only mainstream media story promoting the event that I can find that mentions vaccines, though ScienceBlogs.com, which was already critical of Generation Rescue, did run a blog post about the problematic team-up. (Showing that there’s not exactly an excuse for how People handled it, though, is an ABC News story on McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” march several weeks earlier, which made it clear where the science stood.)

But because the “More on Generation Rescue” page was still on WWE.com and because it dovetailed with the Wuertz/OUR/QAnon story thanks to the strong anti-vaccine sentiment among Q followers, I mentioned it in an early draft of the VICE article. Since I did that, I included a question about the page in my request for comment to WWE. (The line about Generation Rescue was, meanwhile, cut with various other flourishes because the story was better as a shorter, news-ier article.) Even though the initial email opened bu saying that I was writing an article for VICE about WWE talent pushing soft-QAnon content and all of the other questions were about QAnon and/or #SaveTheChildren, the WWE spokesperson who answered my inquiries acted as if I had dredged up the 2008 stuff to manufacture a story:

Don’t you think this is a ridiculous premise? Why are you grasping for straws by cobbling together a bunch of random items including something from 12 years ago unrelated to the company?

Again, this is in spite of my emails being clear that the focus of the story was the #SaveTheChildren stuff. I replied to remind him that the story was not about Generation Rescue as much as the Generation Rescue content (which I noted was the only previous link between WWE and that kind of extremism that I could recall) had relevance to the larger story and I erred on the side of caution by asking about it when I didn’t have to. There were no further responses from WWE.

Less than a year earlier, in November 2019, I wrote a very different story for VICE about how a fluky glitch had made the production feed for one of that weekend’s two NXT UK tapings, complete with rehearsals, visible in YouTube’s Roku app. (As an unlisted video, once my friend who stumbled upon it saved it to his favorites, he could easily grab the URL from his favorites list and share it with me.) When I reached out to WWE for comment, they never responded, but they did make the video private within a couple hours. Yet three months after the same public relations staffers were made aware that there’s dangerous anti-vaccine misinformation on their website, WWE has still not done anything to remove it.

As for Generation Rescue? As the blog Science-Based Medicine would detail, the August 22, 2008 issue of the CDC’s MMWR newsletter—less than three weeks after the SNME special aired—laid out the startling rise in measles cases in the United States. “So, rejoice, Jenny McCarthy [...] and all the other antivaccine activists […] spreading misinformation, pseudoscience, and fear about vaccines!” wrote David Gorski in the blog post. “You’re winning. You’re succeeding in casting doubt on the safety of vaccines to the point that it’s causing real problems for our public health system.”

That wasn’t the only way they were winning: According to Generation Rescue’s publicly available tax filings using IRS Form 990, they first filed in 2005, reporting $530,495 in revenue. They would dip below that mark in both 2006 ($318,695) and 2007 ($425,317), only to rebound big in 2008, the year of the WWE special, with $1,185,255 in revenue. That’s a 2.79x increase over the prior year. Revenue would be cut almost in half in 2009 ($641,105) before rebounding to $1,094,384 in 2010. From there, they wouldn’t really look back until significant drops in 2017 ($1,056,706, down from $1,639,537 in 2016) and 2018 ($871,259), which is the most recent year available. This means that, as of this writing, there are no publicly available financials since Anna Merlan’s excellent March 2019 feature for Jezebel detailing the ways that the charity has enriched its board members.

It’s impossible for us to know how much being featured on a WWE special on NBC—albeit one that bombed in the Nielsen ratings—led to Generation Rescue’s 2008 surge in revenue, so any further discussion of the topic would be pure speculation. And look, nobody’s digging around in the bowels of WWE.com to research vaccines, so it’s unlikely for the page to do any real damage years after its initial publication. There’s still the more realistic possibility, though, that someone could watch the SNME special on WWE Network, which still has all of the Generation Rescue content, and find themselves in an internet wormhole of vaccine misinformation, though, a wormhole that could include the WWE.com page in question. During the SNME special, viewers were directed to WWE.com to donate to the charity. If you Google “WWE Generation Rescue” without quotes, “More on Generation Rescue” is the fourth result; it’s the top result if you put “WWE.com” in the query instead of “WWE.” (The searches were done in “incognito” mode to avoid tailored results.)

Regardless, when presented with the reality of there being anti-vaccine misinformation on their website, someone in WWE chose to treat that issue as a lesser concern, with far less urgency, than a barely embarrassing video leaking through no fault of the company.

Enjoy? Want to support this work and get exclusive content, like source materials and notes from the Babyface v. Heel podcast that’s finally debuting in the coming weeks? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.