Back in the old days, when a publication put out false information, it would issue a correction or a retraction. In fact, they’re still supposed to.
Rolling Stone, however, apparently doesn’t feel itself bound by those strictures.
Granted, Rolling Stone is the magazine that was once home to Hunter Thompson, whose account of the 1972 presidential race — originally published in its pages — was called “the most accurate and the least factual” account of the campaign by one of the campaign managers, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted.
The father of gonzo journalism, alas, wasn’t alive or writing in the days of the internet fact-checker, so we don’t know how it would have handled “Fear and Loathing in the Pandemic End-Times.” There’s an irony, however, in that Thompson in particular and Rolling Stone in general have looked upon drug use with a favorable eye.
In 2021, the magazine is starting a moral panic over the use of one particular drug: ivermectin.
In a Friday article that would have been chucked if it had undergone some desultory fact-checking, the publication echoed the statements of an Oklahoma doctor who said emergency rooms were “so backed up” with overdoses of the anti-parasitic drug “that gunshot victims were having hard times getting” care.
The headline: “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says.”
The statements were originally made by Dr. Jason McElyea, a rural doctor who told Oklahoma City’s KFOR-TV that because country individuals have mostly been “accidentally been exposed to ivermectin at some time,” since it’s mostly used in veterinary applications, they feel comfortable using it.
“Now, the rural patients are going into their local agricultural or tractor supply store, ignoring the warning signs surrounding the products, and figuring out a dosage themselves,” KFOR reported.
“Some people taking inappropriate doses have actually put themselves in worse conditions than if they’d caught COVID,” McElyea said, adding that this was leading to ER backups.
“All of their ambulances are stuck at the hospital waiting for a bed to open so they can take the patient in and they don’t have any, that’s it,” he told KFOR. “If there’s no ambulance to take the call, there’s no ambulance to come to the call.”
While the medication is sometimes used in humans to treat various conditions, Rolling Stone’s Peter Wade noted in his Friday piece, “the doses are much smaller than are given to livestock. Still, people have been going to feed stores and purchasing livestock doses of the drug, leading many stores to post warnings next to the ivermectin supply, cautioning it is not for use in humans.”
Wade also claimed overdoses of ivermectin have “become so frequent that this month the Food and Drug Administration released a statement imploring Americans to stay away from the drug that has not been approved to treat or prevent Covid-19.”
The piece went on to hit the usual battery of ivermectin talking points: Prescriptions for the drug are up 24-fold despite the lack of proof it’s efficacious against COVID, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said reports of adverse effects and emergency room visits have “multiplied” (the CDC report to which Wade linked used the word “increased,” but why let facts get in the way?) and (of course) podcaster Joe Rogan used the drug when he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Wade’s piece leaned heavily on McElyea’s statements to KFOR about ivermectin. It closed with this warning from the good doctor: “There’s a reason you have to have a doctor to get a prescription for this stuff because it can be dangerous.”
And that may indeed be the case, but pretty much everything else about the story smacks of fake news.
That’s why Rolling Stone issued an update — not a correction or a retraction, simply an update — on Sunday. The new headline: “One Hospital Denies Oklahoma Doctor’s Story of Ivermectin Overdoses Causing ER Delays for Gunshot Victims.”
“One hospital has denied Dr. Jason McElyea’s claim that ivermectin overdoses are causing emergency room backlogs and delays in medical care in rural Oklahoma, and Rolling Stone has been unable to independently verify any such cases as of the time of this update,” the publication noted.
Should Rolling Stone have corrected or retracted this story?
The hospital in question is Northeastern Health System Sequoyah, which posted a statement on its website noting that while McElyea was “affiliated with a medical staffing group that provides coverage for our emergency room,” he “has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months.”
Furthermore, the hospital “has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin. This includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose.”
And while this doesn’t necessarily mean there haven’t been any cases of ivermectin overdose at the hospitals at which McElyea worked, Rolling Stone ran the numbers and found they were unlikely to result in gunshot victims being refused treatment.
“The National Poison Data System states there were 459 reported cases of ivermectin overdose in the United States in August. Oklahoma-specific ivermectin overdose figures are not available, but the count is unlikely to be a significant factor in hospital bed availability in a state that, per the CDC, currently has a 7-day average of 1,528 Covid-19 hospitalizations,” the update noted.
The update buried the key problem in the original headline, however: There was no evidence ivermectin overdoses had “overwhelmed” hospitals in Oklahoma and there never was.
Unlike Hunter Thompson, it seems Peter Wade was neither accurate nor factual. None of the hospitals for which McElyea worked was willing to respond to requests for comment — although it’s worth mentioning, as conservative commentator Jesse Singal did, that McElyea never mentioned any of the hospitals where this was happening, either.
Basic factual question: It doesn’t appear Dr. Jason McElyea ever explicitly named any of the hospitals where the Ivermectin-caused backups were supposedly occurring, right? https://t.co/b9LCd8NsZf
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) September 5, 2021
What’s incredible is that Rolling Stone wasn’t alone in parroting McElyea’s claims about ivermectin, and some actually did less to correct them.
In the U.K., The Guardian ran the story on Saturday, then it “amended” on Sunday with NHS Sequoyah’s statement. It’s yet to note the statistics Rolling Stone did that make McElyea’s original story unlikely, or the fact the outlet hadn’t independently verified any cases.
The BBC, meanwhile, did even less than that, running a Sunday story that echoed most of McElyea’s quotes uncritically. It laundered this through speaking to McElyea — who amended his statement slightly, claiming that “a ‘handful’ of people overdosing on the drug were putting further strain on hospital staff already stretched by a surge in Covid cases.”
KFOR, meanwhile, has yet to either update, correct or retract the story that started this as of Monday morning.
Yet, it’s the Rolling Stone article that got the most attention — and, despite the fact the numbers don’t add up and none of it can be independently confirmed, it’s only received an “update” that doesn’t note the headline was changed to hide the most problematic claim the original piece made.
One imagines they were getting around to doing the right thing, on the edge of a correction, when the ivermectin moral panic began to take hold.