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How a blunder by a respected medical journal is fueling an anti-vaccine lie

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How a blunder by a respected medical journal is fueling an anti-vaccine lie

The paper published by the respected British Medical Journal earlier this month was eye-opening, to say the least. It questioned why excess deaths in Western countries remained unusually elevated during the COVID-19 pandemic even after vaccines were introduced in 2021.

The implication seemed clear: Rather than reducing cases and deaths, the COVID vaccines had fueled the tragic tide.

That finding was picked up within 48 hours by the Telegraph, a conservative British daily. It leaped across the Atlantic Ocean to the New York Post, a part of the Murdoch media empire, one day later.

Various news outlets have claimed that this research implies a direct causal link between COVID-19 vaccination and mortality. This study does not establish any such link.

— British Medical Journal

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Since then, it has been widely spread on social media by the anti-vaccination camp. The repetitions have become increasingly febrile, with some tweets blaming the vaccines for tens of millions of deaths.

Here’s what you need to know: There is no truth to this finding, or to the anti-vaccine camp’s interpretation of the BMJ paper.

The journal, which posted the paper on its Public Health webpage on June 3, has acknowledged that. In a public statement issued June 6, after the faulty interpretation began to spread worldwide, the journal observed: “Various news outlets have claimed that this research implies a direct causal link between COVID-19 vaccination and mortality. This study does not establish any such link.”

On the contrary, the journal wrote, “Vaccines have, in fact, been instrumental in reducing the severe illness and death associated with COVID-19 infection.”

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Alas, the journal’s warning came too late. As I write, the Telegraph’s June 4 tweet hawking its misleading story has received 1.5 million views on X (formerly-Twitter), but the BMJ’s warning notice, only 388,000 views.

These figures are proof positive of the old saw (attributed to Winston Churchill, among many others) that “a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Some researchers argue that the original paper, by a team of Dutch scientists, was so shoddy and inconsequential that it should not have been published at all.

Among the critics is Ariel Karlinsky, an Israeli economist and statistician whose data constituted the core of the Dutch paper. Karlinsky has written that the BMJ should retract the paper and “open an inquiry into what happened there with editors and reviewers.” The journal hasn’t responded.

The use that anti-vaccine propagandists have made of the BMJ paper underscores the dangers of disinformation in public health today.

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A recent study in Science analyzed the impact of what its authors labeled “vaccine-skeptical” published content on vaccine refusal. The authors examined anti-vaccine posts on Facebook during the first three months of the COVID vaccine rollout in early 2021.

They found that posts flagged by third-party fact-checkers as false received a relatively minimal 8.7 million views in that period. Posts that were not flagged by fact-checkers but “nonetheless implied that vaccines were harmful to health — many of which were from credible mainstream news outlets — were viewed hundreds of millions of times.”

The flagged posts were more likely to inspire vaccine resistance, the authors wrote. Although unflagged posts individually had less impact on vaccine sentiment, the volume of those posts was so immense that cumulatively they did more damage to vaccine rates.

A single vaccine-skeptical article in the Chicago Tribune — headlined “A healthy doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID vaccine; CDC is investigating why” — was viewed by more than 50 million users on Facebook, more than 20% of the platform’s U.S. user base. That was “more than six times the number of views than all flagged misinformation combined.”

It’s also true that articles that may be innocuous or inconclusive at their core can be distorted and magnified into explicitly anti-vaccine messages by being passed through the anti-vax network.

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Something of the kind happened with the BMJ paper. Its language alluding to “serious concerns” about the impact of vaccines and “containment measures” such as lockdowns on excess deaths was transmogrified into the Telegram’s headline stating that “Covid vaccines may have helped fuel rise in excess deaths” and similar language in the New York Post.

The anti-vaxx camp, in repeating these claims, did so after removing or minimizing most of the qualifying language. The headline on a report published by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, stated that the COVID vaccines “likely fueled rise in excess deaths,” attributing that conclusion to “mainstream media.”

The CHD report cited a blog post by anti-vaxx crusader Meryl Nass, republishing the Telegraph article. The Nass post was headlined “The Dam Has Broken,” suggesting that major news sources were now accepting the dangers of the COVID vaccines.

Nass, by the way, is a Maine physician who has had her license suspended and been fined $10,000 for having prescribed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, two medicines known to be useless in treating COVID-19, to patients.

Put it all together, and the evolution of the BMJ paper into a brief claiming that the COVID vaccines are harmful to health plays into the most extreme anti-vaccine disinformation in circulation — such as the incredibly ignorant and dangerous recommendation by Joseph Ladapo, the anti-vaccine quack appointed as Florida surgeon general by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that no one under 65 take a COVID vaccine.

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The medical and immunological communities have overwhelmingly concluded that the COVID-19 vaccines have massively reduced hospitalizations and death from the disease. A December 2022 report card by the Commonwealth Fund concluded that after two years of administration, the vaccines had prevented more than 18 million additional hospitalizations and more than 3 million additional deaths.

This is the progress placed at risk by the torrent of anti-vaccine propaganda purveyed by RFK Jr.’s organization and other vaccination opponents.

That brings us back to the BMJ paper and its manifest flaws.

“Excess deaths,” the metric purportedly examined by the Dutch authors, is simply the number of deaths in a country during a given period over and above those that would have been expected “under normal conditions,” based on historical patterns.

In more than 40 Western countries during the three peak years of the pandemic, the authors reported, there were 1.033 million excess deaths in 2020, about 1.26 million in 2021 and 808,000 in 2022.

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The authors expressed perplexity about why excess deaths actually rose in 2021, despite the arrival of the vaccines and the implementation of social anti-pandemic measures, and remained elevated the following year. “Government leaders and policymakers,” the authors wrote, “ need to thoroughly investigate underlying causes of persistent excess mortality.”

The authors further commented that “consensus is also lacking in the medical community regarding concerns that mRNA vaccines might cause more harm than initially forecasted.” That’s a gross misrepresentation.

The consensus in the medical community is indisputably that the vaccines are safe and effective. Although they do cause occasional side effects (as do all vaccines), the health threats caused by COVID-19 itself are immeasurably more hazardous.

The truth is that the factors causing elevated excess mortality throughout the pandemic are not mysterious, but well-understood. Statistical data scientist Jeffrey S. Morris of the University of Pennsylvania put his finger on some of the most important.

One is that far more people were exposed to COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020. By the end of 2020, according to the World Health Organization, there were about 10,000 cases and about 238 deaths per million population; one year later, there 35,186 cases and 683 deaths per million. Furthermore, the COVID variants that appeared in 2021 — the Delta and Omicron waves — were far more transmissible and virulent (causing more hospitalization and death) than the initial variants.

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Also in 2021, many of the most stringent anti-pandemic measures implemented in 2020 — school closings, lockdowns, business closures, mask mandates — were getting lifted by local authorities. This raised the level of exposure to the virus in the general public.

As for the vaccines, the Dutch authors seemed to conjecture that vaccination happened as if with the turning of a switch in January 2021. Of course that’s untrue.

Figures compiled by the independent statistical clearinghouse Our World in Data — which were used by the Dutch researchers — show that the vaccines were rolled out only gradually through 2021. By mid-year, only about 20% of the population of countries that submitted figures had received even a single dose; by the end of 2021, nearly 50% were still unvaccinated.

“Even with a 100% effective vaccine, we would have seen high levels of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 in 2021, leading to high number of excess deaths,” Morris observes.

Statisticians have shown that the peaks and valleys of excess mortality during the pandemic coincide almost exactly with the emergence and peaks of Delta, Omicron and other variants of concern, indicating that excess deaths are almost certainly the result of COVID, not the COVID vaccines.

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One other data point: As the British actuary Stuart McDonald points out, of the 47 countries surveyed by the Dutch researchers, the 10 with the lowest rates of excess deaths are those with the highest vaccine uptakes, such as Canada (83% vaccination rate in 2022 and only 5% excess deaths in 2020-22) and Germany (76% vaccinated and 6% excess deaths). By contrast, those with the lowest vaccination rates tended to have the most excess deaths, including North Macedonia (40% vaccinated at 28% excess deaths) and Albania (45% vaccinated, 24% excess deaths).

Is there a remedy for claptrap like the BMJ article? Sadly, very little. Qualified scientists and epidemiologists have risen up almost as one to expose the flaws of the BMJ paper. But the first line of defense against disinformation must be scientific journals themselves. In this case, if not for the first time, the BMJ has failed its responsibility for being a gatekeeper of sound science.

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State regulators identify wildfire neighborhoods targeted for insurance relief

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State regulators identify wildfire neighborhoods targeted for insurance relief

California regulators Wednesday disclosed which areas of the state insurers will have to cover if they want to take advantage of financial incentives intended to resolve the homeowners’ insurance crisis.

In Los Angeles County, those areas include ZIP Codes in the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Gabriel Mountains and parts of the Santa Clarita Valley, according to draft regulations released by the Department of Insurance.

Last fall, amid the pullback of insurers from wildfire neighborhoods, state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara announced his Sustainable Insurance Strategy. It was the biggest overhaul of industry regulations since the 1988 passage of Proposition 103, which gave an elected insurance commissioner the authority to review and reject requests for rate hikes by insurers offering homeowners, auto and other lines of coverage. The new regulations are expected to be in place by the end of the year.

“We are well on our way to enacting the state’s largest insurance reform,” Lara said Wednesday. “We are being driven by data and by the meetings we have held with thousands of Californians across the state.”

Elements of the reform are predicated on a deal he reached with the industry that would allow insurers to include in their premiums the cost of reinsurance they buy to protect themselves from disasters — and to use computer models that project future claims risks, a concern due to massive wildfires caused by drought and climate change. Currently, historical claims data are used in preparing rate hike requests.

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That agreement requires large insurers to provide coverage in wildfire risk areas that is equivalent to 85% of their statewide market share. That means, theoretically, if an insurer has a 20% market share statewide, it would have to insure 17 out of 100 homes in such neighborhoods.

Smaller insurers are also targeted by the regulations, but instead of having to increase market share in distressed areas by the 85% metric, they would have to increase the number of policies they write by 5%. All companies also would have to increase their commercial policies in such areas by 5%.

The regulations released Wednesday detail how that goal would be achieved, and take a three-part “hybrid” approach that aims to maximize coverage and account for the state’s geographic diversity that includes mountainous rural areas, coastal zones and suburban neighborhoods.

One set of regulations would apply the 85% threshold to entire counties if 20% or more of properties are in “high” risk areas, as defined by maps created by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Another set would apply the threshold to “high” and “very high” fire-risk ZIP Codes if 15% or more of policyholders are being covered by the state FAIR Plan, an insurer of last resort that offers policies with minimum benefits. ZIP Codes would also be included if it is found that coverage is unaffordable based on a median-income or premium-cost calculation. The idea is to protect those with limited or fixed incomes.

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The regulations also aim to capture high fire-risk neighborhoods sprinkled in nearly every county that are not captured by the other rules.

The department plans to review coverage by insurers that seek to include the cost of reinsurance and use the new computer models to ensure they are writing insurance in distressed areas. Those that are not could face rate reductions and having to rebate premiums.

“Insurance companies need to commit to writing more policies, and my department will need to verify those commitments to hold companies accountable,” Lara said.

Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles consumer advocacy group, said in a statement that the draft regulations give insurers too much time to meet the coverage targets and provide affordable insurance, while giving regulators too much leeway to provide exceptions.

“Insurance Commissioner Lara’s plan gives insurance companies two years to comply but they can start to charge more immediately. After two years, insurance companies can say they can’t meet their goals and the commissioner can just move the goal posts. This was the one consumer benefit in Lara’s proposal but the exceptions swallow the rule,” she said.

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Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, a trade group of property and casualty insurers, welcomed the move.

“We are encouraged to see continued progress on the commissioner’s Sustainable Insurance Strategy. This proposal is complex, with many trade-offs, including insurer commitments that no other state requires. However, we remain committed to working with all stakeholders to increase insurance availability and restore the health of the insurance market,” he said in written remarks.

The department issued a state map and a list of ZIP Codes affected by the proposed regulations. It also scheduled a June 26 hearing to take testimony from insurers, consumer advocates, policyholders and others.

The ZIP Codes include neighborhoods in Malibu, Beverly Hills, Topanga, Bel-Air, Beverly Glen, Duarte, Castaic and Catalina Island.

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The fast-food industry claims the California minimum wage law is costing jobs. Its numbers are fake

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The fast-food industry claims the California minimum wage law is costing jobs. Its numbers are fake

The fast-food industry has been wringing its hands over the devastating impact on its business from California’s new minimum wage law for its workers.

Their raw figures certainly seems to bear that out. A full-page ad recently placed in USA Today by the California Business and Industrial Alliance asserted that nearly 10,000 fast-food jobs had been lost in the state since Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law in September.

The ad listed a dozen chains, from Pizza Hut to Cinnabon, whose local franchisees had cut employment or raised prices, or are considering taking those steps. According to the ad, the chains were “victims of Newsom’s minimum wage,” which increased the minimum wage in fast food to $20 from $16, starting April 1.

The rapid job cuts, rising prices, and business closures are a direct result of Governor Newsom and this short-sighted legislation

— Business lobbyist Tom Manzo, touting misleading statistics

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Here’s something you might want to know about this claim. It’s baloney, sliced thick. In fact, from September through January, the period covered by the ad, fast-food employment in California has gone up, as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve. The claim that it has fallen represents a flagrant misrepresentation of government employment figures.

Something else the ad doesn’t tell you is that after January, fast-food employment continued to rise. As of April, employment in the limited-service restaurant sector that includes fast-food establishments was higher by nearly 7,000 jobs than it was in April 2023, months before Newsom signed the minimum wage bill.

Despite that, the job-loss figure and finger-pointing at the minimum wage law have rocketed around the business press and conservative media, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Post to the website of the conservative Hoover Institution.

We’ll be taking a closer look at the corporate lobbyist sleight-of-hand that makes job gains look like job losses. But first, a quick trot around the fast-food economic landscape generally.

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Few would argue that the restaurant business is easy, whether we’re talking about high-end sit-down dining, kiosks and food trucks, or franchised fast-food chains. The cost of labor is among the many expenses that owners have to deal with, but in recent years far from the worst. That would be inflation in the cost of food.

Newport Beach-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, for example, disclosed in its most recent annual report that food, beverage and packaging cost it $2.9 billion last year, up from $2.6 billion in 2022 — though those costs declined as a share of revenue to 29.5% from 30.1%. Labor costs in 2023 came to $2.4 billion, but fell to 24.7% of revenue from 25.5% in 2022.

At Costa Mesa-based El Pollo Loco, labor and related costs fell last year by $3.5 million, or 2.7%, despite an increase of $4.1 million that the company attributed to higher minimum wages enacted in the past as well as “competitive pressure” — in other words, the necessity of paying more to attract employees in a tight labor market.

Then there’s Rubio’s Coastal Grill. On June 3 the Carlsbad chain confirmed that it had closed 48 of its California restaurants, about one-third of its 134 locations. As my colleague Don Lee reported, Rubio’s attributed the closings to the rising cost of doing business in California.

There’s more to the story, however. The biggest expense Rubio’s has been facing is debt — a burden that has grown since the chain was acquired in 2010 by the private equity firm Mill Road Capital. By 2020, the chain owed $72.3 million, and it filed for bankruptcy. Indeed, in its full declaration with the bankruptcy court filed on June 5, the company acknowledged that along with increases in the minimum wage, it was facing an “unsustainable debt burden.”

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The company emerged from bankruptcy at the end of 2020 with settlements that included a reduction in its debt load. Then came the pandemic, a significant headwind. Among its struggles was again its debt — $72.9 million owed to its largest creditor, TREW Capital Management, a firm that specializes in lending to distressed restaurant businesses. It filed for bankruptcy again on June 5, two days after announcing its store closings. The case is pending.

Fast-food and other restaurant jobs slump every year from the fall through January, due to seasonal factors (red line); seasonal adjustments (blue line) give a more accurate picture of employment trends. The sharp decline in 2020 was caused by the pandemic.

(Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

It’s worth noting that high debt is often a feature of private-equity takeovers — in such cases saddling an acquired company with debt gives the acquirers a means to extract cash from their companies, even if it complicates the companies’ path to profitability. Whether that’s a factor in Rubio’s recent difficulties isn’t clear.

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That brings us back to the claim that job losses among California’s fast-food restaurants are due to the new minimum wage law.

The assertion appears to have originated with the Wall Street Journal, which reported on March 25 that restaurants across California were cutting jobs in anticipation of the minimum wage increase taking effect on April 1.

The article stated that employment in California’s fast food and “other limited-service eateries was 726,600 in January, “down 1.3% from last September,” when Newsom signed the minimum wage law. That worked out to employment of 736,170 in September, for a purported loss of 9,570 jobs from September through January.

The Journal’s numbers were used as grist by UCLA economics professor Lee E. Ohanian for an article he published on April 24 on the website of the Hoover Institution, where he is a senior fellow.

Ohanian wrote that the pace of the job loss in fast-food was far greater than the overall decline in private employment in California from September through January, “which makes it tempting to conclude that many of those lost fast-food jobs resulted from the higher labor costs employers would need to pay” when the new law kicked in.

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CABIA cited Ohanian’s article as the source for its claim in its USA Today ad that “nearly 10,000” fast-food jobs were lost due to the minimum wage law. “The rapid job cuts, rising prices, and business closures are a direct result of Governor Newsom and this short-sighted legislation,” CABIA founder and president Tom Manzo says on the organization’s website.

Here’s the problem with that figure: It’s derived from a government statistic that is not seasonally adjusted. That’s crucial when tracking jobs in seasonal industries, such as restaurants, because their business and consequently employment fluctuate in predictable patterns through the year. For this reason, economists vastly prefer seasonally adjusted figures when plotting out employment trendlines in those industries.

The Wall Street Journal’s figures correspond to non-seasonally adjusted figures for California fast-food employment published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (I’m indebted to nonpareil financial blogger Barry Ritholtz and his colleague, the pseudonymous Invictus, for spotlighting this issue.)

Figures for California fast-food restaurants from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show that on a seasonally adjusted basis employment actually rose in the September-to-January period by 6,335 jobs, from 736,160 to 742,495.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been employment cutbacks this year by some fast-food chains and other companies in hospitality industries. From the vantage point of laid-off workers, the manipulation of statistics by their employers doesn’t ease the pain of losing their jobs.

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Still, as Ritholtz and Invictus point out, it’s hornbook economics that the proper way to deal with seasonally adjusted figures is to use year-to-year comparisons, which obviate seasonal trends.

Doing so with the California fast-food statistics give us a different picture from the one that CABIA paints. In that business sector, September employment rose from a seasonally adjusted 730,000 in 2022 to 741,079 in 2024. In January, employment rose from 732,738 in 2023 to 742,495 this year.

Restaurant lobbyists can’t pretend that they’re unfamiliar with the concept of seasonality. It’s been a known feature of the business since, like, forever.

The restaurant consultantship Toast even offers tips to restaurant owners on how to manage the phenomenon, noting that “April to September is the busiest season of the year,” largely because that period encompasses Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, “two of the busiest restaurant days of the year,” and because good weather encourages customers to eat out more often.

What’s the slowest period? November to January, “when many people travel for holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas and spend time cooking and eating with family.”

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In other words, the lobbyists, the Journal and their followers all based their expressions of concern on a known pattern in which restaurant employment peaks into September and then slumps through January — every year.

They chose to blame the pattern on the California minimum wage law, which plainly had nothing to do with it. One can’t look into their hearts and souls, but under the circumstances their arguments seem more than a teensy bit cynical.

The author of the Wall Street Journal article, Heather Haddon, didn’t reply to my inquiry about why she appeared to use non-seasonally adjusted figures when the adjusted figures were more appropriate. Tom Manzo, the founder and president of CABIA, didn’t respond to my request for comment.

Ohanian acknowledged by email that “if the data are not seasonally adjusted, then no conclusions can be drawn from those data regarding AB 1228,” the minimum wage law. He said he interpreted the Wall Street Journal’s figures as seasonally adjusted and said he would query the Journal about the issue in anticipation of writing about the issue later this summer.

He did observe, quite properly, that the labor cost increase from the law was large and that “if franchisees continue to face large food cost increases later this year, then the industry will really struggle.” Fast-food companies already have instituted sizable price increases to cover their higher expenses, he observed. “The question thus becomes how sensitive are fast-food consumers to higher prices,” a topic he says he will be researching as the year goes on.

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Amazon MGM Studios and Prime Video DEI head to leave company

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Amazon MGM Studios and Prime Video DEI head to leave company

Amazon MGM Studios’ global head of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility will be leaving the company in August.

Latasha Gillespie, who launched the studio’s diversity, equity and inclusion program in 2018, was at Amazon for seven years, five of which were with the studio.

Gillespie will continue to work with the studio as a consultant for a period of time. She will be replaced in the head DEI role by Amanda Baker-Lane, who has more than 14 years of experience in this field, about nine of which were in various roles at Amazon.

In an internal note, Gillespie said that her departure was “bittersweet” and that she was “proud of how we positively impacted the world through our work.”

“It’s very rare that you get to jump into a new venture with the support of your current org while also elevating the people you have been growing and nurturing along the way,” Gillespie added. “I look forward to tapping into other places and spaces that I’m equally passionate about, including public speaking, podcasts, consulting and executive coaching.”

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In an internal note, Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon MGM Studios, cited Gillespie’s role in creating the Howard Entertainment Program, a partnership between the studio and Howard University, an on-site mental wellness program and several so-called pathway programs that have increased access for underrepresented groups into the industry.

“Under her leadership, we developed inclusion resources that have resulted in more equitable stories and productions,” Salke wrote.

The move comes nearly a year after a number of diversity, equity and inclusion executives parted ways with various major entertainment and media entities, including Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Discovery.

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