Our Horrible Media: Lab Leak Edition

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on May 31, 2021

For more than a year, suggesting that the COVID-19 virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a crazy, right-wing conspiracy theory that was the equivalent of believing the moon landings were faked.

Let's start with this: You shouldn't trust anything the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says. Here's the latest death numbers from China on the COVID-19 Virus:

According to the CCP, in a relatively poor nation of more than a billion people, they had fewer than 5,000 COVID deaths overall; none in more than a year. This is only plausible if China chose to not count COVID-19 as a comorbidity to a rampant outbreak of Chinese Army-induced lead poisoning.

[For the record: I'm not seriously suggesting that the CCP actually had the Army going door-to-door taking temperatures and shooting people who had COVID so they wouldn't count those deaths as being COVID-related. They're commies. They just lie about the numbers.]

Our Horrible Media: Targeting Tom Cotton

As early as January 2020, Sen. Tom Cotton (R.-Ark.) was a proverbial voice in the wilderness pointing out that the COVID-19 originated within spitting distance of a Bio-Safety Level 4 Lab that was studying that same family of coronaviruses.

Now, to be fair, Maria Bartiromo quotes the Chinese ambassador as (mis)characterizing Cotton's presentation of  the lab leak scenario as alleging biological warfare—this is not something that Cotton ever did. However, it's that mischaracterization that the press went and ran with.

The New York Times:

New York Times Tom Cotton

The Washington Post:

Washington Post tom Cotton

And what was the source for their "debunked," "fringe theory"? Nothing that Cotton actually ever said.

In response to Cotton’s remarks, as well as in previous interviews with The Washington Post, numerous experts dismissed the possibility the coronavirus may be man-made.

“There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”

Again, Cotton never said it was an engineered bioweapon. Over at Substack, Michael Tracey posts an email from Ebright, that doesn't reflect well on the Post's reporting.

Michael--I discussed the genome sequence and properties of SARS-CoV-2 on the record and the lab-accident hypothesis on background with WaPo on January 28, 2020.

On January 29, 2020, WaPo quoted me, correctly and appropriately, that, based on the genome sequence and properties of the virus, there was no basis to conclude the virus was engineered.

On January 29, 2020, immediately after publication of the January 29, 2020 WaPo article, I informed WaPo that I was willing to be quoted on the record that the virus may have entered humans through a laboratory accident.

On February 16, 2020, in an interview regarding comments by Sen. Tom Cotton, I again discussed both the genome sequence and the lab-accident hypothesis--this time, both on the record--with WaPo. I was surprised that the February 17, 2020 article in WaPo quoted only my comments on the genome sequence and not my comments on the lab-accident hypothesis.

RHE

At best, this is a level of journalistic incompetence that you would expect from a cub reporter at a small town newspaper, not the Post; at worst, it's a purposeful effort to hide important facts in the service of a partisan narrative.

And, as I've noted before, where the Times and the Post lead, other media follows.

CNN Lab Leak

Check out Drew Holden's entire Twitter thread for the particulars. For those visual and auditory learners, here's a supercut of the media bashing the idea of a lab leak.

Our Horrible Media: Why dismiss the lab leak theory?

The short answer seems to be: Orange Man Bad blinded us from doing our jobs in a professional manner.

The Post's lead "fact-checker," Glenn Kessler, characterized the journalistic lack of professionalism this way in a timeline outlining the media's incompetence on the story.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) from the start pointed to the lab’s location in Wuhan, pressing China for answers, so the history books will reward him if he turns out to be right. The Trump administration also sought to highlight the lab scenario but generally could only point to vague intelligence. The Trump administration’s messaging was often accompanied by anti-Chinese rhetoric that made it easier for skeptics to ignore its claims.

"We were distracted by his anti-China rhetoric, so we can't be counted on to do our jobs" is an interesting take for a defender of American journalism.

As time passed, the death tool climbed, and the media continued to rely on their mistaken conflation of the scientific consensus that COVID-19 was not a genetically engineered bioweapon as evidence that the pandemic was not the result of an inadvertent, accidental leak from the Wuhan lab.

An explanation on the American media's screw-up from Time magazine's politics newsletter, The DC Brief, expands on Kessler's blame-shifting defense.

Deploying patently anti-Asian rhetoric, Trump and his team started a systemic—and roundly condemned—campaign in April suggesting that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, the city in which it was first identified. Trump routinely referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus,” “the Wuhan virus” and even “Kung Flu.”

Most mainstream voices in the press and in labs ignored Trump’s rhetoric, rightly predicting it would spark a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. The majority of scientists said at the time—and maintain to this day—the most likely explanation was zoonotic transfer, with the first human infection likely due to the exposure to the virus at a seafood market in Wuhan. On April 30, the same day that Trump first raised the Wuhan theory, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement debunking Trump’s assertion.

We will set aside the media's newfound (circa 2020) concern about naming diseases from the countries or areas from whence they sprung and focus on the last link in the piece above. Did the DNI debunk the lab leak theory on April 30?

NEWS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

ODNI News Release No. 11-20

April 30, 2020

Intelligence Community Statement on Origins of COVID-19

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Office of the Director of National Intelligence today issued the following Intelligence Community (IC) statement:

“The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China. The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.

“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security. The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” [emphasis added]

###

I realize it's three whole paragraphs, but you might expect journalists to read all the way to the end. Especially when it's more than a year later, and you're still claiming this document "debunked" the lab leak theory.

Our Horrible Media: Putting the pieces together a year later

On the bright side…better late than never?

Kessler's timeline is an excellent resource looking back at some of discrete news stories over the past year that should have made it clear that the lab leak hypothesis was never debunked.

A series of articles recently by scientists and journalists who are no longer in any danger of being accused of being MAGAts has opened up the possibility that, while COVID-19 may not be a bioweapon engineered by the CCP and the military, it may be the result of so-called "gain of function" research.

Former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade laid out some of the problems with earlier efforts by scientists to downplay the lab leak theory.

Virologists like Dr. [Peter] Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.

If scientists and the media had been more open about the lab leak hypothesis in 2020, it might have emboldened Trump and caused problems for Dr. Anthony Fauci, perceived to be the president's main antagonist on "the science."

The Weekend Australian unearthed a paper Fauci wrote for the American Society for Microbiology in October 2012 in which he argued in support of gain-of-function research. Such research involves making viruses more infectious and/or deadly. Experts have raised the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic could have originated from a potential lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, where gain-of-function experiments on bat coronaviruses have been conducted.

Fauci, perceived as some sort of scientific saint, singlehandedly saving the American people from Trump's anti-science, COVID "hoax" agenda, couldn't have his motives or priors impugned if Orange Man Bad was to be held in check, and millions of American lives saved.

Needless to say, with President Joe Biden and the Democrats in charge, this is no longer perceived by the media as a serious concern.

The other major bit of evidence that has scientists and the media revisiting the lab leak hypothesis is also highlighted by Wade.

Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China. The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. Its members, who included the ubiquitous Dr. Daszak, kept asserting before, during and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for. What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.

This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.

And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab.

Over at National Review, reporter Jim Geraghty has done some excellent reporting recently on COVID and the lab leak hypothesis. I encourage everyone to read his exhaustive exposition on the circumstantial evidence supporting that theory.

So, why was this possibility a "debunked" "conspiracy theory" for more than a year?

Our Horrible Media: Politics above all else

The biggest part of this answer is that if COVID-19 escaped from a Wuhan lab because of lax safety standards, and spread throughout the world because of CCP lies about its transmissibility, then Donald Trump doesn't bear a majority of the blame for the nearly 600,000 Americans who died from the virus—China does.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, there has been an attitude in the American media that any reporting on any bad decisions or poor messaging that wasn't targeting Donald Trump or Republicans (i.e. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott), was somehow making excuses or defending the indefensible.

For all of the criticism leveled at Trump, I've yet to hear anything substantive about what should've been done differently. Though he characterized Trump's travel ban on travel from China as "xenophobic," Biden was quick to ban travel from India last month after there was a surge in COVID cases there, ignoring this claim by a presidential hopeful last year that such bans were useless:

For all the bemoaning and caterwauling, based on the information we were operating under at the time, nothing would've been done differently if Hillary Clinton was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2020.

The media and the left lost their minds when Donald Trump won the White House in 2016. How else to explain the Steele Dossier, the abuse of the FISA Court, and everything else in this huge list compiled by Sharyl Attkisson.

Of course, if we knew from the start that this was the result of a leak from one of the Wuhan labs, then a lot may have changed with the world's response to the virus, as Geraghty helpfully notes.

If the virus was accidentally released from a laboratory, that means it was being researched in a laboratory. Which means someone, and probably several researchers, within the Wuhan Institute of Virology already knew some things about this particular virus when Wuhan residents started showing up at hospitals with strange new viral infections throughout December. It means that when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission sent out an “urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause” to doctors and hospitals about it on December 30, 2019, someone in within the Wuhan Institute of Virology recognized, “oh, guano, that’s one of ours,” and chose to remain silent about it, instead of saying to doctors in the city and around the world, “yes, that’s a virus we were studying, and so far we’ve learned X, Y, and Z about it.”

If the virus was accidentally released from a laboratory, those researching it undoubtedly understood its contagiousness. This means someone within the Wuhan Institute of Virology knew the Wuhan and Chinese governments were lying when they said the virus couldn’t be transferred from one human being to another, every day from December 31 to January 20. Many medical staff on the ground strongly suspected the virus was contagious and that the official statements were false; someone at WIV could have let them and the world know for certain much sooner. The late Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn his colleagues and who was brought into a police station for his efforts, might have been better prepared for the threat that ultimately claimed his life.

An early announcement of a lab leak probably would have prevented the World Health Organization from declaring on January 14, “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.”

There's quite a bit more at the link. Again, if this were the result of a lab leak and China knew about it and told the rest of the world about it immediately and forthrightly, then there's every possibility that hundreds of thousands or millions more lives might have saved.

But the media, aided by very political "scientists," continues to be disinterested the possibility of a lab leak not because of "science," but for political reasons.

Even if the letter in Science [urging a more thorough investigation of the possibility of a lab leak] was well intentioned, its authors should have thought more about how it would feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.

This is an interesting argument for a scientist to make. If the truth feeds divisiveness, then squash the truth.

The New York Times, which famously sacked its cantankerous science/disease reporter over his failure to kowtow to woke, elite teenagers, has a new reporter on the beat, and she is the kind of reporter the Times deserves.

“Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots," [reporter Apoorva Mandavilli]  said Wednesday in a since-deleted tweet. "But alas, that day is not yet here."

How exactly a lab leak is racist, but the alternative—a jump from animal to human at a "wet" market where live bats, pangolins and other animals are slaughtered and sold in not so sanitary conditions—is somehow less racist takes a special kind of journalist.

And check out this stuttering sort of mea culpa ABC News' Jonathan Karl on Sunday's "This Week" on ABC News.

Over on CNN's "Reliable Sources" (which has Dan Rather as frequent guest), host Brian Stelter had New York Times reporter David Leonhardt on to discuss the virus and when the discussion turned to the lab leak possibility, Leonhardt had this to say:

And I think people made this mistake. I think a lot of people on the political left and a lot of people in the media made this mistake. They said, well, if Tom Cotton is saying something, it can't be true, or they assumed that. And that's not right.

Tom Cotton does deal in misinformation about things like election fraud. He said some things that are just wrong, but that doesn't mean that everything he says is wrong. And it seems like a lot of people, including a lot of people in the media, leaped to dismiss the lab leak theory because of where it was coming from. And the reality is, we don't yet know how COVID started.

Now, it's a bit rich to say that Cotton deals in misinformation in the context of how the media, including the Times and CNN, has covered the lab leak possibility over the past year, but this admission is a damning indictment of our institutional media.

If something is perceived as political, then their professionalism goes straight out the window. Is there any other industry where we accept this sort of behavior?

Don't trust; Verify

Ronald Reagan made the Russian proverb "Trust, but verify," well-known in America when he repeatedly used it in the context of nuclear arms treaties with the Soviet Union.

Until the last decade or so, I would've encouraged media consumers to take the same approach to whatever media they consume. Yes, media bias has been a thing for longer than I've been alive, but until the past decade or so, I would've been able to make a forceful argument that the vast majority of reporters are trying to be honest arbiters.

That's no longer the case. You can't trust anything they report, sports scores excepted.

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Starting to watch the Wheel of Time and they screw with it 60 seconds in, suggesting the Dragon Reborn might be a woman. That could never work in the world Robert Jordan created.

Marcus Arbery, father of Ahmaud, who was senselessly murdered, had every reason to give an angry & vindictive speech, & he would have been applauded for doing so

Instead he affirmed his faith in the Kingian vision of racial equality, and in so doing restores our faith in America

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