This editorial was published in the Chicago Tribune
Citing a classified intelligence report provided to members of Congress, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that the Energy Department has now concluded with “low confidence” that the COVID-19 pandemic most likely began after an unintentional laboratory leak in China.
The opinion comes from the government department that oversees a network of National Laboratories and Technology Centers and has the study of health as part of its jurisdiction. It’s not a definitive designation, even if the FBI has made the same declaration, albeit with “moderate confidence.” The origin of COVID-19 is a matter of crucial import, not just vital to the assessment of culpability but to the cause of trying to prevent the recurrence of something similarly catastrophic. It remains an unanswered question.
But the statement from the Energy Department should be cause enough for much of the U.S. media to conduct a painful post-mortem on why it was so reluctant to credit this clearly logical theory with any status beyond a fringe view held by supporters of Donald Trump and other so-called outliers.
Whatever eventually proves to be the truth of the COVID-19 beginnings, here is evidence of just how partisan and unhinged much of the media coverage of the pandemic became, especially when combined with a cadre of often self-anointed and dubiously qualified public health experts who had been seduced by the chance to make their names, and in some cases a buck or two, from their personas on social media.
We are no fans of the former president and see his influence on our democracy as chaotically pernicious. Still, the collective hatred of Trump and the scorn with which his pronouncements typically were greeted meant that many in the media suspended one of journalism’s most crucial creeds: to check everything out.
Just because a person lies or talks nonsense some of the time does not mean that they are not wise or truthful at other moments. And too many journalists failed to see that substituting a kind of collective groupthink certainty as a weapon against Trump was deeply problematic. That’s especially true given the lack of any evidence that Trump was actually wrong when he called on an obfuscating China to come clean, to investigate its research activities and to make its findings available to the wider scientific community.
But look at what was said about the lab leak theory, even though we all knew from the beginning not only that China was less than forthcoming about COVID-19, but also that the city where the crisis apparently started, Wuhan, also was home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an experimental lab known to have been working on the same family of viruses and is located just a few miles from the Wuhan seafood market that has shouldered much of the blame.
In the early days of the crisis, both The New York Times and The Washington Post added the adjective “fringe” to a mention of the lab leak theory, especially when espoused by a Republican, such as the widely ridiculed Sen. Tom Cotton. The writer Jonathan Chait has pointed out the many problems with an April 2020 National Public Radio story that boldly asserted in its lead paragraph that “virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.” That’s a piece of journalism that has not aged especially well.
Chait, who writes for New York magazine, has also noted his own media organization published a piece that purported to debunk COVID-19 conspiracy theories, including the one that the Department of Energy now supports. A pair of editors’ notes have now been appended on the piece.
“Welp,” wrote Nate Silver on Twitter Sunday. “The behavior of a certain cadre of scientists who used every trick in the book to suppress discussion of this issue is something I’ll never forget. A huge disservice to science and public health. They should be profoundly embarrassed.” Silver, who has been admirably skeptical about many things in the absence of data, is right. And so should the reporters who had those scientists on speed-dial.
In fairness, reporters can only report what they know at a given moment and, given all the ongoing chaos surrounding COVID-19, it’s surely not surprising that more now is known. And it’s worth repeating that, even now, the lab leak theory is far from proven. Low confidence is low confidence, and not all branches of government agree.
But we can say this with at least moderate certainty: The media got a whole lot wrong in the early days of COVID-19, often allowing ideological bias, and a specific disdain for Trump, to influence reporting. And a lot of public health professionals jumped on the same zealous train, seduced by talk-show appearances, op-ed column offers and a growing cadre of social media followers, all desperate for information, rather than biased opinion.
Next time, everyone should be more careful. But let’s hope there is no next time, at least in all our lifetimes.
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