Why it matters: Tracking the media’s dismissal of the Wuhan lab theory

Illustration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Previously published at GBH News.

Howard Kurtz was in high dudgeon. The Fox News media critic opened his Sunday program, “Media Buzz,” this past weekend by blasting the press for dismissing the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China. That possibility is suddenly very much on the table, and President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation.

“It was a whack-job theory, right? It was Looney Tunes. It was trashy Trump talk, surely not worthy of serious journalistic attention,” Kurtz said. He added: “If President Trump said it, the media dismissed it. If conservatives embraced it, liberal pundits mocked it. This just speaks volumes about our media establishment. Now, nothing’s been proven, but the circumstantial evidence is growing. Will there be any soul-searching about what amounted to media malpractice? Don’t hold your breath.”

Kurtz’s monologue oversimplified what we know, but he was largely correct. In fact, the media sloppily mashed together two different stories about Wuhan — a legitimate line of inquiry that the virus had accidentally escaped from the lab and a conspiracy theory that Chinese scientists at the lab were developing COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

As a result, with just a few lonely exceptions, the mainstream press over the course of the past 15 months has dismissed any suggestion that COVID-19 came from the lab as so ludicrous that it was unworthy of coverage. The media’s credibility is taking yet another hit — this one entirely legitimate — at a moment when it is already at an all-time low. And their “shameful dereliction of duty,” as conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen put it, may make it that much harder to persuade Trump supporters to get over their skepticism about vaccinations.

The media’s dismissive attitude toward the lab-leak theory was grounded in their distrust — often warranted — of anything that came out of President Donald Trump’s mouth. After all, during the course of the pandemic Trump dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 repeatedly, pushed unproven, potentially dangerous remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and even suggested at one memorable press briefing that injecting bleach might help.

So when Trump would use racist terms like the “China virus” in referring to COVID-19, the media were already primed to accept the consensus view touted by Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization that the disease had, in fact, jumped from bats to humans in China and from there spread throughout the world.

Indeed, the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a Wuhan lab came to be seen as so thoroughly discredited that Facebook began taking down posts about it on the grounds that it was misinformation. The social-media giant reversed itself recently.

A few journalists, including Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, kept the lab-leak theory alive. Rogin exploded on Saturday with a bitter tweet complaining that most mainstream reporters “actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective.”

The tide finally started to turn when a pair of former New York Times reporters, first Nicholas Wade and then Don McNeil, wrote several weeks ago that they had come to regard the possibility of a lab leak as being as plausible as the bats-to-humans theory.

“I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know,” McNeil wrote. “But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

Matthew Yglesias, a prominent member of the Substackerati, has offered what I think is the most useful and detailed analysis of what went wrong from a journalistic point of view. He traces much of it to inept reporting about U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who made some provocative statements early on about the possibility of a lab leak. Cotton is well-known as a China hawk, and pretty soon the media were falsely claiming that Cotton had touted the bioweapons fantasy, starting with a sensationalized account in Business Insider and then spreading from Politico and into the mainstream.

“At this point,” Yglesias wrote, “Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.”

Also getting at an important part of what went wrong is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who points to Twitter as the place where mainstream journalists reinforced their views, making it that much harder to re-examine the lab-leak theory.

“Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter,” Chait said, calling the platform “a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias.”

So where does all this leave us? I’ll end where I began — with Howard Kurtz. Yes, he’s a conservative, and yes, he’s on Fox News. But he’s also a serious observer of the media who spent years at The Washington Post and CNN. His analysis can’t be easily dismissed. And I think he’s correct that animus toward Trump played a huge role in the media’s consensus that the lab-leak explanation for COVID was propaganda put out by the Trumpist right to deflect attention away from Trump’s numerous failures.

There’s a context that can’t be ignored, of course. Trump lied constantly. His horrendous mismanagement of the pandemic might go down as the greatest failure of any American president — unless you want to count his failure to abide by the results of a democratic election. It’s not difficult to see why journalists decided to accept Fauci’s word on the origins of the pandemic.

But they were wrong. The reality is that we don’t know where COVID-19 came from. The bats-to-humans explanation might be right. The lab possibility might be right. There’s a good chance that we’ll never know.

The whole point of journalism is to seek truth and report it. We failed to do that in this instance. And it ought to remind us of why we need to go about our jobs with humility and an open mind.

Book review: Jill Abramson paints a cloudy picture for journalism and democracy

Jill Abramson. Photo (cc) 2015 via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published by The Boston Globe.

It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?

Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard. Within the past couple of years BuzzFeed and Vice, which had made strides toward becoming major players, fell short of revenue projections and had to cut back on their ambitions. This was owing partly to hubris, partly because Google and Facebook were hoovering up every digital advertising dollar in sight.

Meanwhile the Times and the Post — the latter supercharged by its mega-wealthy owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — moved toward economic viability by rethinking coverage and convincing a generation of readers brought up on free online content that quality news was worth paying for, particularly in the age of Trump.

Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times who now teaches at Harvard, has written a big, ambitious chronicle of the past decade. Her method involves a series of revolving chapters that examine the ups and downs of each organization in turn, as well as a chapter on Facebook. (Disclosure: In her bibliography Abramson cites two of my books and an academic paper I wrote.)

Some have criticized Abramson for favoring the legacy newspapers over the digital start-ups. There may be something to that. She goes into great detail about BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s research-driven pursuit of clicks and viral content and about Vice’s culture of alcohol, drugs, and sexual harassment. Vice founder Shane Smith comes off as a shambling egomaniac, although later in the book he is depicted as trying to clean up his act.

But those sections strike me as warranted and fair. After all, BuzzFeed was built on a foundation of cat videos and listicles, and Vice’s chaotic, testosterone-fueled internal culture is surely relevant. Besides, Abramson is generous in acknowledging the importance of their best journalism, including Craig Silverman’s groundbreaking work for BuzzFeed on fake news and Elle Reeve’s mini-documentary for Vice about the deadly neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va.

The chapters on the Times and the Post cover ground that will be familiar to many media observers. Abramson traces the Post’s decline during the last few years of Graham family stewardship and its revival under Bezos. The Times’s journey was more harrowing — bailed out by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, forced to sell its gleaming new headquarters, and casting off its non-Times properties, including The Boston Globe. Abramson criticizes both newspapers for smudging the line that had traditionally separated news from business operations, a line that she observes doesn’t even exist at BuzzFeed or Vice. Mostly, though, she praises the Times’s and the Post’s reinvention efforts.

In the most awkward section of the book, Abramson deals with her 2014 firing as executive editor of the Times. She uses the occasion to do some score-settling against the then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and her successor, Dean Baquet. But her account strikes me as fundamentally honest and reflective, as she blames her demise on a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager.

“Merchants of Truth’’ spawned controversy even before the book was published.

First, Howard Kurtz of Fox News reported that Abramson had criticized the Times for liberal bias. And yes, Abramson writes, “Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative.” But it’s not quite that simple. For instance, she lauds both the Times’s and the Post’s tough coverage of the Trump administration, reserving especially fulsome praise for her former employer: “The depth and intensity of the coverage was masterful. On most days it outshone the Post’s. The news report as a whole had never been stronger.” By leaving out that context, Kurtz created a misleading impression.

More problematic were revelations of errors in the uncorrected galleys. Vice reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross complained that Abramson had made multiple mistakes about her, including her gender identity. Danny Gold of the “PBS NewsHour” tweeted that Abramson’s description of his past reporting for Vice about Ebola in Liberia included “a straight up lie.” Errors in galleys are common, but they generally involve typos and spelling mistakes. And not all of the problems were addressed in the final version of the book.

Inaccuracies notwithstanding, “Merchants of Truth” is a valuable and insightful survey. It ends on an optimistic note, with one caveat: Abramson acknowledges that the relative good fortune of the four media organizations she profiles stands in contrast to the implosion of journalism at the local level. The media scene Abramson describes remains in turmoil. Witness the deep cuts at BuzzFeed that took place late last month. Whether journalism will outlive the wobbling vessels in which it is carried remains a fundamental question for the future of democracy.

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Dueling media columnists bolster Times-Post rivalry

The late David Carr
The late New York Times media columnist David Carr. Photo (cc) by wiobyrne.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

One of the last great newspaper rivalries got a boost on Monday with the debut of Margaret Sullivan’s media column in the Washington Post. Sullivan’s first piece was more a preview of coming attractions than an attempt to dig deep. But with Jim Rutenberg having replaced the late, great David Carr at the New York Times earlier this year, our two leading general-interest newspapers now have dueling media critics for the first time in ages.

Sullivan, a former editor of the Buffalo News, joins a team of experienced media observers at the Post, including reporter Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple. She is the Post’s first media columnist since Howard Kurtz, who left in 2010 for the Daily Beast. (Kurtz was also the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. He moved to Fox News in 2013 following some well-publicized problems at both the Beast and CNN.)

The Post’s hiring of Sullivan shows just how small the world of elite media can be, given that she was recruited while serving as the Times’s public editor, as the paper calls its ombudsman. Sullivan was the fifth and, to my eyes, the best. As Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post put it, Sullivan “radically updated the role for the digital age by quickly addressing Times-related controversies and debates in real time and actively engaging on social media.” Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Spayd, currently the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and previously (yes, you guessed it) an editor at the Washington Post.

Needless to say, it will be interesting to see whether and how Sullivan chooses to write about the Times. In a recent interview with public radio’s On the Media, she praised her former employer—but also expressed frustration over an institutional attitude of “when the Times decides to cover it, then it becomes news” as well as bemusement over its oft-mocked trend stories. Indeed, Sullivan started something she called the “Monocle Meter” after the Times ran a story about the supposed resurgence of monocles in Brooklyn—a resurgence that apparently came and went without anyone actually ever having been spotted wearing a monocle.

Rutenberg, a veteran political reporter, got into a spat recently when he wrote that not only did journalists in general miss the rise of Donald Trump, but so did data journalists like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, whose empirically based methodology should in theory produce more accurate results. In a two-fer of Times-Post incestuousness, Rutenberg invoked an observation by the Post’s Farhi that “nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting” in criticizing Silver, who moved his site from the Times to ESPN after the 2012 presidential election.

Silver, never one to suffer in silence, ripped into Rutenberg on a FiveThirtyEight podcast. As Bill Wyman wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Silver called Rutenberg’s column “dishonest” and “unethical,” and rehashed some old grievances over the way he was treated at the Times by Rutenberg and others, saying they were “incredibly hostile and incredibly unhelpful.” Silver later subtweeted Rutenberg with a lengthy article in which he argued that he got Trump wrong not because of an overreliance on data but because his predictions that Trump would fade weren’t based on any data at all. “In other words,” Silver wrote, “we were basically acting like pundits.”

The rivalry between the Times and the Post has a long, colorful history As recounted in Chalmers Roberts’s 1977 book The Washington Post: The First 100 Years, when the Times published a condescending item in 1900 about longing for “the rudeness of New York” after spending some time in “amiable and inefficient Washington,” the Post replied: “No doubt. The pig returns to his wallow.”

After years of striving, the Post emerged on an equal footing with the Times over the constitutional crisis sparked by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Post captured the public’s imagination in a way the Times never had during and after the Watergate scandal. How could the Gray Lady possibly compete with a newspaper whose journalists were portrayed by movie stars like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards?

But the technological and cultural forces that have brought the newspaper business to its knees did considerably more damage to the Post than to the Times—that is, until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and added about 100 journalists to its newsroom in a bid to transform the Post into a national digital newspaper.

Now, once again, the Post and the Times are genuine rivals. The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, and the Times’s, Dean Baquet, are longtime friends and competitors. Bezos said in a television interview that his goal was for the Post to become “the new paper of record,” a clear reference to the Times—and the Post took it a step further than even Bezos had by putting together an ad proclaiming itself already to be “America’s New Publication of Record.” The Post also moved ahead of the Times in online readership, despite having a newsroom staff about half the size.

It is into this ancient conflict—once heated, then dormant, and now heating up again—that Margaret Sullivan and Jim Rutenberg have now been enlisted. This is going to be fun.

The Knight Foundation’s curious funding decisions

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Among the odder aspects of Howard Kurtz’s very bad week (as reported by Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post) is the revelation that Daily Download, the thoroughly mediocre (at best) website with which Kurtz is more or less associated, received a $230,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovative journalism projects. Here’s a Knight press release from March 2012.

Now, it’s certainly true that not all of Knight’s investments are going to work out, and that some of them will prove embarrassing. But it’s notable that Tom Stites, founder of the Banyan Project, a well-publicized effort to create a replicable new business model for community journalism based on co-op ownership, reports that Banyan’s Knight News Challenge applications have been turned down twice. (Banyan’s pilot site, Haverhill Matters, is due to be unveiled later this year.)

In February, Knight apologized for paying a $20,000 speaking fee to Jonah Lehrer, a so-called journalist who was hoping to revive his once-celebrated career after he’d been exposed as a plagiarist and a fabricator.

Knight does a lot of great work, so I hope Knight officials will step forward and explain their decision to fund Daily Download.

As for Kurtz, he enjoyed a long and impressive career before running into some serious bouts of carelessness during the past few years. I hope he’s able to bounce back. Earlier this evening he tweeted: “I just want to thank those who have posted or sent kind words and supportive comments in recent days. It means a lot when times are tough.”

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Did the media overhype Irene? (II)


In retrospect, the biggest problem with Howard Kurtz’s rant about the media’s overhyping Irene was that he was way too early. When I linked to him on Sunday afternoon, the storm clearly seemed to have fizzled — and the main question at the time was whether the media should have been more restrained, or if we were dealing with a genuinely threatening situation that just happened not to pan out. Then came the floods.

Yesterday, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter and I appeared on “The Emily Rooney Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) to discuss whether the media were guilty of overkill. Essentially we were in agreement: the non-stop coverage was too much and often silly; the fact that Irene veered away from Washington and New York City initially made it seem like the storm had been oversold; but given the devastation in Vermont, Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire, it turned out that the storm hadn’t be overhyped at all. (It was a great kick to share the stage for a moment with Stelter, whom I hugely admire. Here is his Monday story on the Weather Channel.)

The last word goes to Charles Apple (via Martin Langeveld), who mocks the hype theory with images of the reality on the ground. Irene was a major storm that will affect the region for months to come. It was, in some respects, every bit as bad as the predictions — just different.

Video above is from Brattleboro Community Television.

Tina Brown takes over the Weekly Beast

Tina Brown (right) with Arianna Huffington.

The media world is abuzz this morning over the merger of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, mainly because Tina Brown finds herself running a print magazine once again. I can’t get too excited. I never acquired the Beast habit, and I gave up on Newsweek years ago.

I will say that Brown’s announcement, in which she essentially awards Newsweek columns to Howard Kurtz and Peter Beinart, makes this move sound less than revolutionary, though I’ve got a lot of respect for Kurtz.

Brown’s a quirky, interesting editor, and maybe she can do something with Newsweek. But it won’t be Newsweek — that’s over.

Back in 1999, I wrote about Brown for the Boston Phoenix on the occasion of Talk magazine’s disastrous launch. What? You don’t remember Talk? Neither does anyone else.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Howard Kurtz is leaving for the Daily Beast

I realize this sort of thing is happening all the time these days. Still, it seems noteworthy when a Washington Post fixture like media reporter Howard Kurtz up and quits in order to go over to the new-media side — in his case, to Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.

Kurtz will continue hosting “Reliable Sources” on CNN.

It’s hard to think of this as anything other than a great move for Kurtz. What does that say about the Washington Post?

The decade in media

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz has written as good a summation of the decade in media as you’re likely to find: a tremendous explosion in innovation and diversity; mind-boggling failures by the legacy media, especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq and their continued obsession with celebrity non-news; and the meltdown of the business model. Definitely worth a read.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.

Kurtz on why the media choked

Everyone is writing thumb-sucker pieces on John Edwards and the media. But I think Howard Kurtz perfectly nails how and why the media failed by giving him a months-long pass on news of his affair with Rielle Hunter:

The fact that big newspapers, magazines and networks have standards — that is, they refuse to print every stray rumor just because it’s “out there” — is one of their strengths. But in the latter stages of this case, it made them look clueless. Perhaps there is a middle ground where media outlets can report on a burgeoning controversy without vouching for the underlying allegations, being candid with readers and viewers about what they know and don’t know.

In the end, the much-derided MSM were superfluous, their monopoly a faded memory. People have hundreds of ways to obtain information in today’s instantaneous media culture, and are capable of reaching their own conclusions about what is reliable and what is not.

Kurtz also quotes chief Edwards inquisitor Mickey Kaus as saying that the chief reason the reporters laid off was out of solicitude for Elizabeth Edwards. But, as Kaus wrote, “If a politician whose chief appeal is his self-advertised loyalty to his brave, ill wife cheats on his brave ill wife, what’s he good for again?”