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.

Jill Abramson, accountability and The New York Times

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Previously published at WGBH News.

My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.

The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)

According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.

To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.

Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”

Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.

But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.

I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.

Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.

And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)

Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)

“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.

I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.

In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.