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Taking a look at the media’s role in the Covid-19 lab leak theory

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

How exactly did the coronavirus pandemic begin? More than a year after the outbreak spread across — and upended — the world, we still do not have a firm answer. But new reporting has sparked renewed interest in the virus’ origins. And with cases and deaths on the decline in the US, the topic is back in the spotlight.

One of this week’s top headlines came on Wednesday when President Biden announced that he had directed the intelligence agencies to “collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” within 90 days. That announcement followed a Sunday WSJ report, confirmed by CNN and other media orgs, that the US had intelligence about three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology becoming ill in November 2019.

“As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has ‘coalesced around two likely scenarios’ but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question,” Biden said in his statement announcing his directive to the intel community. “Here is their current position: ‘while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.'”

The right takes a victory lap

Right-wing media personalities and outlets have used the new — though limited — information that has come to light to take a victory lap and skewer mainstream journalists for their previous coverage. Some of the criticism about journalists rejecting the lab leak theory out of hand is fair. But some of the criticism conflates the journalists who poured cold water on the idea that the virus was an engineered bioweapon — a theory once floated by some prominent Fox personalities — with the possibility that it accidentally leaked from a lab. Those two things are not the same. Bottom line: It’s way more complicated than partisans are making it to be.

>> Tom Nichols pointed out that Tom Cotton also floated the idea China deliberately released the virus, though Cotton couched it as a “very unlikely” possibility. “He put it out there, let others run with it, then said ‘well, it’s not *likely*’ – because Cotton knows exactly how the Fox and right-wing info swamp works. This is a recurring tactic on the right. Imply it, let the echo chamber run with it, then deny it, then say you were right all along. Because the goal, as always, is to plant the idea in the heads of stupid people who will not bother with later nuance or explanations…”

“That made this instantly political”

Maggie Haberman of The New York Times pointed out this week that one of the reasons some reporters were quick to dismiss the lab leak theory was because former President Trump and his administration politicized the matter. “Both suggested they had seen evidence that this was formed in a lab and they also suggested it was not released on purpose, but they refused to release the evidence showing what it was,” she said. “And so because of that, that made this instantly political.” Haberman said that doesn’t mean it is not worth discussing, but she added that “it’s important to remember” what happened because “it’s getting reframed in a way that’s just not true to what happened…”

New York Times reporter frustrates colleagues with tweet

Another reporter at The Times, Apoorva Mandavilli, got in hot water Wednesday when she tweeted that the coronavirus lab leak theory had “racist roots.” Mandavilli later deleted the tweet after it was widely criticized. “I deleted my earlier tweets about the origins of the pandemic because they were badly phrased,” Mandavilli explained in a follow up tweet. “The origin of the pandemic is an important line of reporting that my colleagues are covering aggressively…”

Some staffers in the New York Times newsroom were quite displeased by Mandavilli’s tweet, a source told me. The source said that the staffers they spoke with were frustrated that a reporter would make such an assertion online as her colleagues actively work to report on the origins of the coronavirus — including the possibility of a lab leak. The source added that those staffers were also frustrated by the fact that Mandavilli’s tweet gave the right free ammunition to attack the paper…

Facebook changes policy

“Facebook will no longer take down posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured,” Politico’s Cristiano Lima scooped Wednesday. “In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told Lima. “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

>> Tablet Mag’s Noam Blum points out: “The damage from this goes beyond the lab leak debate. Every anti-vaxxer is going to point to this and say ‘see? they said that was a conspiracy theory and suddenly it isn’t. So who are you going to believe about this?'”

Related reads

— The Atlantic’s Daniel Engber writes the shift in public thinking about the lab leak theory is “all the more remarkable for its lack of any major associated revelations.” Engber adds, “That the lab-leak hypothesis is gaining currency even as the facts remain the same has a useful implication, though. It suggests that definitive proof is not an absolute requirement…” (The Atlantic)

— Jonathan Chait: “What the episode does reveal is the vulnerabilities in the mainstream- and liberal-media ecosystem. Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter…” (NY Mag)

— Kylie Atwood’s Wednesday scoop: “Biden’s team shut down a closely-held State Department effort launched late in the Trump administration to prove the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab over concerns about the quality of its work…” (CNN)

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