How certitude is destroying media credibility
After years of the mainstream media suggesting that the only Americans suspicious that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could have come from a Chinese lab leak were conspiracy nuts, those same media are now quoting the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation saying the FBI “has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”
This wouldn’t be such a dagger to the heart of credibility were it not for the way in which the latest news is being reported versus the way it was reported before.
The word “acknowledges” would suggest that CNN has long been reporting that a lab leak might be a possibility, but that’s far from reality. Only two years ago, CNN was chortling over “How a ‘shoddy’ Bannon-backed paper on coronavirus origins made its way to an audience of millions.”
The paper written by dissident Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan claimed the virus originated in a lab known to be studying coronaviruses. The Bannon was Steve Bannon, the one-time advisor to former President Donald Trump.
There were legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Yan’s work just as there are now legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the FBI claim. The director of the World Health Organization on Friday made it clear WHO would like to know what intelligence the U.S. has that supports the conclusion as to a lab leak.
“If any country has information about the origins of the pandemic, it’s essential for that information to be shared with WHO and the international scientific community,” director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a weekly media briefing.
The story has actually gotten so crazy that now about three years into the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic a columnist for The Atlantic magazine is handicapping the odds of the virus being manmade versus natural.
“If you’re keeping count – and, really, what else can one do? – the matter still appears to be decided in favor of a zoonotic origin, by an updated score of 5–2,” wrote Daniel Engber. “The lab-leak theory remains the outlier position.”
He bases those odds on reviews President Joe Biden requested from a variety of federal agencies in mid-2021. At that time, mainstream media favorite Anthony Fauci, believed to be the rogue scientist keeping former President Donald Trump under control at the start of the pandemic and later the hero emerging from hiding under Biden, was still dictating the narrative.
Fauci is the man New York Magazine proclaimed “America’s Doctor” after he shifted government policy away from a Trump Tweet of March 2020, one of the former presidents more sensible Tweets, saying “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem.”
Lockdowns followed. Suggestions as to how to protect those most vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus while letting life go on more normally for most, as Sweden did, were shouted down.
A New York Times reporter appeared on CNN to demand the founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center apologize to the nation for writing an op-ed for the Times expressing his concern “that the social, economic and public health consequences of this near total meltdown of normal life – schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned – will be long lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself.”
Black and white world
It is tempting to blame this credibility-killing, media flip-flopping of today on the political partisanship that now taints everything, including science, in the U.S. But the roots of the media issue stretch farther back in time.
When exactly the mainstream media decided it had to become the arbiter of all that is factual instead of an entity that presents the news with all its messy greys and leaves it to every consumer to decide what to believe is unclear.
I do, however, remember a long-ago discussion with a rather pompous editor not far removed from an uppity Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University about ecological chaos in the North Pacific Ocean. The editor in question wanted badly to be the man in charge of a newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize, a goal he would never accomplish.
A colleague at the time suggested a series of stories centered on the latest crisis in the North Pacific Ocean, which has undergone repeated crises likely tied in all or part to human activities – the industrial-style fishing of modern times, the ever-expanding farming of the sea by swarms of hatchery salmon, global warming, the restoration of populations of once depressed top-level prey consumers and more.
The North Pacific has been in on-again, off-again crisis for decades now.
The latest centers around collapsing populations of king crab; plummeting numbers of Yukon River Chinook salmon and less so of chum salmon, both of which feed in the Bering Sea; declining numbers of high-value Pacific halibut there, and exploding numbers of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, another Bering feeder species.
If memory serves me right, and I wouldn’t want to be held to that because memory is always suspect, the earlier discussion took place around the time populations of sea lions, a major wild predator, appeared to be crashing in the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands and along the northern edge of the Gulf of Alaska as far east as Kodiak Island while steadily ticking upward along the North American West Coast from Kodiak south.
At about the same time, arrowtooth flounder, a species of fish with little economic value, appeared to be displacing high-value halibut in the Gulf of Alaska and increasing their consumption of high-value walleye pollock in the Bering Sea.
What all else was going on at the time, I don’t remember in detail, but there were plenty of questions to be asked, which was what intrigued my colleague. He saw the North Pacific at the center of an intriguing mystery that could be serialized into a variety of interesting stories.
Not so his boss.
That the proposed series was likely to raise far more questions than it was to provide answers led to its death. Nobody was going to win a Pulitzer, the editor said, by writing a bunch of stories that provided no answers as to how to “solve” the problems under discussion.
The concern was, in short, that the series wouldn’t force action by any arm of government and thus it would be meaningless in the big world of journalism prize competitions, which are largely about inspiring government action. The Anchorage Daily News would years later, indeed, win a Pulitzer under another editor by writing about crime in rural Alaska with a claim to having convinced the Trump administration to spend a whole lot of federal money to increase law enforcement resources there.
The series was classically black and white: violent crime is a problem in rural Alaska, and this is because the small, sometimes tiny, communities there don’t have enough police officers. The stories ignored the region’s huge economic problems and overlooked the simple fact that the ability of law enforcement to deter crime is limited.
Mainly the police show up after crimes are committed to find, hopefully, and prosecute the offenders. This is not a cure-all.
As a writer for JSTOR, the digital library for research, once summarized the data on the subject of police presence and crime, “the evidence is pretty good that adding cops on the street reduces crime slightly, but the effect is probably smaller and less clear than we usually assume.”
People, however, long for simple solutions to complex problems, and the mainstream media has become all about delivering them. See pandemic face-coverings, which were supposed to save everyone during the pandemic, but didn’t, and vaccines, which were supposed to stop the spread of Covid-19, but didn’t. Thankfully, the latter do appear to have reduced the pandemic death rate.
How much they reduced death rates is somewhat in the grey, however, and where the SARS-CoV-2 virus actually came from even more so despite early declarations that it was clearly natural, which was the then narrative, and the latest declaration that the virus came from a lab leak, which is the now narrative.
The mainstream media – the government propaganda arm that it has become – started off heavily pushing the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 virus arose naturally.
“Virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as a result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else,” NPR reported in April 2020. “The accident theory has been advanced by the Trump administration in recent weeks.”
Trump Derangement Syndrome was then running wild in some parts of that country, and for much of the mainstream media, the Trump administration was a bogeyman being held tenuously in check by the vast American bureaucracy full of hidden heroes.
It was “Ghosts Busters” in reverse with arrogant Walter Peck, the inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency third district in the greater New York area, recast as the hero for his bravery in confronting outlaw elements of society running wild.
Since then, it has been revealed that Fauci, the mainstream’s beloved Covid-19 czar, and others in the federal bureaucracy were busy both publicly and privately pushing the idea the lab-leak theory was wild speculation.
“Unredacted NIH (National Institutes of Health) Emails Show Efforts to Rule Out Lab Origin of Covid,” The Intercept headlined earlier this year above a lengthy story detailing how Freedom of Information Act requests for emails written by Fauci; Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH at the time, and others showed them scheming to quash the idea a lab leak was possible.
“Fauci: No scientific evidence the coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab,” National Geographic headlined in May 2020 above what it claimed to be “an exclusive interview (with) the face of America’s COVID-19,” though Fauci was then everywhere being interviewed.
“Anthony ‘Tony’ Fauci has become the scientific face of America’s COVID-19 response, and he says the best evidence shows the virus behind the pandemic was not made in a lab in China,” the story below began. But the reality of the time was that evidence to support a natural origin wasn’t much better than that to support a lab-leak, and still isn’t despite the latest claims from the FBI.
When Politico in June 2021 wrote what was, overall, a pretty balanced story on the difficulties involved in trying to determine the origin of SARs-CoV-2, it, unfortunately, opened with this:
“Senior Trump administration officials decided in the spring of 2020 to strongly imply that Covid-19 came from a Chinese lab, even though intelligence officials investigating the pandemic’s origins did not have conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis.”
And the next dozen paragraphs were devoted to trying to document how the “Trump administration” cherry-picked information to try to make the case for a lab leak. Only then did the story get into “The search for evidence,” which detailed some of the reasons to consider a lab leak a possibility.
This was the possibility that Fauci, Collins and Centers for Diseases Control Director Robert Redfield were doing their best to torpedo with a lot of help from an easily convinced mainstream that couldn’t laud Fauci enough.
Fauci eventually became so emboldened by a couple of years of this fawning that he boldly and publicly declared that “attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science,” a claim any self-respecting scientist would be ashamed to make given the heart of the scientific method is grounded on the idea that everything should be questioned.
The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are one of those ideas that need questioning.
From the beginning, any suggestions as to a natural origin for Covid-19 needed to be strongly tempered by the recognition of two realities – one being that no one knew the origin (we still don’t) and the other being that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying coronaviruses, something that was known to the U.S. government because the U.S. National Institutes of Health was helping to fund that research as it has since admitted.
That Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, first surfaced in Wuhan could be a simple coincidence. Correlation is not causation as all scientists know, but it is cause for suspicion and investigation. These suspicions still exist, unfortunately, because the Chinese have been far from transparent about what was happening at the Wuhan Institute.
And now the narrative has changed, and a media that couldn’t buy the lab leak three years ago is pushing the lab leak theory.
A changing world
Time, it must be recognized, served to shift the view of American politicians and bureaucrats on the global significance of where and how the pandemic began. This, in turn, influenced the mainstream narrative.
The world is a different place today than it was three years ago. The U.S. and China are no longer trying to make nice.
Russia has gone to war in Ukraine. China has seized on the global instability caused by that war to again threaten the breakaway republic of Taiwan and has taken advantage of Russia’s bargain basement prices for oil and natural gas as the result of a boycott in its established Western markets.
Because of all of this the U.S. – the leader of Western nations trying to support Ukraine’s war efforts with a steady flood of arms and intelligence while maintaining economic sanctions on Russia – has found itself deeply at odds with China’s strategic embrace of Russia.
In the best-case scenario, China (and India) are simply taking advantage of Western sanctions to fuel their economies with cheap Russian oil and gas and in the process enhancing Russia’s ability to finance its war until it exhausts Ukrainian resistance. In the worst-case scenario, China could be seen as cooperating with Russia in an effort to undermine the global monetary system, given that China has long disliked the dollar being used as the currency of global trade.
Against this backdrop, the U.S., which had for years prior to the election of Trump been moving ever closer to China, now has a substantial motive to cast China in a negative light, which is why the media should today be skeptical about the FBI and Energy Department claims to a SARS-CoV-2 lab leak, just as the mainstream should have been skeptical of earlier, Fauci-led claims to “evidence” the virus was born in the wild.
Neither of these claims is easy to prove. The “evidence” for either is slim.
All of which brings this back to the credibility problem of a media that today lacks for healthy skepticism while being regularly blinded by cynicism in a time when a lot of the smart kids have left the business only to be replaced by a goodly number of attention seekers.
Or maybe the attention seekers were always there, but more constrained than they are today. And maybe it was that journalists were never all that smart to begin with but the on-the-job training made them smarter than it does today. Over time, the old “beat system,” as it was called, made some journalists experts in the limited subject matter they covered.
Today most beat reporters are gone, and most journalists are generalists. Often they are in well over their heads with too little real-world experience to recognize how little they know. And the one thing all competent journalists do learn over time, if they’re even halfway smart and paying attention, is how little they know.
People regularly lie. Almost nobody ever tells the whole truth or all they know. Sources almost always want to shade the story to make themselves or their agency or their business look better or to make someone else or some other business look bad.
This the why CNN had good reason to question Yan’s study fingering the lab. She is a Chinese dissident, and her views on Wuhan went beyond a lab leak to argue the Chinese intentionally released the virus in Wuhan. This appears at first illogical, but it’s not totally so.
China is faced with a rapidly aging population. There have been warnings of a “demographic crisis” because of this.
The World Economic Forum has cautioned that “the rapid decline in China’s population will have a profound impact on the country’s economy. China’s working-age population peaked in 2014 and is projected to shrink to less than one-third of that peak by 2100” while the elderly population steadily increases.
“…While there are currently 100 working-age people available to support every 20 elderly people, by 2100, 100 working-age Chinese will have to support as many as 120 elderly Chinese,” the forum calculates. “The rapid decline in China’s population will have a profound impact on the country’s economy.”
Economic disarray often leads to political chaos and the leaders of China’s totalitarian government live in fear of political chaos. It is thus valid to ask this question: If China’s leaders found a virus that would kill old people with little harm to those of working age, would they use it to reshape the country’s population?
Only the Chinese know the answer to that question, but it’s not farfetched. Old people die. It’s not hard to rationalize the idea that it is in the “national interest” if they die sooner rather than later. And China has never fretted that much about killing its own.
The late Rudolph Rummel, a political scientist who spent his career studying collective violence not only in China but globally, in the 1990s estimated that “since 1949 the Chinese communists killed from 5,999,000 to 102,671,000 people; a prudent estimate is 35,236,000. When added to the number they murdered in previous years, the communists likely killed 38,702,000 Chinese, Tibetans, and other minorities.”
The “Cultural Revolution” (from 1966 to 1976) probably cost 1,613,000 lives,” he added. China did begin to liberalize after Mao’s death in 1976 and the killing of Chinese by their government declined. But the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and subsequent massacres in 1989 marked the end of that liberalization.
‘The Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Abuses committed included mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced returns to China, forced labor, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights,” the Watch said. “Little news trickled out of Xinjiang in 2021, however, as the authorities maintained tight control over information, and as access to the region, already limited, was further constrained due to Covid-19 movement restrictions.”
It is clear the leaders of China’s totalitarian state do not think like the leaders of Western democracies. For the Chinese rulers, a disease that would kill a bunch of old people while helping to enable political leaders to exert even more control over everyone in the country might sound like an idea hard not to like.
This possibility, of course, was flippantly dismissed in October 2020 by CNN reporters preoccupied with Bannon and Trump. “The theory that the coronavirus came out of a Chinese bioweapons program…has been widely panned as groundless,” they wrote.
That was a hugely disingenuous claim meant to miscast the debate as to whether the virus was natural or manmade by tying it to Chinese bioweapons research which might or might not have been happening in Wuhan.
The U.S. State Department’s latest assessment is that “SARS-CoV-2 Probably Not a Biological Weapon…We remain skeptical of allegations that SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon because they are supported by scientifically invalid claims, their proponents do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or their proponents are suspected of spreading disinformation.”
“Probably not” is a much more tempered assessment than “groundless.” And, needless to say, if the Chinese were engaged in research into coronaviruses as possible bio-weapons – something some Chinese scientists suggested as a possibility in 2015 – that information is sure to now be buried so deep in China that no Western investigators will ever find it.
We might never know the origin of SARS-CoV-2, which is why it’s a good reason to be skeptical of ALL claims at this time.
Skepticism – an attitude based in the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain – is one of the few things that used to make journalists more reliable than your average schmuck shooting his mouth off at the bar.
Or maybe a healthy skepticism seasoned with a good dose of logic.
Both now seem to be regularly lacking. How dumb does one have to be to dismiss the idea that the Chinese would go all out to cover up a lab leak if that is indeed what happened? Had the virus been born in a U.S. lab doing what has now come to be called “gain of function” research to create future bioweapons or for any other reason, does anyone reading this believe the U.S. government would rush to publicly reveal what had happened?
Of course not. So lab-related origins for the virus have to be considered a possibility until proven otherwise, and there are no indications the Chinese are going to open the Wuhan lab to independent observers in the interest of obtaining such proof or lack thereof.
If only the media could admit to the fog of war here as in so many other cases, but it seemingly can’t. The media right is now having as much fun with the new claims to SARS-CoV-2 as the media left had with the old ones:
“COVID may have leaked out of a Chinese lab, after all. So much for ‘misinformation,”’ declared USA Today columnist Ingrid Jacques. “Turns out, the individuals who raised concerns during the COVID-19 debate weren’t so crazy after all. Unfortunately, the damage is done to those who dared go against the ‘correct’ narrative.”
Then there’s Fox News headlining a “Credibility crisis: MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace insisted COVID originating in Wuhan lab was ‘conspiracy theory’. Rabidly anti-GOP host depicted lab-leak theory as preposterous.”
Unfortunately, in most cases, it’s hard to tell if the media left lied, was misled, fell victim to its own good intentions, was simply naive or just had blinders on as some apparently still do.
FactCheck.org continues to argue that a lab leak “has not been proven” and that “most scientists suspect a zoonotic spillover in which the virus transferred from bats, or through an intermediate animal, to humans – the same way the SARS and MERS coronaviruses originated” with its evidence for the latter being a commentary in the Journal of the American Society of Microbiology signed by 156 scientists, who called for “rational discourse” as to the source.
Suspicions aren’t proof, either; and FactCheck’s conclusion as to “most scientists” appear tied to those 156 scientists wishing for rational discourse. Their commentary concedes that either a natural or lab origin is a possibility, but “currently the zoonosis hypothesis has the strongest supporting evidence.”
The evidence, unfortunately, is far from conclusive and the authors of the paper admit to their own biases in observing that “unfounded accusations of a lab leak event or nefarious research in Chinese laboratories will hasten the deterioration of important partnerships between the U.S. and China that are critical for early detection and preparedness for seasonal influenza and future pandemics” while possibly compromising gain of function research.
“The source of concern in this area is that changing a virus to add new functionality may yield a dangerous pathogen,” they write. “It is important to understand, however, that gain-of-function approaches incorporate a large proportion of all research because they are a powerful genetic tool in the laboratory. These include the development of cancer therapeutics, bacterial strategies for bioremediation, and the engineering of drought- or pest-resistant crops.”
In other words, the benefits of pursuing investigations into the origins of the virus are outweighed by the risk of the loss of Chinese cooperation in virus detection and heavy government oversight on gain-of-function research in the views of virus researchers.
Scientists are not big fans of government control unless they are in control of the government control. And they are, like almost everyone else, motivated to greater or lesser degrees by personal beliefs. So, too, journalists.
This is what makes objectivity so hard. But some journos and scientists used to at least try to search for it. Sadly the number seems to be ever shrinking, and the internet, which might be considered something of a “force multiplier,” has made it a lot easier for the masses to point out where the media in particular paints over all the grays with black and white.
Frankly, it’s surprising anyone believes much of anything that gets reported today unless the reporting reflects what the reader or viewer wants to believe, which might explain why the media left and the media right have increasingly abandoned any attempts at objectivity in favor of appealing to core groups of true believers.