In this world of 24/7 communication, where networks need to stretch the lines of communication without the chord ever breaking from one day to the next, editorial opinion can change rapidly. It does not even evolve in some cases; it seemingly transforms overnight, in the blink of an eye. So it has been with the origins of the coronavirus, where the mainstream media has gone from “Wuhan Lab Theory” denial to “Wuhan Lab Theory” advocates, literally overnight.
In February , the Washington Post responded to Cotton’s allegations with a now corrected article headlined: ‘Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed.’
The suggestion that the COVID-19 pandemic began in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology and was either deliberately or accidentally released from the lab has been around and circulating since the early stages of the pandemic. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) sounded alarms as early as January 2020 when, speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he said, “This coronavirus is a catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl for China. But actually, it’s probably worse than Chernobyl, which was localized in its effect. The coronavirus could result in a global pandemic.”
“I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus,” he added.
We still don’t know where coronavirus originated. Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company.
I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/CtuU2czBLp
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) January 30, 2020
In April last year, Fox News broke the exclusive story that evidence revealed that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory, “not as a bioweapon but as part of China’s attempt to demonstrate that its efforts to identify and combat viruses are equal to or greater than the capabilities of the United States.”
“What all of the sources agree about,” Fox reported, “is the extensive cover-up of data and information about COVID-19 orchestrated by the Chinese government.” They continue:
“Documents detail early efforts by doctors at the lab and early efforts at containment. The Wuhan wet market initially identified as a possible point of origin never sold bats, and the sources tell Fox News that blaming the wet market was an effort by China to deflect blame from the laboratory, along with the country’s propaganda efforts targeting the U.S. and Italy.”
In February, the Washington Post responded to Cotton’s allegations with a now corrected article headlined: “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed.” They refer back to a previous article headlined, “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research,” in which the Post argues, “Despite little public evidence, the theory has spread widely on social media, to conspiracy theory websites and in some international news outlets.” As evidence, the Post offered analysis from scientists who have collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which they regard as “well-known,” noting “it is relatively open compared with other Chinese institutes,” one which had “strong ties to the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and was developed with the aid of French engineers.”
What is perhaps most fascinating, as one reflects on the news coverage surrounding how COVID-19 began, is that most of the mainstream media was absolutely adamant that this report was false—that the disease was transmitted by animals and couldn’t possibly have been released by humans. They were sure of it.
The media undoubtedly rejected (and roundly abused) the Wuhan Lab theory premise because former President Donald Trump embraced it early in the pandemic. Anything Trump promoted—especially when it concerned the coronavirus—was inherently unbalanced to the mainstream media. But with Trump gone, it is possible to believe anything—even the truth. Even Facebook is no longer deleting—no censoring—posts that talk about Wuhan Lab Leak, which is perhaps most emblematic of the media’s-180 degree turnabout on this issue.
THE TRUTH (RE) EMERGES
Last year, words like “fringe,” “conspiracy,” even “lunatic” became common rhetoric around allegations that COVID-19 was a lab-bourne catastrophe. As former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade writes, “Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory. During the Trump administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out.”
The media’s opinion only hardened over the course of the pandemic, and that opinion—that certainty—did not change until May 2021…
The media’s opinion only hardened over the course of the pandemic, and that opinion—that certainty—did not change until May 2021, when it suddenly became apparent that the Wuhan lab theory was no longer just some crackpot idea embraced by simpletons waging war on the world from their basements, but a credible, even preferred explanation of how this all began.
Things have moved quickly, beginning with a joint report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and China on February 9th, 2021, that “findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain introduction of the virus into the human population.” On February 13th, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised red flags when he issued a statement about the WHO report, saying the Biden Administration has “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them. It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government.”
A few weeks later, Nicholas Wade, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reviewed the evidence, making a strong case for the lab-leak theory. On May 14th, 17 prominent scientists published a letter in the Journal Science that argued:
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
Then, on May 23rd, the Wall Street Journal reported that the coronavirus probably started in Wuhan earlier than previously believed. “Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report that could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the COVID-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory.”
A few days later, on May 26th, President Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic—including the possibility that the outbreak originated in a laboratory. Biden has given the intelligence community 90 days to investigate the origins of the virus.
The Wuhan Lab Leak theory has officially been revived—and this time, even the New York Times is on board.
FROM UNVERIFIED THEORY, TO MISINFORMATION, TO RACIST HATE-MONGERING
Given the abrupt change, it is worthwhile remembering just how ridiculous most of the media claimed that the Wuhan Lab Leak theory was. On February 18th, 2020, CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza chastised Sen. Tom Cotton for suggesting the virus came from the Wuhan lab.
“[Cotton] floated a totally evidence-free conspiracy theory about the disease … This is the height of irresponsibility from a public official. There is already a massive amount of fear—and misinformation—in the public about the novel coronavirus. Why add to it by suggesting, without evidence, that this could actually be a Chinese bio-weapon? Cotton obviously knows better. But he also is living—as we all are—in a sort of post-truth world, one if not created, then pushed by President Donald Trump … Trump has mainstreamed conspiracy theories and convinced lots and lots of people they are true with much the same tactic Cotton used on Sunday, which amounts to this: I am not saying this is true, I am just saying people are talking about it and we owe it to ourselves to ask the question.”
Did you get that line about the “post-truth world” and the assumption that Trump just made up “this sort of stuff?” The message is clear: don’t believe anything Donald Trump tells you, and don’t even bother to assess whether there is any substance to his remarks.
CNN was not alone; The Huff Post also warned its readers about Cotton in a January 2020 piece titled “Don’t Listen To Sen. Tom Cotton About Coronavirus.”
“Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has been on an absolute tear about coronavirus, calling for all Americans in China to ‘get out now,’ demanding the U.S. implement an extensive travel ban targeting China proposing a ‘Manhattan Project-level effort to create a vaccine’―a reference to the undertaking that produced the atomic bomb during World War II. Cotton also suggested the coronavirus could have come from a Chinese ‘super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens,’ boosting a debunked fringe theory circulating among tabloids and conservative media outlets. The conspiracy has gained attention on social media and appeared in a dubious article on right-wing site The Washington Times, whose single named source for the claim was a former Israeli military official suggesting the virus could be linked to a biowarfare program.”
In February 2020, The Daily Beast pontificated that “Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) on Sunday once again amplified a debunked conspiracy theory about the origin of the coronavirus outbreak. Scientists believe it started with an animal-to-human transmission at a market in Wuhan.” On April 8th, 2020, The New York Times also went after Cotton: “Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and others have suggested that the virus may have been produced by a Chinese weapons lab.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the Senator. Anybody who dared to suggest there may be more to this story—and that China may be covering something up—was openly mocked and chastised for over a year. On April 13th, 2020, CNN published a piece headlined “Nearly 30% in the U.S. Believe a Coronavirus Theory That Almost Certainly Untrue.”
“Despite evidence from infectious disease experts suggesting otherwise, nearly 30% of Americans in a new Pew poll said they believe the novel coronavirus was likely created in a lab. The latest poll from the public opinion fact tank shows that misinformation around the virus is still king, even as fact checkers and public health officials work furiously to dispel it and save American lives. A total of 23% of adults polled said they believe the virus was created intentionally. This is almost certainly not true, according to the genetic detectives studying the virus’s origins. And 43%—a plurality, but not an overwhelming majority—said the virus likely came about naturally. This is most likely the truth, according to virus experts.”
The network went so far as to provide talking points for people concerned that their friends and family had become captive to Trump’s demented ideas. CNN’s Oliver Darcy provided some helpful advice on March 28th, 2020:
“But, in some cases, relatives and friends share poor information—whether it is bad science related to how to prevent the virus, debunked rumors about cities being put on lockdown, or conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19. While any strain of misinformation is not ideal, misinformation related to a public health crisis has an especially dangerous element to it.” Indeed, bad information during a public health emergency poses a risk to those who fall victim to it. So you will likely have the urge and feel the responsibility to correct it. But it can be incredibly awkward to correct misinformation or debunk conspiracy theories when it is being shared by a relative or good friend.”
These “relatives and friends” sharing “poor information” weren’t just belittled—they were slandered. The media went on the offensive against Wuhan Lab Theory proponents, calling them racist and blaming them for a spike in violence against Asian Americans. The media castigated Trump for calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” as early as March 15th, even though it certainly was a virus that came from China, nobody was denying that much. CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta said it was “xenophobic” of Trump even to call the virus “foreign.” Even “comedian” Stephen Colbert piled on, saying it was “very racist” of Trump to blame China for the virus. Capitalizing on the moment, then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden also chimed in, saying Trump’s description of a China-originated virus smacked of “xenophobia.”
In a matter of months, American media had changed the conversation: it wasn’t just “misinformation” to claim that COVID-19 may have originated in a Wuhan lab—it was racist.
THE WUHAN LAB THEORY WAS STILL BEING CALLED AS A CONSPIRACY THEORY LESS THAN A MONTH AGO
Last week, that same Oliver Darcy full of advice for those who encounter conservatives issued what might almost be considered an admission of guilt. On May 27th, 2021, he published a piece that suggested that the media might have had some role in obfuscating the origin of the coronavirus. Darcy noted how hostile the Washington press corps had been to Trump and his Wuhan theory—but still drew a line between his own gaslighting and misinformation campaign and what he characterized as “partisan” reporting:
“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.”
Among those Darcy quotes is New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who actually has both the gall and the honesty to blame Donald Trump for the disbelief in laboratory-borne COVID-19. In an interview with CNN’s John Berman on Tuesday, Haberman said:
“[W]hen the pandemic had begun, then-President Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, both suggested they had seen evidence 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. And so because of that, that made this instantly political. It was example 1000 when the Trump administration learned, when you burn your own credibility over and over again, people are not going to believe you, especially in an election year. However, that does not mean it’s not worth discussing.”
Never mind that as late as May 3rd, the Wuhan Lab theory was being characterized as a conspiracy theory. A study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center claimed that “belief in conspiracies” was perpetuated by watching right-wing media, and singled out the belief that COVID-19 began in the Wuhan lab as one of those theories: “In 2020, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for instance, frequently discussed the conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was bioengineered in a Chinese lab.”
Never mind that for over a year, the media and social media platforms have lied, denied, gaslighted, suppressed any censored even the possibility of a discussion of the Wuhan Lab Leak theory. COVID-19 devastated our economy, our freedom, and our way of life—not to mention the countless lives that have been lost—and Americans who just wanted to hold China accountable were branded as racist lunatics.
Never mind all that. Evidently, we’re all past that now.
President Joe Biden has declared that it’s okay to question whether a Chinese lab released a virus that has decimated the economy of the world, killed millions, forced us into often ludicrous lockdowns, made hypocrites and tyrants out of a myriad of politicians, produced contradictory advice about wearing face masks, and induced a fear of disease that will not be easy to banish. Now that Trump is gone and Biden is president, we may proceed with the interrogation.