Another casualty of the pandemic: Journalists' curiosity about the Wuhan lab

Another casualty of the pandemic: Journalists' curiosity about the Wuhan lab
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I sometimes get the impression that if Donald Trump had emerged from the White House on a beautiful summer day and commented to reporters on how nice it was to be outside on such a sunny afternoon, there would have been a better than 50-50 chance that someone in the pack would run a story declaring that a monsoon had just hit the nation’s capital. Is it far-fetched to think of CNN’s correspondent doing a live report from the North Lawn of the White House, holding an umbrella and telling the audience that despite the fact that Donald Trump “lied” about it being sunny, the “truth” was that a storm had hit D.C.? Okay, maybe it’s a little far-fetched, but only a little.

But if you think that’s an exaggeration, let’s remember that they spent more than two years trying to convince the American people that Trump was a Russian stooge.

In fairness, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE did say a lot of things that were flat-out wrong. But declaring that he believed the coronavirus might have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology wasn’t necessarily one of those things. 

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Yet, if journalists gave any credence to that belief, it would have put the blame for the misery and deaths the virus has caused worldwide squarely on China and not where they wanted to place that blame: on the then-president’s handling of the crisis.

So they debunked the lab theory — even though no one at the time (or even now) can say with certainty where the virus originated. Journalists used to keep an open mind about things they didn’t know a lot about. But journalistic curiosity apparently was one of the casualties of the coronavirus.

The narrative among many liberal journalists was that Trump and his secretary of State, Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE, concocted the story that the virus may have escaped from the lab to distract Americans from the administration’s own failures in handling the crisis. And when Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Israeli president receives COVID-19 booster shot AstraZeneca CEO: 'Not clear yet' if boosters are needed MORE, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, publicly debunked the lab-release hypothesis, CNN happily announced to its viewers that “Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Israeli president receives COVID-19 booster shot AstraZeneca CEO: 'Not clear yet' if boosters are needed MORE just crushed Donald Trump’s theory on the origins of the coronavirus.”

When conservative Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonChuck Todd is dead wrong: Liberal bias defines modern journalism Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis MORE (R-Ark.) said the virus likely originated from the Wuhan lab, he also wound up in the media’s crosshairs. 

“The coronavirus could result in a global pandemic,” is what Sen. Cotton said as early as Jan. 30, 2020. “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.”

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But Cotton is a conservative from a red state in what the elites like to call “flyover country,” so two of America’s most important newspapers — outlets that often set the agenda for television news reporting — gave no credence to what he said. The Washington Post reported that “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked,” and the New York Times ran a headline that declared: “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.” 

As recently as May 26, Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York Times reporter who covers COVID-19, went way beyond the usual “conspiracy” and “fringe theory” arguments to cast doubt over conservative claims. Instead, she employed another handy left-wing trope: racism. She tweeted that “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not today.”

It’s as if it never occurred to those “objective” souls in the mainstream media that it would be a coincidence of gigantic proportions if the virus did not originate in the lab. The lab was in Wuhan, after all, where the virus apparently was first reported. And the lab was a facility that worked with dangerous viruses.  

To rule out the lab as the source of the virus is what was truly unreasonable and fringe-worthy. Yet, that’s exactly what too many journalists did.

But, now, even mainstream journalists and the scientific community (many of whose members also debunked the lab theory) are having second thoughts — mainly because even now, after more than 3 million coronavirus deaths worldwide, there’s no irrefutable evidence that the virus originated in a so-called wet market.

Eighteen scientists from some of the world’s most prestigious research institutions, in a letter to the journal Science, are urging their colleagues to dig deeper into the origins of the virus.

“We’re reasonable scientists with expertise in relevant areas,” Dr. David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University said, “and we don’t see the data that says this must be of natural origin.”

“This scrutiny should have started a year ago, but media partisanship derailed fair discussion,” an editorial in the Wall Street Journal concludes. “Many ‘experts’ made political calculations and fell prey to groupthink rather than following the science.”

For journalists to jump to conclusions that Donald Trump and other Republicans were tossing around crazy theories for partisan reasons was unfounded, to say the least. Let’s see what the scientists find out, and then we can decide. But for journalists to reach their own unfounded conclusions for their own partisan reasons was reckless. 

That, however, shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention. If Donald Trump told them it’s high noon, they’d make their case that it’s actually midnight.

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.