American Journalists Shielded China and Erased the Wuhan Lab Leak Theory | Opinion

In February 2020, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked a provocative question: Was there some relationship between COVID-19 emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan and the fact that there's a biochemical lab in the city that specializes in studying coronaviruses? Was it possible that this lab was studying an animal who carried the virus and failed to properly secure it?

"We don't have evidence that this disease originated there," Cotton said of the lab, "but because of China's duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all."

Cotton's comments were nuanced: He wasn't certain that COVID-19 had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but he considered it to be a possibility, and he was troubled that the Chinese government was failing to offer the transparency necessary to prove it one way or another.

But the response to Cotton's theory and nuanced line of questioning was brutal. The New York Times dismissed him as repeating a "Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins," as the headline put it. The Washington Post insisted that Cotton "keeps repeating a conspiracy theory that was already debunked." And the rest of the mainstream media and wasn't much kinder.

But how could the theory possibly have been debunked? There is no official consensus on where COVID-19 first emerged, and as Cotton pointed out, China's government made it basically impossible for outside observers to investigate the origins of the virus.

Yet for most of the past year, the mainstream media's consensus was that the lab leak hypothesis was just a fringe theory promoted by hawkish parts of the right. Facebook, which has increasingly appointed itself the arbiter of global speech, had a policy of taking down posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured.

In recent weeks, that has slowly started to change. Top scientists are calling for a more serious probe into the origins of the virus, including the lab leak theory. President Biden is ordering our intelligence agencies to do a 90-day investigation into the question of where the virus came from. And Facebook recently lifted its ban on posts that claim that COVID-19 was manufactured.

What should we make of all this?

It appears that for the past year, our media seemed to lock arms in shielding the Chinese government from the scrutiny it deserved for failing to control COVID-19. Whether or not the lab leak hypothesis bears out, it is clear that our nation's journalists did not approach this question with an open mind.

In a Tweet that she later deleted, Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York Times science reporter who has been on the coronavirus beat, offered a window into the mindset of much of the media: "Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here," she said.

Can someone explain to me why it's racist to wonder if a virus escaped from a Chinese lab, but it's not racist to insist that it infected humans because of Chinese wet markets? If anything, isn't the latter more racist?

Also, isn't the relevant question: *what happened*? Or no? pic.twitter.com/vSqqJnehf7

— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 26, 2021

Is it really supposed to be "racist" to consider the possibility that the Chinese government failed to prevent COVID-19 from escaping from a government lab? The other leading origin theory, that the virus emerged from China's lightly regulated wet markets, would place more of blame on local culture than the lab leak hypothesis, which only directly implicates the government.

Perhaps Mandavilli's revealing Tweet is emblematic of a wider mindset among American journalists, many of whom saw their mission as simply opposing any stance taken by the Trump administration—former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has long suspected that COVID-19 leaked from the lab in Wuhan—while also burnishing their anti-racist and anti-imperialist credentials by refusing to blame a foreign government for the pandemic.

Wuhan lab theory gains traction
Workers are seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China's Hubei province, on February 23, 2017. - The P4 epidemiological laboratory was built in co-operation with French bio-industrial firm Institut Merieux and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

But the goal of journalism shouldn't be to craft the most culturally sensitive or partisan narrative. The goal of journalism is to seek the truth. The consequences of telling the truth should be secondary to getting the truth out there in the first place, even if it makes the Trump administration or Republican Senators look good or the Chinese government look bad.

To be clear, there have always been partisan or ideological journalists who openly take sides in social or political disputes. But until very recently, we could at least expect that the mainstream media would make a legitimate effort to seek the facts and report fairly, rather than dismissing stories that could make their favored political faction look unfavorable or boost the prospects of their political opponents.

Increasingly, the space for nonpartisan journalism that aggressively seeks the truth is shrinking.

It should hardly be a surprise that Americans are rapidly losing faith in the media. As the story of the lab leak hypothesis shows, too many in our current news media environment are quick to politicize their coverage and seek the truth only when it's convenient for their faction. Ultimately, this will only continue to degrade the credibility of the American press, which may benefit forces like the Chinese Communist Party in more ways than one.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast "Extremely Offline."

The views in this article are the author's own.