Shareholder Group Demands Media Outlets Explain Why They Dismissed Wuhan Lab-Leak Theory

Now that it's safe for the mainstream media to report the possibility that the coronavirus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, a conservative shareholder group is demanding to know why the CEOs of the parent companies of CNN, MSNBC and other major media outlets allowed their journalists to dismiss the notion as a debunked conspiracy theory for about 18 months.

The group, dubbed the Free Enterprise Project (FEP) and deputy directed by Scott Shepard, is having spotty success at best. On Thursday, for example, Shepard told David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery, which is merging with WarnerMedia (parent of CNN) that he thinks "it has become clear that the theory that COVID-19 had escaped from a Wuhan virology lab was never a conspiracy theory and is the likeliest explanation—rendering both false and venal CNN claims that those who suggested the possibility, including Sen. Tom Cotton and other respected officials, were liars, buffoons and racists."

Zaslav, through an intermediary, declined to respond to Shepard's question, citing the fact that Discovery does not yet control CNN—though Zaslav has spoken about CNN on previous occasions. Speaking to the press on May 17, for example, he said that he plans for CNN to "be the world leader in news."

Thursday's exchange took place digitally via the Discovery shareholders meeting, where a moderator acknowledged there were multiple questions about "journalistic standards" but declined to read them aloud.

"Zaslav's evasion was absurd," Shepard told Newsweek. "He'd already discussed CNN and the value it will bring to the new entity. But that value depends on CNN being run with proper oversight and high standards. Today suggests that Discovery will provide neither."

WarnerMedia, now a unit of AT&T, said last month it would merge with Discovery to form Warner Bros. Discovery, which will be run by Zaslav as the combined company's CEO while Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, is poised to either depart or assume a larger role after the deal closes.

Thursday's question from Shepard aimed at Zaslav followed a similar one on June 2 at a Comcast shareholder meeting when he began his question to CEO Brian Roberts with: "Comcast's news media holdings make a regular habit of labeling as 'conspiracy theory' or 'fake news' things that later turn out to be true," then listing a few items that he claimed supported this, including the Wuhan lab–leak hypothesis along with the alleged Hunter Biden laptop scandal.

Roberts defended his journalists without mentioning any of Shepard's specific examples.

"We are very proud of NBC News and they are committed to producing the highest quality of journalism across our platforms. Same goes for Sky News and, if they believe they have done something wrong, they usually talk about that," Roberts responded.

"I have always honored the pledge that we made when we bought NBC Universal and our agreement with the FCC that we would not interfere in the news operations and we took a similar pledge when we bought Sky News," he said.

"So, you are certainly entitled to your views and we appreciate you sharing them but I continue to believe that NBC News does a wonderful service and we have a hardworking team of journalists throughout the world doing their best to confidently keep the society informed," said Roberts.

Shepard wasn't allowed a follow-up question, but he told Newsweek that "Roberts explicitly stated that Comcast does not supervise its news properties, including NBC and MSNBC. But given the appalling track record of error and of failure to achieve even the most basic standards of journalistic integrity at those outlets, this amounts to an admission that Comcast has abandoned its fiduciary duty to its shareholders."

Comcast declined to comment.

In 2007, the conservative nonprofit think tank National Center for Public Policy Research launched the FEP, which buys a small amount of stock in companies in order to gain access to shareholder meetings. In the past, Shepard would step up to the microphone to ask his lengthy, prewritten questions, though in a Zoom/digital environment his typed questions are usually whittled down by an executive and stripped of specifics before it is put to the CEO, which Shepard says is problematic.

Such was the case with AT&T, which remains the parent of CNN until WarnerMedia closes its merger with Discovery. On April 30, Shepard wrote AT&T CEO John Stankey about what he called presumed bias at CNN, specifically claiming the network "pushed false narratives about Russians offering bounties for the deaths of American soldiers" and "about the cause of death of U.S. Capitol policeman Brian Sicknick." Shepard also accused CNN of falsifying and hyping COVID-19 news "to defeat Donald Trump and stir up racial division."

But AT&T paraphrased Shepard's question noting that it was similar to ones posed by additional shareholders, so the question Stankey was verbally asked by a moderator was boiled down to: "We've received a few questions regarding our ownership of CNN. Some stockholders feel that owning a cable news channel can be divisive because not everyone agrees with the viewpoints expressed on air."

Stankey responded by noting that CNN has won more Emmys in the past five years than in the previous 35, and that it has editorial independence from AT&T. "We believe in free speech, free press, your freedom of beliefs, and we actually think those things are incredibly important," he said, adding that CNN is "expected to stand up to rigorous journalistic standards for accurate, truthful reporting, and we continue to ensure that that's the case."

"AT&T rephrased our question as if we asked generically about bias," Shepard told Newsweek. "The lockdown and virtual meetings have been an excuse to rephrase difficult questions. With Netflix, for example, they didn't even take our question."

Shepard joked that "sometimes a company will rephrase a question to something like, 'You've been awesome; how can you be even more awesome?' But they'll keep a nugget of the actual question we ask."

He said Twitter is a particularly egregious example, as he typed a question several hundred words long about the social media giant's suspension of conservative independent journalist James O'Keefe [Note: Twitter says O'Keefe was banned for violating its "platform manipulation and spam policy."], while allowing users to tweet their alleged celebrations of deadly attacks against Israel; allowing LeBron James to allegedly "threaten" a police officer (the NBA star later removed the tweet); and allowing users to describe an alleged Syrian Muslim shooter in Colorado as a "white Christian terrorist."

But Twitter moderators condensed the question to: "Why do you continue to censor only the conservative side?" prompting Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to respond: "We have no bias in any of our policies, in our enforcement, in our machine-learning algorithms. If we ever find anything even hinting at that, we look at it immediately and rectify it. If we make any mistakes along the way, we admit to them and correct them."

For Thursday's meeting with Discovery shareholders, Shepard didn't only ask about the Wuhan lab, he also asked about CNN treating the Hunter Biden alleged laptop fiasco as fake news and Trump's alleged collusion with Russia as fact. And he asked the CEO to explain why anchor Chris Cuomo was allowed to allegedly "collude" with his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when it came to reporting the latter's handling of COVID-19.

"How, specifically, do you intend to act to keep CNN's failures of journalistic standards and ethics from destroying Discovery's reputation and market standing?" he asked the Discovery CEO, who declined to answer any questions about CNN.

Using similar language to that he used Thursday at the Discovery shareholders meeting, Shepard asked the CEO of Comcast to apologize to Sen. Cotton and other Republicans for calling them "liars, buffoons and racists" for advancing the notion that coronavirus was leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, but Roberts didn't respond directly to the challenge.

Also, Shepard asked the CEO of AT&T if he'd consider changing CNN's "designation from news network to hard-left opinion megaphone," though Stankey didn't respond and CNN declined to clarify whether Stankey was even aware of the written question that was verbally altered by a moderator during the shareholder meeting.

Newsweek covered the Wuhan lab theory in April 2020 in the article, "The Controversial Experiments and Wuhan Lab Suspected of Starting the Coronavirus Pandemic."

#20. Brian Roberts (Comcast Corporation)
Comcast is the parent of MSNBC and NBC News. Joshua Rainey Photography / Shutterstock