On Jan. 24, 2020, British peer-reviewed journal The Lancet published a study on a novel coronavirus it identified as 2019-nCoV. The study substantially contradicted the official Chinese government narrative about when and how the virus originated, placing its emergence months earlier. It also cast doubt on how the virus emerged. While the Chinese government had pointed to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the now-infamous wet market in Wuhan, the paper found that at least one-third of initial cases—including “patient zero,” the first person known to have been sick with the virus—had no connection to the market whatsoever.
In the United States, the media’s initial response to The Lancet paper was largely sober and serious. The New York Times ran a Jan. 25 article connecting the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism to an assortment of prior botched efforts to manage major crises. The next day, Science magazine ran a story questioning the CCP narrative about the origins of the virus, citing The Lancet study’s discovery that of the 41 initial patients, 13 had no link to the wet market. The day after that, Vox ran a piece calling into question many of the assumptions formed in the earliest days of the pandemic, including those that had been shaped by Chinese officials.
On the heels of this spate of coverage from the Times, Science, Vox and others, a U.S. public official added a similar viewpoint. On Jan. 30, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton cited the same Lancet paper in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the course of making what seemed to be—by the standards of contemporaneous mainstream and expert coverage—a fairly unobjectionable point:
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.
The backlash to Cotton’s comment, swift and vociferous, would mark a turning point in the media’s approach to covering and investigating the origins of the virus. On Feb. 17, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran twin reports accusing Cotton of repeating a noncredible “fringe theory” about the origins of the virus, and taking particular issue with his comments on Fox News the previous day that “we don’t have evidence that this disease originated [in the Wuhan 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 any evidence on that question at all.” Both stories claimed that there was a consensus among experts that the so-called lab leak theory had been comprehensively dismissed.
Cotton’s line at the time was difficult to distinguish from mainstream coverage of The Lancet paper, and from presidential candidate Joe Biden’s later insistence to CNN that “I would not be taking China’s word for it. I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it’s from, how far along it is. Because that is not happening now.” So what was wrong with what Cotton said?
While the top-line reporting was the same from the Post and the Times, each paper took a different approach to the nuances of the story. The Post conflated Cotton’s remarks about a possible accidental leak from a scientific lab with an assertion that the virus might have been connected to a Chinese bioweapons program—something Cotton never claimed, and which no statement from anyone on or off the record had even suggested. (The Post issued a correction to the article over a year later, removing the terms “debunked” and “conspiracy theory” and noting that “then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.”)
The Post had previously stitched together claims about the lab leak theory with expert statements on the question of a possible bioweapons connection. Most prominently, in its first article on the topic on Jan. 29, 2020, the Post ran a report that included a quote by professor Richard Ebright, a renowned professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, directly after the article noted a “fringe theory” about how the virus could have been the “accidental result of biological weapons research.” “Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,” the Post quoted from Ebright.
Ebright himself, however, was never opposed to exploring the possibility of a scientific lab leak. A few days after the Post piece ran, Ebright tweeted out a story about Chinese researchers from other biosafety labs who sold their lab test animals to meat markets. At the bottom of his tweet, Ebright made a simple statement: “Coronavirus may have leaked from lab.”
The Post’s January article citing Ebright was specifically focused on the “fringe theory” that the virus was part of a Chinese bioweapons program. But in that piece, the Post included prominent mention of an article by the Daily Mail that reported on a 2014 Nature paper documenting serious safety issues at China’s scientific biosafety labs. Directly beneath that paragraph referencing the Daily Mail article on an accidental scientific lab leak, the Post focused on a Washington Times article explicitly theorizing that the virus might emerged from a Chinese bioweapons program.
By couching the Daily Mail article—one of the very first, if not the first major news story to raise the possibility of an accidental lab leak—in a piece about fringe theories with thinly backed claims of a bioweapons program, the Post set off a chain of events that would lead to the creation of the bioweapons straw man: the conflation of an accidental lab leak, a theory considered plausible by scientists, then and now, with the actually fringe bioweapons release theory.
Days later, on Feb. 4, 2020, Business Insider’s David Choi picked up this thread, injecting Cotton into the picture by connecting his Senate remarks—which had made no mention of China’s biowarfare program—to “conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins—including one that says the virus ‘originated in lab [sic] linked to China’s biowarfare program.’”
The New York Times would elevate the bioweapons straw man as news media gospel when it reported on Feb. 17 that “The idea of the coronavirus as an escaped weapon has been carried through international news outlets like the British tabloid the Daily Mail and the Washington Times”—even though the Daily Mail article focused exclusively on an accidental lab leak and made no mention of the word “weapon.” This would have been plainly clear to anyone who had even casually perused the two articles, let alone an experienced New York Times reporter and numerous editors. (The New York Times did not respond to a request for comment.)
What accounted for the speed of the media’s about-face? One might posit that hatred of Cotton and the GOP among mainstream reporters and editors is so intense that if the Arkansas senator had said the sky was blue, the entire U.S. press corps would have declared it red. Yet blind partisanship alone couldn’t have guaranteed a rapid, simultaneous, and near-unanimous change in coverage. There was something else.
By now it’s a truism that China wields extraordinary influence over American business, but it’s often forgotten that “American business” includes, of course, the national news media. The nature of that influence does not necessarily entail paying off journalists or news organizations for desired coverage. There is simply an awareness that when the CCP bares its teeth, or, if necessary, goes on the attack, it can alter the fortunes of billion-dollar companies, thousands of employees, and millions of shareholders in the United States and elsewhere.
Consider The Washington Post, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, has enough money to fund the newspaper in perpetuity—an argument against Chinese influence directly shaping coverage. (Who needs China when the richest man on the planet, an American, is your sugar daddy?) But when we take into account that China plays a determining role in Amazon’s profitability, the picture starts to shift. For example, given that half of Amazon’s top 10,000 sellers are Chinese, it’s not hard to understand what would happen to the company’s balance sheet if the CCP decided to disrupt Amazon’s access to those sellers. Similarly, access to the Chinese market will likely be the determining factor in the ability of Amazon’s AWS division to maintain its top spot in the fiercely competitive global cloud computing market. AWS, which recently expanded its presence in China, accounts for nearly half of Amazon’s annual profit.
The Post is not alone. In May, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith penned a column on China’s “vast” strategy to create an alternate global news media and “to insert Chinese money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world.” Smith wrote that China has leveraged its existing media influence to sway coverage, while ramping up that influence through partnerships in countries as far flung as Serbia, the Philippines, Italy, and Guinea-Bissau. Smith, however, never turned his attention to Chinese efforts to plant and harvest influence in its most valuable influence market, the United States, nor did he look at the Times’ own record on pandemic coverage in the context of the paper’s decadelong collaboration with the state-owned media organization China Daily.
The Times and the Post, two of America’s three leading newspapers, are not unique among media outlets in their China ties. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts publicly stated in 2017 that he expected the company’s Universal Studios theme park in China, which opened in September 2021, to generate at least $1 billion in annual operating cash for NBCUniversal’s Universal theme park unit, which saw around $6 billion in total revenue in 2019 (the latest pre-pandemic figure) and accounts for one-third of all of parent company NBCUniversal’s operating cash, making the park a highly lucrative investment for the company. Comcast, the media conglomerate that owns NBCUniversal, also owns NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, Sky News, and Telemundo, and holds major stakes in Vox Media (which owns Vox, The Verge, and New York Magazine, among others) and in BuzzFeed.
Ties between Disney—the parent of ABC News and Hearst Communications (which owns 33 TV news channels that, together, reach almost one-fifth of American viewers, in addition to 250 magazine editions)—and China are so cozy that the Chinese government recently called on the company to help improve ties with the United States government. In 2019, Reddit, an independent subsidiary of the parent company that owns Condé Nast, which in turns owns Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Wired, took $300 million of investment in a funding deal led by CCP-tied tech company Tencent. The list of major U.S. media companies with substantial ties to China is so long that it is more difficult to name one that isn’t dependent in one way or another on Chinese cash.
In addition to blind partisanship, then, all this can help explain why, for example, in a Feb. 9, 2020, interview with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, CBS News’ Margaret Brennan asked a charged question based on a false premise: “Senator Tom Cotton ... suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program. That’s an extraordinary charge, how do you respond to that?” In response, the ambassador declared that it was “harmful” and “dangerous” to stir up “suspicion” and “rumors” that could lead to “racial discrimination” and “xenophobia.” Brennan moved on.
The same day as that interview, Politico published an article that held Brennan as the source for the bioweapons straw man. “When asked about comments made last week by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)—who, according to Brennan, suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program—Cui did not mince words,” the article stated [emphasis added]. Note that Politico did not quote Cotton saying something he never actually said; it attributed the false Cotton quote to a presumably reputable source (Brennan) without actually correcting it for readers, who would simply consume it as fact. Politico Managing Editor Blake Hounshell then tweeted that “It was wild to see @SenTomCotton spreading rumors about a Chinese bioweapon that were easily debunked within minutes.”
In its own Feb. 17 story, The New York Times made largely the same assertions as the Post, including the patently false claim that Cotton had “walked back the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon run amok.” But the Times report added another partisan twist, reporting that “the conspiracy theory … gained an audience with the help of well-connected critics of the Chinese government such as Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist. And on Sunday [after Cotton’s remarks], it got its biggest public boost yet.” By connecting a plausible lab leak theory first to an implausible bioweapons theory, and then to a hate figure like Steve Bannon, the Times was able to discredit the theory by claiming an association with Trump.
A Business Insider article published on the same day as the Times and Post pieces of Feb. 17 (though later in the day) presented a complete tableau, labeling lab leak a “conspiracy theory,” conflating it with a bioweapons program, claiming the theory had been “thoroughly debunked,” and turning to a Chinese government source (in this case, the editor of the Global Times) to suggest there were similarly credible rumors of a U.S. bioweapons leak. The one thing it couldn’t do was provide a quote about biological weapons from Tom Cotton.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik argued in a June 2021 interview that lab leak “was dismissed and ridiculed by the media” because, he claimed, the “source” of the theory was Trump. The problem with this explanation, as we’ve seen, is that America’s most influential news organizations had vehemently dismissed the lab leak theory as early as February 2020—back when Trump was still praising China for its handling of the virus, and well before he’d said anything at all about the Wuhan lab. It wasn’t until more than a month later, when it became clear that mounting deaths and lockdowns were going to have serious political consequences in the United States, that Trump adopted an anti-Chinese stance; and it wasn’t until two months later that he began making claims about a lab origin. So much for Folkenflik’s theory.
The other common explanation for the media’s anti-lab-leak effort, one still advanced by many members of the press, is that (a) there was no evidence for lab leak, while (b) there was substantial evidence that the virus jumped to humans from an animal. Both claims were rationalized by the now-infamous Lancet letter of February 2020 signed by 27 scientists, which stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”
The Lancet was later harshly criticized after it was revealed that the letter was organized by Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO that distributes U.S. government grant money (from the National Institutes of Health) to biosafety labs, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Like the excuse that Trumpian rhetoric had poisoned the well, however, the timeline of this explanation also doesn’t work: The Lancet letter ran on Feb. 19—after The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Business Insider, ABC News, and numerous others had run reporting that definitively labeled lab leak a conspiracy theory.
For Daszak, The Lancet letter was only the opening salvo in a yearlong media campaign in which the EcoHealth Alliance head would become an Ahmed Chalabi-like presence, leading the media with claims of evidence of zoonotic spillover. Daszak would become almost as ubiquitous a media figure as Dr. Anthony Fauci, his government benefactor. This blitz included Daszak being uncritically interviewed, cited, or tapped as a talking head by The Guardian, CNN (on multiple occasions), The New York Times (on multiple occasions), NPR, Slate, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes, Wired US and Wired UK, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS News (on multiple occasions), Science magazine, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Vox, Now This, ABC News, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many others.
In these appearances, Daszak, a zoologist who studies zoonosis, advanced three other important threads of the broader media narrative about the coronavirus pandemic. The first was that the virus jumped to humans from animals, almost certainly, he claimed, from bats. This was a point Daszak really hammered home, and which the media accepted as all-but-proven, despite an ongoing lively debate among scientists who are experts in these fields.
The second was that the pandemic is directly related to humanity’s problematic relationship with the natural environment. Daszak penned one of The New York Times’ first COVID-related op-eds, in which he attributed pandemics like COVID-19 to “spillover” from animals as a result of humanity’s collision with nature in the form of “road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development.”
Third, Daszak would claim repeatedly that China was continuing to do exemplary work in the fight against zoonotic viruses—and that anyone who denied it was motivated by an anti-Chinese agenda. “China has done a lot to deal with this virus before us. They know a lot about how to control it,” Daszak told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in an interview subsequently cited by Chinese propaganda outlets. “I think we started to see the conspiracy theories, the pointing of the finger at China, and just this sort of politicization which means countries cramp up and it’s really unfortunate.”
The media enthusiastically embraced this notion as it reported on China as a global model for fighting the pandemic and handling major crises more generally. Outlets as diverse as business analysis company Gartner (“How Chinese Companies Successfully Adapted to COVID-19”), NBC (“As Covid-19 runs riot across the world, China controls the pandemic”), The New Yorker (“How China Controlled the Coronavirus”), Wired (“How China Crushed Coronavirus”), and even The New York Review of Books (“How Did China Beat Its Covid Crisis?”) pursued the storyline that China had beaten the virus not in spite of the authoritarian state, but because of it. In one representative piece, “Power, Patriotism and 1.4 Billion People: How China Beat the Virus and Roared Back,” The New York Times reported on Feb. 5, 2021:
In the year since the coronavirus began its march around the world, China has done what many other countries would not or could not do. With equal measures of coercion and persuasion, it has mobilized its vast Communist Party apparatus to reach deep into the private sector and the broader population, in what the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has called a “people’s war” against the pandemic—and won.
Why the media, in its coverage of China’s real and perceived successes, would go as far as to declare the fight against the pandemic essentially over, and that China “won,” when the country is still seeing outbreaks and refuses to release real national health data (if it exists) is unclear. It may just be the combination of corporate media heads who don’t want to run afoul of Chinese business or authorities, and the desire of reporters to be “on the right side,” which means that if “Republicans” are for it, then all right-thinking people must be against it.
And if Republicans are against China, then why not uncritically present even the most questionable claims by the CCP? One New York Times article from August 2020 admiringly pointed to China’s official reports of a death toll as low as 4,634, with no further explanation for the statistic. In February 2021, the Times repeated the CCP’s official pandemic statistics, claiming that the total number of dead stood at 4,636 (where it still stands today)—meaning, in a country of 1.4 billion people, there had been a total of two coronavirus deaths in a six-month period.
While Daszak was promoted by the media, those with views about lab leak that diverged from Daszak’s were consistently ignored. For example, on topics related to public health, lockdowns, virus transmission, and vaccines, The New York Times had previously cited Stanford microbiologist David Relman at least 20 times, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at least 64 times, and Yale immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki at least 67 times. But it did not turn to any of these experts—all of whom were in favor of exploring the lab leak hypothesis—on the question of the virus’s origins. By contrast, in 2020 Peter Daszak was cited by the Times at least a dozen times as an authority on the virus’s origins.
With Daszak leading the way, the media successfully couched lab leak as a conspiracy theory with roots in Trumpian politics, environmental denialism, and anti-Chinese sentiment. Together, these formed what we might call Daszak’s triangle, a mental model that made lab leak a social and political impossibility for anyone who did not want to be branded as an anti-science, right-wing xenophobe. Conversely, the “correct” (as distinct from “true”) theory of the pandemic’s origins was tied to animal spillover through the well-accepted notion of catastrophic environmental damage caused by human greed. The lead sentence of a September 2020 New York Times piece (which quoted extensively from Daszak) about a Times documentary, “Who’s to Blame for the Pandemic?” answered the question by stating: “The pandemic is your fault. Yes, yours.”
Daszak’s triangle made it impossible to even consider that partial responsibility for the origins of the pandemic might rest with the Chinese government. With reports of a global backlash of anti-Asian racism, some proponents of the anti-lab-leak narrative began claiming that any investigation into the origins and course of the pandemic was an act of pure bigotry. This narrative was able to conflate anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism (a very real and disturbing phenomenon) with a desire to question CCP claims concerning the pandemic’s origins.
In late February 2020, Slate published an article, “Where the Coronavirus Bioweapons Theory Really Came From,” which stated, “It does not matter how effectively we counter conspiracies claiming evidence that the virus shows signs of being engineered. That’s because the rumors of a lab escape or a bioweapon stem from historical amnesia, a caricatured villain, and good old-fashioned racism.”
As late as spring and summer of 2021—after the media had started to moderate its anti-lab-leak stance—journalists and commentators were still making the case that the theory is an inherently racist idea. In May, New York Times science and health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted (and later deleted): “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots.” A month later, CNN medical analyst Leana Wen similarly tweeted that “speculation over the lab leak theory will increase anti-Asian hate.”
In May 2021, Donald G. McNeil Jr., previously The New York Times’ lead pandemic reporter but ousted from the paper in February for an unrelated incident, penned an apologia, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab-Leak Theory,” including an explanation of why he thought the media worked so hard to discredit lab leak. McNeil, who has decades of experience in science and medical reporting (including on pandemics), dove into the rationale, including the relevant science, for why he and many of his colleagues had considered lab leak implausible, and zoonotic spillover the more credible answer.
McNeil demonstrated much of the flawed argumentation from Daszak’s triangle, including the idea that “the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial” and that the Trump administration’s perceived lack of credibility was the real obstacle, but he was not able to explain the immediate, simultaneous, and almost reflexive reaction by the media—including but certainly not limited to the Times—to cast lab leak as unscientific and fringe. Which theory is more likely—lab leak or zoonotic spillover—is of course the key question for science. The question for the media is why it chose sides so quickly, so vigorously, and so collectively, before there was enough evidence either way.
The day after Mandavilli’s tweet about the racist roots of lab leak, Nature published a news article stating that “rhetoric around an alleged lab leak has grown so toxic that it’s fueling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States …” The article provided no evidence for the latter claim, not even a glance at statistics involving cases of anti-Asian hate crimes in the relevant timeframe.
Why would a scientific journal (of all things) make a charged claim it couldn’t bother to support? The answer lies in the second half of the sentence quoted above. In addition to fueling anti-Asian hate, Nature averred that exploring lab leak risked “offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed” [emphasis added]. In these few words—more ham-fisted but also more revealing than anything you’d find in a leading consumer news outlet—Nature drew back the curtain on not just the connection the media drew between lab leak and racism, but the media’s broader take on the role that China played in the pandemic.
As Paul D. Thacker, the investigative journalist who conducts extensive scientific, medical, and environmental reporting (including for many of the outlets mentioned above) and now authors the DisInformation Chronicle, explained to me in an email exchange:
When it comes to the science media, I rarely refer to many of them as “science reporters.” They are “science writers” because their job is to tell a story that makes science look good, not to do actual reporting. That’s why so many of them have done such a terrible job and called the lab leak a “conspiracy theory” or said that it was anti-Asian bias. Why is it anti-Asian to say that the pandemic started in a Wuhan lab, but not anti-Asian to say it started in a Wuhan wet market?
While this might explain the false narrative that emerged about lab leak in the science media, it still leaves us wondering why the consumer news media took much the same approach.
This question is at the core of what might be one of the greatest journalistic scandals of our generation. That there appears to be no accountability, self-reflection, or Iraq-WMD-style reckoning on the horizon only compounds the problem. If and when it does, we are likely to conclude that the false narrative around the pandemic’s origins represented a tipping point—a comprehensive failure in journalistic quality and mores in a time of national emergency, caused in large part by an overconcentration of corporate power in media, decades of economic and technological turbulence, and a disturbingly supine approach to an authoritarian hegemon. We might also discover that public trust in an institution essential to democracy was damaged beyond repair.
Ashley Rindsberg is the author of The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History (2021).