What are we learning about the American political-media establishment now that the origin story of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be radically changing?
The Wall Street Journal has been reporting on new developments out of China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. There’s more on those researchers who became “sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.” The newspaper’s reporting boosts efforts supporting a deeper investigation into the origins of the coronavirus illness.
We’re also learning, and relearning, about institutional rot and the triumph of political ideology over analysis.
But will the political-media establishment of Washington use this moment to reexamine itself and reflect?
As we wait, more facts come out daily about the origins of the pandemic that led to the deaths of 3.4 million people worldwide, including some 500,000 in the U.S. It is without doubt the most important story of our time. And part of the job of citizens, of journalists and responsible political leaders, is to question assumptions.
Yet until quite recently, anyone who dared suggest that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — a theory that ran counter to the approved version of the Chinese Communist Party that someone ate or came in contact with an infected bat from a “wet market” — were dismissed as dangerous, perhaps insane.
Some, such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, were smeared by Washington media as wild-eyed Republican conspiracy theorists infected with a highly contagious political virus that had to be stamped out lest others catch it.
“Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins,” blared a New York Times headline in February 2020, saying such theories gain “traction among those who see China as a threat.”
And there were many others just like it, including in The Washington Post, with the headline “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research.”
“Experts.” Lazy reporting is what that word should connote when readers see it.
But now the worm is turning with reporting from The Wall Street Journal that three researchers became ill, sparking questions as to whether the COVID-19 virus that crushed lives and economies had escaped from that lab.
A May 5 essay in a science journal by Nicholas Wade, a former science writer from The New York Times, deals with the origin story and asks: “Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?”
Why was it so important to cling to the wet market theory and demonize others? Was it that former President Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, hinted that intelligence led them to believe it came from a lab?
The pandemic was the story of the election year. And the Democrats used it to hammer Trump’s campaign. COVID-19, said Jane Fonda, was “God’s gift to the left.”
The other day, a talking head on CNN explained things:
“When this first was being reported and discussed, a few months after the pandemic had begun, then-President Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, both suggested they had seen evidence that this was formed in a lab. And they also suggested that it was not released on purpose. But they refused to release the evidence showing what it was. And because of that, that made this instantly political. I think this was, you know, example 1,000 when the Trump administration learned that when you have burned your credibility over and over again, people are not immediately going to believe you, especially in an election year. However, that does not mean it’s not worth discussing.”
That was Maggie Haberman of The New York Times twisting her way out of explaining why she, along with most other journalists, dismissed the possibility of a different origin story.
President Joe Biden insists he has a good personal relationship with China, though he’s somewhat compromised by his son Hunter’s business relationships there. Whether all this gives leverage to the president to reshape U.S.-China relations is something best left to foreign policy analysts.
But there’s something else to consider:
The virus origin reset offers an extraordinary opportunity to the Washington establishment press to reflect, reconsider and reassess its role as Kemalist guardians. But will the establishment political media culture take advantage of this reset?
This is the same media that treated President Barack Obama as something of a demigod. Many gushed over his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, though he’d been on the job for only months. Besotted by Hopium, all the better to adore Obama, the establishment was shocked to its core when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That was the year of the anti-establishment insurgency. I knew she would not win. But I wasn’t standing in Washington where it is impossible to see clearly.
The New York Times might no longer be the newspaper of record, but it is the newspaper of the establishment. Its editor, Dean Baquet, realized the paper’s mistake on missing what was going on in the country following Trump’s win.
“If I have a mea culpa for journalists and journalism, it’s that we’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people we talk to — especially if you happen to be a New York-based news organization — and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”
Such critical self-examination lasted only a few weeks. Because rather than explore it and understand the nation and the disconnect between the establishment Washington press and millions of Americans, the Democratic Party gave the media fresh meat to sink their teeth into:
Hillary Clinton was unfairly defeated because Trump was a tool of the Russians! The Russia collusion fantasy was beaten like a drum for years, and though it fizzled as a criminal matter, it was politically effective. Pulitzer Prizes were awarded and in general, those who perpetuated that Big Lie never really wanted to examine how they got played.
And then came COVID-19, which couldn’t have come from a Chinese lab, we were assured. That story line might have helped Trump and the Republicans by shifting the focus to who was really at fault, China. That couldn’t be allowed.
So, will the American political-media establishment use this as a moment of reflection?
Don’t hold your breath.