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Washington Post walk-back on COVID origins epitomizes media fails of Trump, pandemic eras

The accelerated unraveling of mainstream media narratives like those surrounding Russiagate, the Hunter Biden laptop and COVID origins has taken a toll on the industry's credibility.

Published: February 27, 2023 10:27am

Updated: February 28, 2023 11:14pm

It took The Washington Post fewer than 50 words to retract its 2020 attack on Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton's credibility for speculating that the COVID-19 virus emanated from a Chinese lab leak — a theory now deemed credible by the U.S. government. The words spoke volumes more, however, about the traditional media's record of failings during the era of former President Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic.

"Earlier versions of this story and its headline inaccurately characterized comments by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) regarding the origins of the coronavirus," the Post declared in an undated correction to a Feb. 20, 2020 article that accused Cotton of spreading a "fringe theory" that had been debunked as a conspiracy.

"The term 'debunked' and The Post's use of 'conspiracy theory' have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus," the outlet explained.

In other words, the Post admitted it drew its conclusions in a story and headline before the facts were clear enough to do so. This pattern has repeated itself far too often since Trump walked down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to launch a campaign that turned political convention, Washington elites and the news media upside down. 

Russia collusion was a Watergate-sized scandal, until it turned out to be a Democratic Party dirty trick. The Russians had bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, until they didn't. Natural immunity was inferior — and masks superior — in the fight against the coronavirus, until science determined otherwise. The Hunter Biden laptop discovery was Russian interference and election disinformation, until it became a verified source of evidence in the hands of the FBI, well before the 2020 campaign.

The accelerated unraveling of such stories from the mainstream media has taken a toll on the industry's credibility — only about a third of Americans in a Gallup poll trust the media regularly in what is a near-record low. It has, moreover, exposed an unhealthy alliance between government bureaucrats and liberal operatives, pushing storylines to willing recipients despite them being less than accurate, if not entirely untrue, experts said.

"This," said investigative journalist Ashley Rindsberg, "was the media kind of proverbially gearing up for their fight where they say, 'OK, Trump is too far outside of the window of acceptable discourse, so we're gonna have to readjust the standards of journalism, recalibrate it, to meet this the threat.'"

The media "had deemed him a threat ... and that's where the journalistic standards are just tossed out," said Rindsberg, author of "The Gray Lady Winked," a book that exposed decades of failures inside The New York Times. 

There are some small signs the industry has taken stock of its loss of credibility. The Columbia Journalism Review — the industry's scholarly journal — recently published a four-part, 30,000-word series by Pulitzer-winning former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth exposing breathtaking failures of major journalism institutions.

Even Bob Woodward, the legendary, Pulitzer-winning Watergate journalist whose former partner Carl Bernstein fanned the early flames of Russia collusion, has repudiated his colleagues for taking as gospel the unverified Steele dossier, a product he has labeled "garbage."

Woodward suggested journalism "cheated" the public out of the truth on Russia and urged newsrooms to "walk down the painful road of introspection" with regard to their failures.

The early campaign to discredit any American — even Cotton, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to classified information — who dared question the approved narrative that the COVID-19 virus came from a wet market stands out as the latest and perhaps most powerful example of a media run amok. 

The theory that the virus leaked from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology while it conducted gain-of-function research was long dismissed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He called the lab leak theory a "shiny object that will go away" in emails from April 2020 that were revealed in a January 2022 letter from House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Leading establishment media outlets uncritically adopted Fauci's position in lockstep. The New York Times, for instance, dismissed Cotton's speculation about a lab leak in February 2020 as a "fringe theory." 

In a social media post, Pulitzer-winning historian Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic likened Cotton’s questioning of the virus’ origin to “Soviet Propaganda" that "tried to convince the world that the CIA invented AIDS."

In April 2020, National Public Radio (NPR) claimed scientists had in fact "debunked" the Wuhan leak theory. In that same month, CNN claimed the lab leak theory was "almost certainly not true." The network assured viewers that Fauci had "crushed" the theory and went on to attack then-President Trump's endorsement of it.

New York Times science and health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli posted a series of tweets in 2021 branding the lab leak theories "racist," ​​​​​reportedly deleting the tweets only after triggering public backlash. 

This week, the long-ridiculed lab leak theory solidified its emerging status as the likeliest explanation for the origins of the virus, with belated official affirmation from a reported Department of Energy classified report and from FBI Director Chris Wray

"The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan," Wray told Fox News.

For his part, Cotton has not forgotten the abuse he took for raising the questions or the mindset of the news media who hijacked the COVID origins debate.

"The media originally labeled anyone who questioned China's official COVID narrative as xenophobic, a conspiracy theorist, and more," he tweeted this week. "They never did apologize for covering up for China. Worse, they're still doing it."

The Washington Post has not responded to a request for comment about its retraction of its characterization of Cotton's comments on the origins of the virus.  

You can follow Nick on Twitter @NGivasDC

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