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Media outlets that derided COVID lab-leak theory last year now scramble to save face

Hypothesis has gone from "fringe theory" to a major presidential consideration.

Updated: May 30, 2021 - 11:43pm

Major media outlets are scrambling to adjust their coverage of the COVID-19 "lab-leak" theory that many of them spent the past year deriding, one sign among many that the theory is gaining broader currency in the coronavirus debate after being dismissed as a "fringe" conspiracy for much of the pandemic.

The theory, which was first proposed in the earliest days of the pandemic at the start of 2020, holds that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a major coronavirus research site located just a few miles from the putative first outbreak of SARS-Cov-2, may have been responsible for a laboratory leak that launched the pandemic. 

The Wuhan lab has for years been conducting experiments into coronaviruses to determine their "emergence potential," or their capacity for jumping into human beings and potentially causing epidemics or pandemics. The lab has reportedly been at least instrumentally involved in risky "gain-of-function" research, in which scientists increase the pathogenicity of viruses in order to determine their pandemic potential. 

Some commentators and public officials, such as Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, were in the earliest months of the pandemic quick to note the first outbreak's proximity to the Wuhan lab and argue for the need to investigate it as a possible source of the pandemic. Yet media outlets spent much of last year either subtly or directly minimizing such suspicions, arguing instead for the allegedly high likelihood of the virus's natural origin. 

The New York Times, for example, in February of last year dismissed Cotton's speculation as the parroting of a "fringe theory." In May, the paper dismissed the "unsubstantiated theories" of the lab-leak hypothesis. As late as March of this year, the Times was chiding former CDC Director Robert Redfield for allegedly offering "no evidence in favoring speculation that the coronavirus originated in a lab."

Other major media outlets offered similar appraisals. NPR in April of last year claimed that scientists had "debunked" the lab leak theory. The taxpayer-subsidized news service's coverage was heavily tilted toward disputing the theory, at one point comparing it to the claims of the dangers posed by Iraq that proliferated in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of that country. 

CNN offered similarly slanted coverage, dismissing the theory in April of last year as "almost certainly not true," claiming at one point that White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci "crushed" the theory and offering critical coverage of then-President Donald Trump's endorsement of the theory over the assessments of the Intelligence Community. 

"Most MSM reporters didn't 'ignore' the lab leak theory," Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin tweeted Saturday, "they actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective out of a toxic mix of confirmation bias, source bias (their scientist sources lied to them), group think, TDS and general incompetence."

In the past several weeks, however, that media tone has shifted as a growing chorus of scientists, congressional officials and even President Joe Biden himself have all signaled a willingness to consider the theory. Abandoning its earlier stance, CNN admitted this week that "we're as far as ever from knowing how this virus ... came to be," and that "there needs to be more investigation" into the matter. 

NPR, meanwhile, has offered more balanced coverage of the theory in recent days, with "Morning Edition" host Rachel Martin citing "the discovery of additional evidence" of the theory. 

Rogin curtly rejects the premise that new evidence accounts for the about-face within the media. The "lab leak theory didn't change," he tweeted. "It didn't suddenly become credible. It didn't jump from crazy to reasonable. The theory has always been the same. The people who got it wrong changed their minds. They are writing about themselves, with zero self awareness."

Apart from news outlets, other media organs have scrambled to reverse their earlier positions on the theory. PolitiFact this month retracted a "pants-of-fire" rating it gave to the lab-leak theory last year, claiming the virus’s origin "is now more widely disputed" than it was last year. (The ostensibly neutral fact-checking site is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism training nonprofit partly funded by progressive megadonor George Soros.) Facebook, meanwhile, this week announced that it would no longer ban users from asserting that the SARS-Cov-2 virus may have been manmade. 

With little new evidence having emerged in the year since the theory was first floated, it is unclear why media priorities are shifting so significantly. 

The theory "got jumbled up together with some of the more crazy aspects of Trump," Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies's Global Health Policy Center, told NPR this week. "And scientists recoiled against that and went in favor of the theory that COVID-19 had emerged out of a natural process versus a lab escape." 

Politicized impulses of that variety could very well have caused the media — famously hostile toward Trump throughout the course of his presidency — to recoil from any theory the president himself championed. 

News media, of course, are in some senses limited in what they can cover as a matter of technical expertise: A media outlet is much less likely to pursue a scientific theory if few specialists are signing on to it. 

Yet the explosive possibility of the lab-leak theory — and the almost fantastical coincidence of the Wuhan lab's immediate proximity to the first SARS-Cov-2 outbreak — might have been expected to spur major journalistic interest even in the absence of wide scientific agreement. Media outlets, after all, spent several years aggressively covering the always unsubstantiated Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory. 

Whether or not the media will continue its new approach to the lab-leak theory may depend upon what’s found out about it in the near future. Biden this week gave the Intelligence Community 90 days to produce a comprehensive report on the potential origins of COVID-19, so the theory will likely sustain media interest for at least that long. The U.S. will "keep working with like-minded partners around the world," Biden said in his announcement of the report, "to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence."

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