Why Did Media Label the Wuhan Lab Theory ‘Baseless’ and ‘Debunked’ When it is Neither of Those Things?
“I am of the point of view, I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine, science will eventually figure it out.”
Those are the words of Dr. Robert Redfield; An opinion, by his description, that caught fire quickly and became a major news story.
“It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker,” said Redfield to CNN, a factual observation relating to his field of expertise.
Wuhan is a widely known center for viral studies in China, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has experimented – extensively – with bat coronaviruses.
That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s what CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta says in his narration, interspersed with the interview of Dr. Redfield.
Nevertheless, the words “conspiracy theory” have come up a lot since the interview. Particularly on social media. Also various forms of “baseless” or “without evidence.” Not to mention “debunked.” Even from the network that aired the interview.
The virologist and expert who subscribes to the entirely plausible theory that the pandemic began with the lab – and the theory itself – have prompted gallons of venom online. Though Redfield explicitly stated he’s not implying “any intentionality” on China’s part, his statement is treated as indistinguishable from accusing China of creating it as a bioweapon, in full intentionality. Not to mention being connected, post facto, to a wave of anti-Asian violence.
Not everyone reacted that way, though. For example:
“I think that what Dr. Redfield was saying, to my ears, is that it stands to reason, it stands to reason. And that yes, the evidence right now of it coming out of a lab is not concrete, it’s circumstantial. But part of that is because the Chinese have not opened their doors, and they have been completely un-transparent in this. Basically what he was saying was — and I’ll quote him — ‘it’s not unusual for a pathogen to infect a lab worker.’ And it would be unusual for it to go from a bat to an intermediary animal, to a wet market in Wuhan, when we know it’s not a food-based virus. So what was the intermediary animal? Was it alive and it bit somebody… That one strains credulity, I think, maybe even more than the lab theory.”
That amazing commentary is from CNN New Day co-host Alisyn Camerota — made during a discussion with CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner about Redfield’s comments.
But here is what her show, CNN’s New Day, tweeted: “Despite a lack of clear evidence, former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a CNN documentary clip released Friday that he believes the novel coronavirus began transmitting in fall 2019 and that the virus may have originated in a lab in China.”
That’s obviously designed to create in the reader a distrust of Redfield’s comments. “Despite,” it begins negatively, “a lack” it continues, implying faultiness, “of clear evidence” it buttons up, implying lack of thoughtfulness or understanding by Dr. Redfield.
This is a familiar tactic, both in the press and on the left. The author of the tweet would adopt a pose of innocently wide-eyed bemusement in response to any objection to its phrasing. “Whaaat? Who, meeee? Did I do that?” It’s a face people put on when they deliberately evoked a negative connotation but wish to pretend innocence, out of some obnoxious delusion of cleverness. “Are you saying that’s not a literally accurate definition?” It’s an infuriating, transparent, snotty pose, and you aren’t winning any arguments when you use it. It’s fan service for the home team.
What’s worse, in this case, is it’s not even entirely accurate. Redfield said — and Dr. Gupta reiterated that Redfield said — that the pandemic originated in the lab. That the virus leaked from there. Not that it was born there. That it was studied, tampered with, perhaps accidentally released, etc. Not that the lab was home to a divine spark of novel creation.
The Twitter account cast Dr. Redfield’s comments as suspect or dubious, and as asserting something they did not assert, even as the show itself approached it differently.
That disconnect could be seen in many ways in media. Chyrons and social media posts focused on Redfield not presenting some “concrete” smoking gun TikTok dancing lab tech sneezing his way through Wuhan to the haunting melodies of Fleetwood Mac, or whatever he was supposed to bring. Yet there were several on-air reports going rather deliberately in the other direction, emphasizing Redfield’s credentials and access to information the public is not. Erin Burnett, notably, was especially skeptical of the W.H.O. and intent on the point that discerning the truth of the origin of the pandemic is paramount.
Still, even hosts offering a benefit of the doubt dutifully repeat the mandatory refrain: Without Any Evidence.
The breathless proclamations by “follow the science, believe all scientists” pamphleteers who preen on cable, online, and in print, are belied by the calculated maneuvering of packaging “news.”
In a way, they’re in quite a pickle (as usual). Brine they cured themselves (as usual) we might add. Because for a year even saying the words “Wuhan lab” was an exercise in heretical self-branding. It’s a bit late to go nuanced.
Since Friday, it is extremely likely that “extremely unlikely” has come across your TV chyrons, phone alerts, or social media streams. The W.H.O. report on the origin of the virus discounted the lab theory as so “extremely unlikely” that it warranted no further investigation whatsoever.
Sorry, let me correct myself: the joint W.H.O.-China investigation’s report. Hmmm.
But this new “extremely unlikely” branding is just the latest face for the pushback against investigation or even inquiry regarding the Wuhan Institute.
Over the last year, any mention of it was harshly smacked down as conspiracy theory, swamp fever lunacy driven almost, but not quite, exclusively by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo in their bloodlust against China.
It is maybe CNN’s Chris Cillizza who, as is so often and sadly the case, exemplifies the media’s blanket take on the topic. In an article on Dr. Anthony Fauci “crushing” the lab theory, Cillizza’s grand arbitration found for Nature over Nurture on the origin of the pandemic, indicting Trump and Co. and absolving China along the way.
But he did make an interesting point, pertinent to today.
Now, before we play the game of “he said, he said” remember this: Only one of these two people is a world-renowned infectious disease expert. And it’s not Donald Trump.
In short, Fauci’s view on the origins of the disease matters a whole lot more than Trump’s opinion about where it came from. Especially because, outside of Trump and his immediate inner circle, most people in a position to know are very, very skeptical of the Trump narrative that the virus came out of a lab — whether accidentally or on purpose.
That was written last May and is of a tenor we’ve seen echoed over the weekend from a variety of media sources, some more extravagantly than others.
But Cillizza’s point catches the attention: “Only one of these two people is a world-renowned infectious disease expert.”
The same point could be made about the off-the-cuff comments from TV anchors about a leading virologist at the head of the agency most particularly tasked with virus response reasoning his way to a conclusion and deducing a potential scenario under circumstances with which he is familiar and under which he himself has worked.
Or, in short: Redfield’s view on the origins of the disease matters a whole lot more than CNN’s Pamela Brown filling in for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, for example.
Again, CNN is just a handy example, not the sole proprietor of the problem. The media environment exists in this state now. The other Covid lockdown. The one that punishes unapproved thought.
Yes, yes, criticism of the W.H.O.’s conclusion could be found here and there in the press over the last few days. An op-ed from David Feith at the Washington Post in particular comes to mind. Naturally it, like each CNN segment that gave Redfield any credence or latitude, was trashed in true polemic fashion.
But like the Cuomonundrum, it is itself that the press is the victim of. Even a cursory search of transcripts and articles dating back to April of last year will show the media’s broad and voracious appetite for China’s denials and penchant for casting Cillizzian aspersions on anyone who even hinted at the idea of the Wuhan lab being a potential starting point for the pandemic.
The hunger to be contrary to a Trump-adjacent scientific theory was so pervasive that unbiased, unflinching, genuine scientific inquiry into the origins of what the press itself has characterized as one of the biggest challenges ever faced by human beings became stifled to the point of suffocation.
“David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, says a lab leak was never the subject of a ‘fair and dispassionate discussion of the facts as we know them.’ Instead, tempers soon began to flare as those calling for a closer look at possible lab origins were dismissed as conspiracy theorists spouting misinformation,” explains Charles Schmidt at MIT Technology Review.
Here is a generous excerpt of that must-read article, for context.
It could have been career suicide for scientists to voice suspicions about a possible lab leak, says Metzl, especially when there was already a long history of viral disease outbreaks spilling over from nature. Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in gene therapy and cell engineering at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, echoes that view. Chan says the risk of challenging the orthodoxy that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins—an entirely plausible hypothesis, she maintains—is greatest for established scientists in infectious disease with supervisory roles and staffs to support. She herself has spent much of the last year calling for more scrutiny of a potential lab leak, claiming that as a postdoc, she has less to lose.
The vitriol also obscures a broader imperative, Relman says, which is that uncovering the virus’s origins is crucial to stopping the next pandemic. Threats from both lab accidents and natural spillovers are growing simultaneously as humans move steadily into wild places and new biosafety labs grow in number around the world. “This is why the origins question is so important,” Relman says.
The article doesn’t point the finger at any media source in describing the hysteria surrounding reasonable scientific investigation of a very possible scenario. But if you’re one of those people who owns a TV or a computer, you probably remember where you noticed it.
On another day, we could spend hours discussing other subjects where media orthodoxy has impeded genuine investigation, but for now, we’ll stick with the Wuhan lab story as the example of this phenomenon.
You might think the media’s urge to cloister can be blamed on the pathological insistence on “context” (which really means “narrative-keeping) in every aspect of news, from headlines to captions to sentence-by-sentence disclaimers. Or maybe that it can be attributed to the Trump Reflex – that endogenous, instinctual rejection of all things upon with 45 has lain touch or gaze that not only permeates the press, but is militarily enforced. Or you may deduce that the religiosity on the Wuhan Lab theory among respectable media is the result of hubris in the press, who trust their spontaneous emotional responses to stories over the informed analysis and reasoning of professionals and experts outside the group theology.
Who can say where the outbreak of this malady among journalists originated? Certainly not the W.H.O.
And that brings up another interesting point, hearkening back to Cillizza-isms of yore: The expert conclusion of the W.H.O. wasn’t exactly the conclusive and expert finding it was cracked up to be.
“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” said another conspiracy theorist stirring up hate. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
That hater? Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, W.H.O. Director-General, who in prepared remarks on Tuesday walked back “extremely unlikely” to “least likely” and said that the lab origin theory “requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
“Science will eventually figure it out,” said Dr. Robert Redfield to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Given the chance to do so without fear of media shaming or reprisal, perhaps it actually will.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.