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The Lab Leak Problem
It’s possible to acknowledge the mainstream media’s blind spots and biases without buying into right-wing propaganda.
While we will never be able to confirm its origins, it is most likely that COVID-19 emerged from a lab controlled by the Chinese government.
That is not just the conclusion of a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists and grifters, but also at least two U.S. government agencies.
Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that “the U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak.”
In a TV interview a few days days later, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that the Bureau had come to the same conclusion. In his own words:
The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan. Here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.
Of course, the lab leak hypothesis had long been written off as a conspiracy theory by many in the mainstream media.
The early days of the pandemic were full of headlines dismissing the idea that the virus might have originated anywhere outside of nature. Here are just a few examples:
But if the DOE and the FBI’s conclusions confirm anything, it is that the lab-leak hypothesis is legitimate — and it is untrue and unfair to reject it as a “conspiracy theory.”
The journalists and commentators in the mainstream media who prematurely wrote off the theory were wrong to do so.
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The Mainstream Media Messes Up
With public trust in the news media at an all time low, this latest saga is a setback to those who want to see Americans start agreeing on basic facts again.
The reality of human institutions is that they have blindspots and biases — and the news establishment’s problems are well-documented. As critics from across the political spectrum are quick to point out, today’s mainstream media tend to generate coverage that is biased toward the political left, toward the white, wealthy, and educated, and, yes, toward our institutions themselves.
This story unfolded in the Goldilocks Zone of the news establishment’s blindspots — the Trumpified right picked up the theory and ran with it early on while many leaders in the scientific and medical establishment cast doubt on it — and they blew it accordingly.
As you’d expect, few have taken better advantage of the mainstream media’s shortcomings than political opponents of the left.
America’s 21st century Reality Industrial Complex thrives on top of a vast, alternative right-wing media ecosystem. There are massive audiences foaming at the mouth for another dose of anti-establishment dopamine, which means there’s a lucrative market for stories and headlines that take pot shots at institutions when they inevitably slip up.
In other words, as Matt Yglesias put it recently in a spectacular Slow Boring post:
If you fuck something up, there are strong incentives for everyone else to publicize that fact…
In today’s more competitive environment, the coverage is better (even in bad moments), but you also hear more about the real weaknesses of the coverage and walk away with a negative impression.
The mainstream media messed up the lab leak story — and Fox smelled blood. Here’s just a handful of headlines and cable chyrons from the network over the last seven days:
It would be a lot easier to justify turning to Fox and others on the right as genuine alternatives to the mainstream media if they made an equally thorough effort to tell the truth in other areas of their reporting.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s rise and takeover of the Republican Party has meant not only that the anti-establishment market has become especially concentrated on the political right, but also that it has developed a disdain for fact-based reporting. (It’s what happens when the cudgel against the establishment is a pathological liar.)
You’re only going to get the truth from Fox when the audience wants to hear it.
It was recently revealed, for example, that the top brass at Fox knew they were airing lies about the 2020 election being stolen and did it anyway because they didn’t want to offend their Trump-obsessed viewers.
If there isn’t audience demand for it, you cannot expect to find reality on Fox — and if there is strong demand for a lie, expect to hear all about it.
Beware of False Choices
If there’s an obvious takeaway from the lab leak saga, it’s that this is another reminder that the mainstream media is capable of getting things wrong and shouldn’t be taken as the gospel.
But the fact that establishment news organizations are flawed does not mean that veteran reporter Margaret Sullivan is wrong when she labels them the “reality-based press.” We would be remiss to forget that today’s mainstream media organizations generally traffic in facts and reality while their counterparts on the right do not.
Outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN actually attempt to tell the truth. They follow fact-finding norms and standards. They issue corrections when they get things wrong (including on the lab leak story). And they don’t continue to push baseless lies after they’re disproven.
The same cannot be said of Fox News and others on the right, who pull a clever two-step when the mainstream media gets it wrong on big stories.
Whether it’s the lab leak hypothesis or the Hunter Biden laptop saga (another case in which the mainstream media blew it), their implicit message always boils down to something like this:
“The mainstream media got it wrong on [X] because they’re biased liberals, so they clearly can’t be trusted.”
Who are we going to trust? Fox? Where you’ll hear Tucker Carlson suggest that January 6th was actually an FBI false flag operation?
We don’t have to fall for this false choice.
The mainstream media has gotten plenty of stories wrong, and it will get plenty more wrong in the future. But we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
We can criticize the news establishment without becoming parrots of right-wing propaganda. We can recognize that there’s a big difference between having blind spots and biases and knowingly lying to people because it’ll boost your profit margins.
We don’t need be establishment sheep, but we certainly don’t need be anti-establishment sheep either.
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