The Media’s Lab Leak Fiasco

Great column today from Matt Yglesias:

Because there is obviously a big media fuckup angle to this story, the two biggest deal accounts for a lot of media-skeptics are Donald McNeil making the case for a lab leak and Nicholas Wade making the case for a lab leak because those are both veteran science reporters who got “cancelled.” But I do think it’s important to try to understand exactly who got what wrong here. My best assessment is to agree with Josh Rogin that this is a case of a smallish group of reporters and fact-checkers proclaiming a scientific consensus where none ever really existed.

Josh Rogin (28 March 2021):

To anyone saying there is a “scientific consensus” about the origin of the coronavirus — Robert Redfield is a scientist. There is no consensus. Stop writing that falsehood into your stories, please.

There’s a question as to why that fake consensus emerged. But I think the more troubling question is: How did people let the original story of what Tom Cotton even said go so badly awry? Essentially Cotton said something that was then transformed into a fake claim of a Chinese bio-attack, then the fake claim was debunked, and then the debunking was applied to the real claim with little attention paid to ongoing disagreement among researchers.

At a meta level, it is fascinating to watch the top news publications unwind themselves from last year’s mistake of lumping “accidental leak from well-intentioned Wuhan research lab” with the actual baseless conspiracies about bioweapons or the SARS-CoV-2 virus being “engineered” from scratch to destabilize the world economy or whatever.

Here’s an unwinding from the Washington Post two days ago; here’s the New York Times’s unwinding and CNN’s today. The Post’s headline is instructively defensive: “Timeline: How the Wuhan Lab-Leak Theory Suddenly Became Credible” — the theory has been credible and compelling all along. What’s “sudden” is that journalists are now realizing — as Yglesias says — that they fucked up last year establishing a baseline conventional wisdom that it was pure crackpottery.

Yglesias’s piece is a terrific summary of the whole debacle.

Thursday, 27 May 2021