Matt Yglesias: The media really did screw up the lab leak story

Yesterday Jonathan Chait wrote a pretty good summary of how the media messed up the lab leak story early last year. The Washington Post’s fact-checker also published a timeline which attempted to tell the same story. Chait’s piece was good and the Post’s timeline was less so, mostly because it minimized how the Post itself helped launch the crusade against the idea.

In any case, today Matt Yglesias wrote his own summary of the media history of this story which I think is the best one I’ve seen so far. Yglesias says it appears it all started with these comments from Sen. Cotton.

As you can see, Sen. Cotton was referring to a study that had appeared in Lancet saying the wet market was not the source of the virus. And as Yglesias notes, lots of other people were writing about this at the time, with one difference.

Cotton did one thing that those other sources didn’t do — he speculated a little. At the end of that clip he says “we still don’t know where coronavirus originated. Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company. I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”

And from there the media was off to the races with stories that were clearly looking to sensationalize this as much as possible.

Cotton’s statements did not get any immediate coverage, but several days later David Choi at Business Insider wrote them up with the headline “Republican senator suggests ‘worse than Chernobyl’ coronavirus could’ve come from Chinese ‘superlaboratory.’”

Choi’s piece is one of those things that happens on the internet when the story is totally accurate but also doing a lot of sensationalization for clicks…

What Choi did was not exactly accusing Cotton of spreading a conspiracy theory about Chinese bioweapons, but just sort of locating his remarks as adjacent to other people’s conspiracy theories and misinformation.

When China’s ambassador was asked about Sen. Cotton’s remarks, that led to another round of sensationalizing the story.

Cui’s official position is that we don’t know where the virus came from, but it was probably an animal. And Cotton’s position is that we don’t know where the virus came from, but it might have been the lab. Cui says it is irresponsible to speculate about the lab, while Cotton says the speculation is good. Cotton is not, I think, saying the virus was Chinese biowarfare — he is saying the PRC is not trustworthy. The PRC ambassador’s position, obviously, is that he is in fact trustworthy.

But whoever writes up the exchange for the Face The Nation Twitter account goes with Cui “dismisses #coronavirus conspiracy theories pushed by @SenTomCotton that it’s being used as biological warfare as ‘absolutely crazy.’”

And then Politico juiced the story some more and tweeted about its own story in ways that just weren’t accurate.

Blake Hounshell from Politico tweeted about the article about the tweets about the interview, calling it “wild” that Cotton was “spreading rumors about a Chinese bioweapon,” which just didn’t happen.

At this point, Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.

Snark aside, he’s right that Cotton was poorly treated by media outlets who’d spent four years looking for the latest Republican outrage story to satisfy the endless appetite of the resistance for such material. The lab leak story, when misconstrued into its most extreme form, fit the bill. Meanwhile, actual scientists were a lot less certain than media outlets writing hit pieces. Some came out publicly denouncing the idea of a lab leak but others noted the evidence for transfer from another species remained pretty thin, even if that was the more likely explanation. Yglesias admits he got caught up in the media hype.

When New York Magazine ran its lab leak theory story in January 2021, I tweeted disparaging things about it only to be told quietly by a number of research scientists that I was wrong and plenty of people in the science community thought this was plausible.

The last section of his piece has to do with the potential impact of this story on policy. Yglesias argues that at this point, this has mostly become a story about politics, i.e. whether Sen. Cotton was on to something or not. But either way he doesn’t see much changing in terms of policy stakes.

What exactly would the policy response to a Chinese lab leak be? Maybe the answer is that we’d shift our foreign policy toward China in a more hawkish direction. But we’re arguably already pretty hawkish toward China right now. We’ve declared what they are doing in Xinjiang to be cultural genocide. We’ve denounced their behavior in Hong Kong and warned about their ongoing threats to Taiwan. Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration have sent US warships on freedom of navigation cruises in the South China Sea. Certainly when you compare it to Biden’s approach to, say, Iran, he’s been pretty hawkish.

All that to say I think Yglesias is right that there wouldn’t be an immediate dramatic change in the direction of our policy if the lab leak theory turned out to be true (or at least have significant support).

However, because the pandemic has impacted so many families here and around the world, I don’t think you can assume there wouldn’t be a lot of viscerally angry people over something like this. I don’t think you can really predict what the eventual policy outcome of that anger might be. It could turn out to be a major issue in the next presidential election and, to some degree, could further invigorate international cooperation to isolate China. We might even see the formation of an Asian NATO.

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