In mid-February, in an appearance on Fox News, Senator Tom Cotton expressed doubts about China’s claims regarding the emerging coronavirus. “China was lying from the beginning, and they’re still lying today,” he said. He noted that just a few miles from the food market in Wuhan Province where China claimed the virus first started sits “China’s only biosafety level-4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”
Cotton continued: “Now we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” he said, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question.” Some of the nation’s most prominent print publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, immediately accused Cotton of trafficking in conspiracy theories. CBS News went so far as to invite China’s ambassador to the U.S. on Face the Nation to suggest that Cotton was “crazy.” Countless pundits and media figures also eagerly piled on: Post opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin illustrated the trend, tweeting that Cotton was an “irrational conspiracy monger” with a “cultist mentality.”
Meanwhile, the same expert quoted in a critical Post story about Cotton, Rutgers University biology professor Richard Ebright, appeared in a contemporaneous report by the BBC saying precisely what Cotton himself had said: that the virus might have emerged as the result of a “lab incident.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Cotton’s concerns about China’s prevarications have been validated many times over. As Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News reported on April 1, a classified U.S. intelligence report found persuasive evidence that China has been intentionally misleading the world about infection and death rates in the country since the start of the crisis.
China’s state-run newspaper dismissed such claims, of course: “The U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion is an attempt to divert attention from surging deaths in the U.S. and other Western countries.” That same day, the New York Times published a lengthy story by Jeremy Peters headlined “Alarm, Denial, Blame” that called Trump and the conservative media’s response to the pandemic “a textbook propaganda campaign.”
In the past few months, many journalists have covered the coronavirus pandemic with rigor and integrity. One early warning about the danger of trusting China and the World Health Organization came in February in a well-reported piece by Jeremy Page and Betsy McKay in the Wall Street Journal. And reporters and pundits are correct to criticize the Trump administration’s inconsistent and often shambolic response to the pandemic. Even so, we must not allow the glaring blind spots in the mainstream media’s coverage of the virus in the preceding months to disappear down a convenient memory hole—in particular, their credulous approach to China and their lack of rigor in examining Chinese influence on the WHO.
From the beginning, the WHO’s statements about the emerging virus read more like Chinese propaganda than global health recommendations. On January 30, for example, when WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus finally acknowledged that the virus posed a global health emergency, he made sure to note that “this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China.” To the contrary, he added: “The WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.” Just a day earlier, other WHO officials praised China’s Xi Jinping for helping “prevent the spread of the virus to other countries,” even though by that point WHO officials knew the virus had already appeared in at least 18 other nations. And yet, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal’s report, it’s difficult to find anyone in the mainstream media who didn’t take WHO largely at its word.
Or consider the media’s approach to the numbers, which are the main story of any pandemic. Without accurate data, it is nearly impossible to get a handle on the scope and scale of a global public health crisis. And yet, from the beginning, China withheld information, silenced internal whistleblowers, and engaged in a concerted effort to stifle bad news about the pandemic.
Nevertheless, American media outlets tiptoed around the Chinese misinformation campaign, refusing even to call it one or to invoke the word “propaganda.” A February 12 New York Times story by China correspondent Vivian Wang, about China’s unexplained decision to change the way it counted virus cases to downplay the pandemic, quoted an expert who acknowledged that the Chinese government had “an issue with trust” when it came to its claims, but allowed that saying so “may be terribly unfair.” The strongest statement Wang would make in her reporting was that “even the WHO, which has praised the Chinese government for its cooperation in fighting the outbreak, expressed confusion” about China’s new tallying methods.
By mid-March, when Americans were growing ever more concerned about the rising number of cases in the U.S., mainstream media outlets praised…China. “China Hits a Coronavirus Milestone: No New Local Infections,” the New York Times trumpeted in a March 18 headline; National Public Radio aired a similar story. Still other reporters spent time denouncing Trump for insisting on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” in his public statements.
A March 26 story by Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. declared that, following a brief moment of denial at the outbreak of the crisis, “China’s autocratic government acted with ferocious intensity after the belated start, eventually shutting down swaths of the country.” McNeil paints a bleak and, by contrast with China, ineffective picture of America: “The public health system…has been outmatched by the pandemic. There was no Pentagon ready to fight the war on this pandemic, no wartime draft law.”
The clear takeaway is that China’s response has been far more effective than that of the U.S.—which, conveniently for the Chinese Communist Party, is also the message it has been promoting. Or, as Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist tweeting at Trump, in an egregious and ghoulish remark, “He did promise ‘America First.’”
Of course, Trump hasn’t helped when it comes to distinguishing between China’s misinformation campaign and the American response. During a press briefing on April 1, he conceded that China’s reported numbers “seem to be a little bit on the light side,” but then downplayed the concern by joking, “As to whether their numbers are accurate, I’m not an accountant from China.” But at other times he’s noted that the virus “could have been stopped right where it came from, China.”
Senator Ben Sasse has been more forthright and consistent. “The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false,” he wrote. He warned people not to take “Beijing’s garbage propaganda” seriously. This is neither a partisan nor a strictly American approach. China’s official virus count is so obviously skewed that in the UK, the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee issued a report in early April noting that “from the outset China has sought to obfuscate the data.”
The media’s willingness to make misleading comparisons between China and the U.S. isn’t evidence of a coordinated strategy or a conspiracy by left-leaning reporters. What we have is a press corps for whom cognitive dissonance in the Trump era has become such a familiar feeling that many no longer bother to delete the tweets or retract the stories whose factual inaccuracies are revealed days later—just so long as they continue to feed the desired narrative. All those scurrilous things written about Tom Cotton? Never retracted or corrected. Meanwhile, a meretricious organization like the WHO, whose culpability in mishandling the pandemic response is clear, continues to be treated respectably by journalists.
If our media are warriors for the truth, aggressively questioning the claims of the powerful and our institutions, why have they been so astonishingly cowardly about naming the obvious villain in this tragedy? And what does that tell us about how they define the truth?
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