If only we lived in fairytale land, where the little boy’s observation that the emperor has no clothes snapped the people back to reality. In modern America, however, the exposure of delusional prevarications is met with a shrug by the powers that be, who simply move on to the peddling of other untruths.
For more than a year, government experts and their stenographers at our most prestigious media outlets denied what was clear to anybody with a modicum of common sense – that the COVID-19 pandemic that had originated in Wuhan, China, could have originated in the Wuhan lab where scientists were performing dangerous research into coronaviruses.
Without solid proof for their pet theory – that the virus spread from animals to humans – they dismissed any and all suggestions that the deadly pathogen might have leaked from the lab as the ramblings of racist conspiracists. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms enforced this party line by canceling those who dared to question it.
That narrative was challenged earlier this month when former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade wrote an authoritative article detailing why it was more likely that irresponsible scientists, rather than infected animals, spawned the disease that has killed at least 3.5 million human beings worldwide, nearly 600,000 of them Americans. As a conscientious reporter, Wade did not claim he had solved the riddle of COVID-19, only that the long disparaged lab leak theory was a strong possibility.
Like the fabled boy courageous enough to note the emperor’s nakedness, Wade’s piece has finally opened the floodgates on the search for truth. After initially shutting down an inquiry into the lab leak theory – and describing Donald Trump as racist and xenophobic for alleging the Chinese might be responsible for the pandemic — President Biden has reversed course, calling for a new investigation into COVID’s origins.
Meanwhile, the scales have suddenly fallen from the eyes of many celebrated journalists who long disparaged or ignored the lab leak theory. One of the most damning pieces was written by Donald G. McNeil Jr., who had been leading the New York Times’ COVID coverage until he was forced to resign from the paper earlier this year over racially charged remarks he’d made years before.
Stunningly, McNeil admitted that there was plenty of evidence for the lab leak early on. He admitted that many of the articles Wade cited to support his argument were “not new to the most intense and well-educated followers of this topic, but new to the greater public debate.” We didn’t know because writers like McNeil did not emphasize them. McNeil linked to a series of pieces published April 22, 2020, June 2020, and November 2020.
How did McNeil and others get it so wrong? A big reason was that many leaders of the scientific community – in an abdication of their obligation to open inquiry – claimed they had solved the puzzle. In February 2020, before the United States had acknowledged its first recorded death from COVID, 27 top virologists published a letter in the British medical journal the Lancet that “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” That March, the American journal Nature Medicine published a letter signed by 30 scientists stating, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct.”
These assurances were premature. While we can forgive journalists for taking the word of their sources, let’s note that reporters are not supposed to take dictation. Their job is to challenge claims, even from experts. This responsibility became ever more pressing as counter-evidence emerged. We don’t know why scientists and science writers were so intent on shutting down avenues of inquiry, but McNeil’s piece suggests the animus was political.
“For about a year,” he wrote, “[the view of those Lancet and Nature Medicine researchers] was the general wisdom among science writers. The ‘lab-leak theory’ migrated back to the far right where it had started — championed by the folks who brought us Pizzagate, the Plandemic, Kung Flu, Q-Anon, Stop the Steal, and the January 6 Capitol invasion. It was tarred by the fact that everyone backing it seemed to hate not just Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party, but even the Chinese themselves. It spawned racist rumors like ‘Chinese labs sell their dead experimental animals in food markets.’ ”
McNeil’s former Times colleague, David Leonhardt, concurred, characterizing the dismissal of the lab leak theory as a “classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization.”
As we hope for a full and honest account of COVID-19’s origins, we must recognize that it is not just the story of a virus, but of the cancer that is metastasizing in our fundamental institutions. We now have clear evidence that the people who largely run our country — the mainstream media, the lords of Silicon Valley, the leaders of the Democrat party – grossly misled the country on the two biggest stories of the last five years: Trump/Russia and COVID-19.
Theirs were not honest mistakes, but willful efforts to deceive. They were not interested in finding the truth but in delegitimizing their political enemies. Exposure of their failures has not led to humbling self-examination. Instead they are sticking to playbook – brooking no dissent while they smear and punish those brave enough to challenge them – as they insist upon the absolute truth of other bogus claims: that America is riddled with systemic racism and white supremacy, that the Jan. 6 protest at the Capitol was an insurrection aimed at toppling the government, that climate change is an existential threat to life on the planet.
These misleaders have lost their claim to moral authority. But, for the time being at least, they still have power.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.