No Turning Back

We Cannot Reverse the Damage Done by Poor Pandemic Reporting, but the Fourth Estate Must Do Better

The following article is another installment in Project Censored’s long-form Dispatches series. It is a detailed examination of establishment media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. It critiques the missteps, censorship, and establishment propaganda that often passed for real investigative journalism during a crisis when the American public needed truly independent media the most. This is not a piece that takes a position on the efficacy of masks, vaccines, or virus origins, though those are discussed, but rather, a critique of how the corporate media often botched reporting on such crucial matters, censored legitimate counter-narratives that posed important questions, and ultimately diminished its own credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the American public, which this year is now at an historic low point. Simply put, we the people deserve better from our Fourth Estate. They have some important work to do to restore that trust. –Project Censored Director, Mickey Huff

In March 2023, legacy news media outlets reported that a study from international scientists based on previously unknown data found that Covid-19 originated in animals and was first transferred from raccoon-dogs to humans near a Chinese wet market. “The pandemic originated from animals, not a lab” reported Huffington Post. CNN’s headline exclaimed “Researchers say newly posted analysis supports natural origin for Covid-19 pandemic.”

The raccoon-dog report recently emerged as polls showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans believed the lab leak hypothesis – which posits that Covid-19 was created and somehow released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China – is a more probable explanation of Covid-19’s origins than the market theory – which posits that the virus was transferred from an animal to humans at a Chinese wet market. Indeed, only about 15% of those polled had confidence in the market theory.

The press reports about the raccoon-dog study were quickly dismissed because the study was a pre-publication, meaning it had not been peer-reviewed or confirmed. The reports on the origin of the Covid-19 virus – which remains unknown to this day – are illustrative of the news media’s flippant pattern of drawing conclusions on flimsy evidence during the pandemic. Indeed, in early 2020, the legacy news media incorrectly reported that the scientific community had reached a consensus on the origin of the virus and it was the market theory. However, by 2023, research indicated that these reports were inaccurate because the scientific community remained unsure about Covid-19’s origin.

During the pandemic, the legacy news media’s shoddy reporting contributed to the public’s significant lack of trust in societal and public institutions. They wasted precious time and resources that could have been dedicated to improving the global response to Covid-19 and future pandemics. In the process, they silenced credentialed experts and rational skeptics. It is not the case that all news media reporting or government statements on Covid-19 were wrong, but amplification of false and misleading reports by those in government and news media during the pandemic fed into the lingering distrust of societal institutions.

A Government Megaphone

Many scientists have conceded that we may never know the origin of the Covid-19 virus. Nonetheless, since 2020, the news media have reported that scientists were certain the virus originated zoonotically from a wet market in China. It is true that government officials proclaimed that the market theory was the most plausible explanation for the origin of Covid-19, but unbeknownst to the public, and the legacy news media that were parroting government reports, the government was and remains divided on the origins of Covid-19.

In spring 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, there was a conference call comprised of government officials who were managing the pandemic response. Some of the participants noted that they believed that the lab leak hypothesis was plausible. Rather than share the details of this scientific debate with the public, three days later, one of the participants, Dr. Anthony Fauci – who was then the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (1984-2022) and later the Chief Medical Advisor to the President (2022-2023), prompted four of the scientists on the call to author a paper titled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” The paper concluded that the lab leak theory was implausible. Fauci cited the paper as evidence that the lab leak theory was improbable without noting he had commissioned the paper. It is very clear that at the time, many government scientists did not want the public considering the veracity of the lab leak hypothesis. Indeed, a month after the initial conference call, then Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins, who was also on the original call, expressed frustration that “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” paper had not quelled the public’s interest in the lab leak theory.

Some have mused that the government scientists’ opposition to the lab leak theory may be rooted in a conflict of interest. Under Fauci’s leadership, the NIH, through EcoHealth Alliance, funded research at Wuhan Institute of Virology in China that is similar to that which is cited as potentially responsible for a lab leak. This conflict of interest went beyond Fauci. In February 2020, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, published a letter signed by 27 prominent scientists concluding that Covid-19 was not a result of a lab leak. However, one of the authors was Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance. A conflict of interest does not prove someone is lying, but it is important context for the free press to provide to audiences as they consider the letter and statements from Fauci. Instead, the legacy media parroted Fauci’s narrative that the lab leak was implausible, and chose mostly to not investigate it further.

Attacking The Messenger

The news media and social media companies helped legitimize the market-theory narrative by quashing discussion of the lab-leak theory. For example, Facebook removed posts discussing the lab leak for an entire year. Similarly, the legacy press denounced those who considered non-market theory explanations for Covid-19’s origins. For example, when U.S. Senator Tom Cotton touted the lab leak hypothesis in 2020, a New York Times report called it a “conspiracy theory;” Washington Post reported that “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked;” PolitiFact dismissed the hypothesis as “inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!;” and Blake Hounshell of Politico inaccurately said that Cotton’s conclusion could be “easily debunked within three minutes.”

A consistent refrain in the legacy news media’s dismissal of the lab-leak hypothesis was to label it “racist.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald scoffed at this conclusion noting that if any hypothesis is racist, it is the wet market theory: “Covid was caused by the filthy, primitive food markets of the Chinese.” In 2021, comedian Jon Stewart became painfully aware that the lab leak hypothesis was the proverbial third rail. After he did a bit on Stephen Colbert’s late night program where he joked that the Covid-19 virus emerged from a lab leak, he was vilified by leftists who labeled him an alt-right racist despite decades of establishing himself as one of the most high profile liberals in the country.

By early 2023, it became clear that legacy news media’s reporting had concealed substantive scientific debates about origin of Covid-19. In 2023, the Energy Department and the FBI had publicly concluded – with low certainty – that the lab leak was the most probable explanation for the origin of Covid-19. So too did the former head of the CDC. Meanwhile, other agencies still concluded it was a natural origin as described in the market theory. Again, it is critical to note that the public discovered that there was division in government about the origin not because of dogged journalism, but because of publicly available government reports. The Wall Street Journal was one of the first major legacy news media outlets to cite government sources that confirmed the existence of evidence that showed that lab leak was in fact, “plausible.”

The Disinformation Crisis

The legacy news media’s dearth of investigative journalism during the pandemic was due in part to the moral panic over disinformation. A moral panic occurs when there is widespread fear – often irrational in nature – over a perceived threat. The panic over disinformation was rooted in post-2016 fears about  Donald Trump’s presidency; the proliferation of white nationalist and supremacist groups; and violent clashes such as those in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and at the US Capitol in 2021. By 2020 when Covid-19 safety measures were put into place, the moral panic over fake news was a global phenomenon, with citizens and leaders concerned that false information regarding the origins, nature, and existence of the Covid-19 virus, and subsequently the vaccine, posed a threat to their nation’s viability and well-being.

These concerns were expressed by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations, UNESCO, and other global organizations, who warned in a joint statement that there was a global “infodemic,” which the WHO defined as “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.” In 2021, Fauci echoed these sentiments arguing that anyone who critiqued or questioned his conclusions related to Covid-19 was engaged in “an attack on science.”

There was certainly a plethora of false information spreading during the pandemic. For example, early in the pandemic, a popular documentary titled “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19,” saw a former researcher from the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) Judy Mikovits, spread baseless and inaccurate claims about the amount hospitals receive from the government for Covid-19 patients, her wrongful arrest, and that the flu vaccine increased someone’s likelihood of contracting Covid-19. Similarly, many social media users and influential celebrities were claiming that 5G – the 5th generation mobile network and wireless standard – was connected to the spread of Covid-19. There were even reports of fatalities from people ingesting fish tank cleaner after reading online that it was a treatment for Covid-19.

Rather than live up to their commitment to be truth-tellers in an infodemic, the legacy news media often spread falsehoods of its own. For example, podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan noted that in addition to other remedies, he had taken Ivermectin when he was infected with Covid-19. Ivermectin, originally prescribed as a veterinary drug, has been used for over half a century by billions of people to treat parasitic diseases. Yet, when CNN reported on Rogan using Ivermectin they accused him of using “livestock dewormer Ivermectin.” This was demonstrably false as Rogan had not taken any dewormer. Indeed, American neurosurgeon and CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta agreed that CNN’s reporting was inaccurate when he appeared on Rogan’s podcast. Still, others such as CNN’s Don Lemon defended his network’s reporting. The false reports from CNN and other media outlets appeared to be an effort to discredit Rogan. After all, Rogan’s recovery from Covid-19, which reportedly occurred quickly and without the need for vaccination, undermined the legacy news media’s rigid reporting on the Covid-19 response. They stopped reporting that Rogan had used horse dewormer once he threatened to bring a defamation lawsuit against them. During the Rogan saga, the legacy media appeared less interested in reporting on the efficacy of vaccines or lack of evidence for Ivermectin, than destroying one of their competitors in the news media space. The irony is that in the process, the legacy news media lied and hurt its own waning credibility.

Manufacturing Consent

The accuracy of the legacy news media’s pandemic reporting was further hindered by their reliance on those in power as sources. During the pandemic, influential government officials and agencies spread disinformation. Rather than correct these errors, the legacy press often excused or echoed them. For example, Fauci admitted that when the pandemic began, he was so concerned that there would be a shortage of personal protective equipment such as masks that he lied and reported that masks would not prevent the spread of Covid-19. For example, in a 60 Minutes interview he said:

When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet. But it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often, there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask, and they keep touching their face…When you think ‘masks,’ you should think of health care providers needing them.

Rather than roast Fauci for lying to the public and putting people at risk, the news media excused his behavior. Slate justified it as a “noble lie.” Reason equivocated arguing that Fauci “may not have ‘lied’ about face masks, but he was not exactly honest either.” CNN argued that audiences needed more “context” before they called Fauci a liar (even though Fauci himself admitted to not being truthful).

In a December of 2020 example of news media covering for government officials lies, Fauci explained that he had purposely reported a reduced number of vaccinations needed to achieve herd immunity – the point in time where enough of the population receives a vaccine to mitigate the spread of the virus – because the public, in his opinion, was not ready to hear the truth. In December 2020, shortly after the vaccine was announced, he explained:

When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent … Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, “I can nudge this up a bit,” so I went to 80, 85. We need to have some humility here …. We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.

That same month, New York Times reported that in a telephone interview, “Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goalposts” on herd immunity.

Rather than lambaste Fauci for conflating the manipulation of public opinion with science, news outlets provided him safe space where he could communicate to the public without scrutiny or difficult questions. For example, Fauci made a January 2021 on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow. It was his first appearance on Maddow’s show since the pandemic began. According to Fauci, former President Donald Trump would not allow him to appear on MSNBC. Rather than interrogate his previous inconsistent statements, Maddow was more interested in finding out why Trump would not allow Fauci on her show.

The legacy press introduced baseless political claims as sound science. After President Joe Biden came to power in 2021, the press echoed his contention that the continuing infection rate was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” In February of 2022, Washington Post reported “yes it’s still a pandemic of the unvaccinated arguably even more so now.”

The phrase misleadingly insinuated that the virus would have been eradicated had all people been vaccinated. It was part of the government’s propaganda campaign to get people vaccinated, which included Fauci attempting in 2021 to shame an unvaccinated person of color into getting vaccinated by telling them that they would have “no symptoms” if they contracted Covid-19 after taking the vaccine. The claims that the vaccine would stop the spread of the virus completely are demonstrably false as practicing research scientists, the CDC, and doctors have noted that vaccinated and unvaccinated people have and will become infected (including this author, on two occasions).

If the legacy media wanted to boost vaccine rates, a more accurate description would have been: “a global pandemic of capital.” It was the U.S. copyright laws upheld by the Biden Administration that prevented unvaccinated people around the globe from accessing the vaccine because it was considered intellectual property. Instead, the legacy news media chose to frame vaccine hesitancy as a racial and partisan issue.

They lampooned conservatives for being vaccine hesitant, but ignored the leftists who were vaccine hesitant. They coupled their partisan reporting with claims that “whiteness” explained vaccine hesitancy. Albeit higher among white conservatives, this reporting ignored the research demonstrating that even Democrats and people of color such as the U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris were vaccine hesitant. In fact, there is a long history in the U.S. that supports such skepticism from marginalized communities around public health matters. This narrow framing of vaccine hesitancy missed a much larger story: that Americans increasingly do not trust their institutions – including the news media and Big Pharma.

Conclusion: Mea-Culpa and Beyond

During the pandemic, the legacy media centered themselves as the resistance to disinformation, but their hubris and elite bias led them to oversimplify scientific discourses. The scientific community was not as united on the Covid-19 response as legacy media would have audiences believe. For example, while The Lancet letter and “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” received laudatory press coverage, legacy media ignored The Great Barrington Declaration. It was a letter signed in 2020 by infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, argued for focused protection on vulnerable populations during the pandemic while the larger population achieves herd immunity through infection. Fauci denounced the plan as “nonsense” and ‘”dangerous,” but it was strong evidence that there was some division among scientists. This is also true on the efficacy of vaccines. Although news reports denounced The Great Barrington Declaration for arguing people could achieve natural immunity through infection, scientific studies in 2021 and 2023 studies found the opposite. Indeed, even Fauci noted on numerous occasions that a past infection might be as effective as a vaccine. In fact, by February of 2023, NBC News, citing a new study from The Lancet, reported that “immunity acquired from a Covid infection is as protective as vaccination against severe illness and death” and that “the immunity generated from an infection was found to be ‘at least as high, if not higher’ than that provided by two doses of mRNA vaccines.” This is important to remember given that medical professionals and other workers that dissented from the official narratives around Covid-19 were unlawfully fired from their jobs for not adhering to vaccine mandates, some of whom argued they had natural immunity from prior infection.

Also in 2023, Fauci made an appearance on CNN and seemed to communicate that even he was aware that questions about the lab-leak hypothesis were not disappearing anytime soon. He explained that if it leaked from a lab Covid-19 was probably brought to the lab by a person who had contracted it and then spread it to the lab, before spreading it outside the lab. Although, his statement redefined what the lab leak hypothesis is, it does communicate that even he has to admit that there is ambiguity regarding Covid-19’s origin. Other market theorists such as Bill Gates – who is not a medical scientist but is often turned to for scientific advice by the donor class and legacy media journalists – simply continues to deny the lab leak hypothesis as being a possibility. So does late night comedian (not a scientist) Stephen Colbert, who continues to lampoon people who consider the lab leak hypothesis without adequately acknowledging the disagreement among researchers.

The legacy news media has also tacitly admitted errors in their reporting. In 2023, Washington Post reported “There is no question that the lab leak theory is ascendant in Americans’ minds, despite the scientific community and some in the media having cast plenty of doubt upon it [lab leak theory].” Other legacy news outlets offered a more detailed mea-culpa for their inaccurate reporting. USA Today exclaimed “COVID may have leaked out of a Chinese lab, after all. So much for ‘misinformation.’” New York Times admitted that “We have been talking about the lab-leak hypothesis all wrong.” Such admissions are a step toward regaining public trust.

The changes in rhetoric by government officials and the press demonstrate that they recognize the errors made in pandemic era reporting. Undoubtedly, some defenders of legacy media will conclude “mistakes happen, but through investigative journalism the press eventually corrected the record!” The problem with defending this approach to journalism is that it is ignores the long periods of time that passed before the corrections. During that time, audiences were inundated with falsehoods from powerful institutions and may never be informed about what the truth is. Indeed, March 2023 was also the 20 year anniversary of when government falsehoods amplified by legacy press reporting convinced almost 70% of Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and aided in the attacks on 9/11. Although, most people now know these are both categorically false, it comes after decades of war have resulted in massive death tolls in U.S., Iraq, and beyond. In short, it is too late.

The same is true for Covid-19. Take the New York Times report that liberals are more likely to exaggerate pandemic deaths and infections than conservatives, who are more likely to underestimate them. It is one of many indicators of the long-term impact of shoddy reporting. How many people in five or ten years will think that the science is settled on masks, natural immunity, lockdowns, or the origins of Covid-19 when it is not? How will these misconceptions impact public policy and discourse moving forward? Had the press done a substantive job earlier: could we have proven the origin of the virus? If so, what would be the implications for global relations? What safeguards could have been but in place to prevent a future outbreak had we not censored and ridiculed those investigating alternative explanations? We will never know because the legacy news media’s failures cannot be reversed. However, we can learn lessons from this saga and work to improve both the reporting from the Fourth Estate and public trust in our institutions.

Nolan Higdon is a Project Censored national judge, an author, and university lecturer at Merrill College and the Education Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. Read other articles by Nolan.