A New York Times business correspondent in Hong Kong, a weekend editor at The Guardian who lives in New York, a British Business Insider reporter with a focus on the Saudis, and the executive editor of The Daily Beast.
A 48-year-old blogger who works for Rachel Maddow, a union activist who covers “extremism, far-right politics and media disinformation” for The Huffington Post, and the 29-year editor of the Arkansas Times.
A breaking news reporter at The Washington Post who wrapped up her most recent internship in May 2016, a 2016 University of Pennsylvania graduate who covers “young people doing big things” for Forbes, a 45-year-old former George Will intern who writes for CNN, and David Frum.
What do these people have in common, aside from their political ideology? Every one of them is a part of a machine that launders smears and opinions through newspapers, magazines, and television channels, presents the cleaned-up product as unimpeachable truth to the public, and then uses the fresh-minted facts to protect friends and hurt enemies. It’s called “the news,” and here’s how it worked for Arkansas’ Sen. Tom Cotton’s completely plausible theory that COVID-19 came from a Chinese lab.
That Hong Kong business correspondent? She wrote this headline for the Times in February 2020: “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.”
“Scientists,” the slug reads, “have dismissed suggestions that the Chinese government was behind the outbreak, but it’s the kind of tale that gains traction among those who see China as a threat.”
“Republican who floated virus conspiracy says ‘common sense has been my guide,'” the weekend editor at The Guardian dismissively explained.
“A GOP senator,” our award-winning Saudi investigator declared, “keeps pushing a thoroughly debunked theory that the Wuhan coronavirus is a leaked Chinese biological weapon gone wrong.”
“Sen. Tom Cotton Flogs Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory Dismissed by Actual Scientists,” the editor of The Daily Beast howled.
“Tom Cotton’s veiled threats really aren’t helping,” Maddow’s blogger chimed in.
“Don’t Listen To Sen. Tom Cotton About Coronavirus,” our “media disinformation” boy piped up.
“Tom Cotton and the virus conspiracy theory,” the three-decades’ veteran of an Arkansas weekly blogged, citing a Vanity Fair write-up that maintained far more nuance than the grizzled writer.
“Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) repeated a fringe theory,” the young Post staffer confidently led, “suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.” That “theory,” her headline definitively states, “was already debunked.”
“Senator Tom Cotton Ramps Up Anti-China Rhetoric,” Forbes’ “Under 30 community lead” righteously wrote.
“Tom Cotton,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza authoritatively declared, “is playing a dangerous game with his coronavirus speculation.”
Get all that? We’ve now heard from everyone from Rachel Maddow’s blogger to The New York Times, and from a 200-year old English newspaper to Cotton’s local editor that the senator is a racist, fear-mongering conspiracy theorist who imperils us all. But was a lick of it true?
It was hard to say at the time because the vast majority of the country didn’t know much about the virus at all — although that didn’t hold any of those above back in spouting their opinions and shutting down Cotton’s.
Now that it’s largely accepted that the disease escaped a Chinese laboratory, have any of those above issued a correction or so much as an update? Of course not. So far, the only thing like that was issued by PolitiFact for an article “fact-checking” a guest on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” who repeated the lab-leak theory.
That poor, ignominious “fact-check” was written by Daniel Funke in September 2020. Although Funke doesn’t stand out above any of the mediocrities above, he ties a bow on media manipulation nicely.
Young Funke graduated from the University of Georgia in 2017, receiving a News Lab fellowship from Google. Google, in their wisdom, placed their young student at the Poynter Institute in Florida, which bills itself as an academic authority on media critiques and fact-checks. Funke must have impressed that summer, as he was rewarded with a job at Poynter’s pet project, PolitiFact, which boasts it is the “home of the Truth-O-Meter and independent fact-checking.”
In his new job, Funke fact-checked a number of COVID claims, smacking down the now largely acceptable lab-origin one more than once and making himself quite an authority on the facts.
But lest anyone think he’s being picked on unfairly, don’t fret. His now-retracted “fact-check” on an unknowable thing (from a time that was obvious) won’t slow him down: Today, he proudly covers misinformation for USA Today. No one in this machine is ever held accountable.
It’s rare to catch the media machine so red-handed, but don’t worry about them, either — they’re already rewriting the history.
Enter: Frum, an angry and somehow unembarrassed architect of the Iraq War who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic, the once-venerable magazine with its own fact-checking problems. “Some,” he declared this week, “are trying to turn the lab-leak theory into a potent political weapon.”
By “some,” he meant conservatives. Rinse, lather, repeat.