Pandemic Reporting—Is the Media Getting It Wrong?

Pat Thomas interviewing Sam Husseini

In an interview conducted on May 21, 2020, Pat Thomas and Sam Husseini discuss the mainstream media’s coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, including the reluctance to explore all reasonable possibilities. Husseini is a writer, journalist and communications director at The Institute for Public Accuracy.

PT: Welcome back everyone. We’re live on Facebook here at the Organic Consumers Association. I’m Pat Thomas. I’m still talking about the coronavirus, but today, from a slightly different perspective. We spent some time over the last couple of weeks looking at the origins of the coronavirus. Several of the scientists we’ve spoken to have expressed frustration with the reluctance of mainstream media to delve more deeply into credible possibilities, such an as an overspill from a lab.

It’s a frustration that a lot of us share, which is why today we are asking: Is the media getting its response wrong? And when you start looking into that question, it becomes quickly apparent that it is every bit as complex as the scientific response to the coronavirus, and also that the two are interlinked.

So to talk a bit more about this—how the media works, why it’s so intent on creating a consensus narrative when there isn’t enough evidence to really call consensus—is writer and journalist, Sam Husseini. In addition to his work as a journalist, Sam is also communications director at The Institute for Public Accuracy, which is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes progressive experts as alternative sources for mainstream media reporters.

SH: Hi Pat, great to be with you. I’m here today in my capacity as an independent journalist.

PT: That’s fine. Thank you for clarifying that. Even as more evidence emerges to support the idea of a laboratory leak, resistance to that idea is becoming more entrenched, at least I think so, in the media as the days and weeks go by. So those who color outside the lines even a little bit are really taking a beating at the moment. So I suspect that there isn’t just one answer or one perspective, but maybe you can help us unpack this a little bit by telling us a bit about where that resistance comes from.

SH: Well, it largely comes from sectors of the scientific establishment surrounding the U.S. government. I questioned a CDC [Centers or Disease Prevention & Control] official, the principal deputy director, on February 11, about this. She warned against rumors, to a roomful of assembled journalists at the now shuttered National Press Club. And I think that’s been the dominant narrative continuing, and I think it’s been doubled- and tripled-down on with things like the Lancet letter, which warned about “conspiracy theories,” signed by some people who I’ve had a chance to look into some of their backgrounds, and we can get into that, the background of some of these scientists is highly problematic, and then with the Nature Medicine article, which purported to find that it is not a laboratory construct.

But as I point out in the first piece that I wrote in Salon, and what I believe that the scientists that you’ve interviewed have pointed out, that it is at best a disingenuous framing of the issue. That is, there are other ways that it could have come out of a lab, other than being technically genetically engineered. Although, it seems to me, they might have even overstated that possibility. So I think that a lot of media, from USA Today, to the Washington Post, to ABC News, to the whole dominant mainstream narrative, have highlighted that [theory]. And I think it’s rippled into a lot of so-called progressive media. So you have Democracy Now! echoing many of the same things. You have even people who were very skeptical about the Russiagate narrative, like the Gray Zone Project, and elements around the Green Party, similarly buying into this.

The unfortunate reality is that a large section of the U.S. right, around Fox News, largely starting with allegations made by Tom Cotton and then picked up by the more hawkish elements of the Washington Post, have highlighted that indeed it is possible that [the virus] came out of a lab in Wuhan. It’s sort of Russiagate squared, where progressive forces are rallying around a position, based on empirical suppositions, that may end up being wrong and having long-term detrimental consequences.

I think all of those camps, virtually, are overlooking the third possibility. And frankly, some of the scientists that I’ve turned to on this subject are overlooking a third possibility, and that is that the labs in Wuhan are being framed. There is precedent for this, that has remarkably gone unnoted by virtually all commentators, and that is the 2001 Anthrax attacks. Your viewers might remember that after the 9/11 attacks, there were Anthrax attacks, throughout the U.S., mailed to members of Congress, to members of the U.S .media, and you had a widespread panic among the U.S. public. Rather similar to what we’re seeing now, you had media outlets like the New York Times and others fingering Iraq. You even had esteemed pundit, Andrew Sullivan, suggesting that maybe it’s time we talk about nuking Iraq. This is in 2001. But ends up as part of the build-up to the Afghan Invasion, passing the Patriot Act, which is just now in the queue to be renewed, in the midst of this widespread public panic. So, I don’t think that it’s easily dismissable, as a third option, that [the labs] are indeed being framed.

PT: And isn’t this what some people are worried about? That if you start talking about the laboratory, if you start giving air to the laboratory theory, that you are inflaming tensions between the U.S. and China? And so these journalists are in a way, they’re kind of picking a side, they’re saying “let’s not talk about that because this is more important.”

SH: I think that large numbers of people, particularly in the U.S. progressive community, are very short sightedly just picking a side because they don’t want to see U.S.-China tensions escalate. And they think that the way to not have that happen is to pretend that it’s inconceivable that the lab in Wuhan, or any other lab, was the source for this. Careful scientists, I’ll note, don’t say which lab it came out of. When they analyze things, they say, “We believe this may be a laboratory construct,” for example. Or some say it’s conceivable that it accidentally came out of the lab and [then they] move on, and that’s somewhat responsible. But saying that it may have come out of a lab, doesn’t necessarily mean out of the lab in Wuhan. So, there are at least two levels of serious questions here.

PT: And of course the saying that it came out of a lab also doesn’t preclude the possibility of a natural origin, you know, you take something of natural origin and you bring it into a lab, and you fiddle around with it, and if the biosecurity isn’t right, well that’s a disaster in the making.

SH: Absolutely. And even if you don’t fiddle around with it. That was the nature of my question on February 11, when a CDC spokesperson said, “No, it’s of natural origin.” And I actually went back and said, “But hold on, that doesn’t preclude the other [possibilities]. It could be of natural origins? The caves that they’re talking about are thousand miles away, and it breaks out in the middle of a city? I can’t prove it, and I think anybody who claims that they can prove it might be jumping the gun here, but that certainly raises eyebrows.” And she gave a very disingenuous response, which is part of what led me to really scrutinize this.

PT: I was really interested in listening to you talk about the polarization amongst groups. We’ve noticed it. I’m based in London and I’ve noticed it too, that people who I thought I could rely on as sort of co-thinkers, who think the way that I do, and write the way that I do, are suddenly incredibly deeply divided by this issue. And those who are interested in raising the alternatives are being accused of politicizing the issue. Of course raising questions isn’t politicization, but the reason that we’re given for not raising this is that we don’t want people to panic. And we certainly heard that excuse in other areas, for instance climate change, “Let’s not get ahead of the science.” Well, of course the science was galloping away all the time. But what do you see as the risks we’re running by not looking at all these possibilities, by not having a free dialogue around it?

SH: There’s whole assortment of risks, conceivably, and [a huge gift to extreme right-wing elements, if it ends up proving that it came out of a lab, when [mainstream media have] been spending days, months, years, saying it didn’t come out of a lab. It’s an empirical question, it may or may not be knowable. And more importantly, we have to know where the threats are. That is, if it’s conceivable, and I think that that has been established, that it came out of a lab of some sort, intentional or not, then we need to really scrutinize these labs and that needs to be in the public mind to help prevent further catastrophe. And it needs to be an imperative. And it needs to be done in a meaningful way.

Right now you have I think deal- cutting being done between the Chinese and the U.S. government. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the U.S. government has evidence that it came out of the lab in Wuhan. Do you think that Trump and Pompeo would simply release it? No, they would use it as leverage against China, or they may save it for October, “Thank you very much. Have a good day.” So, I think that a lot of people who are pointing to contradictions in what Trump and Pompeo are saying, and therefore inferring, that the possibility that it came out of a lab is therefore false, or pretending, or lacking the cognitive capacity to perceive that some underlying statement can be true even if Trump lies about it, which we know he does.

PT: It’s interesting that the response doesn’t start with, “What does the science say,” it often starts with, “What does Trump say? Well, that must be wrong.”

SH: Correct. Democracy Now! had Peter Daszak on. He’s the head of EcoHealth Alliance—which sounds like an “earthy, crunchy” thing, but is totally tied into and funded by the U.S. government, has at least one former top official on its advisory board from Fort Detrick, which is the main U.S. biodefense facility in Maryland, which had an accident last year, it was shut down, and has a new facility opening soon, which will be the largest BSL-4 lab facility—there’s no scrutiny towards him, or towards his role in funding. He dismisses of the possibility of a lab release as sacrosanct, even though he’s got an obvious conflict of interest. That is the polite way to put it.

Then the headline is that they’re debunking Trump’s theory. It’s now Trump’s theory that it might have come out of a lab, not something that a lot of serious people were raising very early on, from Francis Boyle, who wrote the U.S. implementing legislation for the bio weapons convention, and Richard Ebright, eminent scientist at Rutgers University, foremost critic of the so-called “Gain-Of-Function” research.

So, as you say, failure is a polite way to put it, that there’s been a media failure. There’s been a scientific failure, which might be functional for the funding prospects of some people. And then there’s a global governance failure, which leads to the possibility of U.S., Chinese, other governments cutting deals instead of, “Let’s sort out the truth. Let’s sort out the facts. Let’s not demonize individual countries. Let’s reduce the imminent threat of this very arguably illegal Gain-Of-Function work which can cause a pandemic.”

That’s the technical term for it, by the way. Scientists have coined this as potentially pandemic pathogens, this so-called Gain-Of-Function work that seeks to make deadly pathogens more deadly. And many of [these scientists] are notably silent. There’s this myth of scientific consensus. Not only are there a few scientists that you’ve had on and others who are saying, “Hold on a minute,” but the bulk of scientists, like Mark Lipsitch, for example, at Harvard, are notably silent. Notably silent, because they don’t want to fight, because they don’t want to buck the trend of where the field is going, potentially because of where the funding is, and where the firepower is. And then they don’t want to upset people at a time when they’re already afraid. Maybe that’s part of their calculus, if you can call it that.

PT: I think a lot of journalists don’t actually understand this at all. They think if a scientist is silent, it’s because they disagree or they don’t have anything to say. Scientists are often silent because they get absolutely slammed if they stick their head above the parapet. And scientists are silent because they don’t want to risk their funding—and a lot of scientists have a lot of investment in this kind of research, as you say. And this is why I think there are increasingly calls for an investigation into the virus. It isn’t just scientific, but is more forensic and is actually probably more like the way a good journalist would approach it, which is to look at times and dates and the multiple actors involved in how this thing came about. I think we’re a long way off from that yet. But there are good reasons to look both at this incident and the things that have led up to it. I’m thinking particularly about a piece you wrote recently about the number of near misses that we’ve had in recent past from labs. That’s not data that’s hard to find. So why are journalists ignoring that as well? Because that is the path that leads us to here.

SH: I think that that was the function of the Nature Medicine and the Lancet letter to immediately, very early on, in an obviously coordinated effort, immediately peg such thinking as conspiracy theories, and therefore something’s wrong with you. It’s sort of a spiral of silence, is what it’s been called, in terms of how you manage the public and what a public can and cannot think, and what journalists can and cannot think.

But yes, there’s absolutely been hundreds of spills, accidents, that we know of, that the scientists themselves know of. There was a very thorough article—a chunk of which in 2014 was published in Slate and longer version I think published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—that went through a long history of this, including at least one incident when the field apparently winked and nodded and said, “Okay, we’re going to cover this up because we don’t want to increase tensions between countries,” and therefore forestalled really looking critically at the danger of work that’s done at these labs.

And then starting in 2014, there was a reporter, Alison Young, at USA Today, who had it as something of a beat from 2014 to 2017. This interestingly was during the period in which the U.S., following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which happened about a thousand miles away from the where Ebola had been before, as well as a series of lab accidents at U.S. facilities. There was a pause in NIH funding for this Gain-Of-Function research from 2014 to 2017. And during that period you had Alison Young at USA Today cranking out story after story. She went through, in detail, all of these government reports. She did some investigations on her own. It prompted Congress to take some action at least and that was real service. But unfortunately, no one has been covering this that I know of, at least in any mainstream outlet since that time. So you’ve had very few voices saying, “Hold on. There is a real problem here.”

PT: And these are really quite risky diseases, that have been uncovered. And not just viruses by the way, things like brucella, of course the SARS virus, smallpox, foot-and-mouth disease, Anthrax, I think you mentioned before Ebola. And these are continual leaks coming out of these laboratories, and somehow they get cleaned up, or fixed up, or covered up, but it’s a real problem. And the fact is that just saying that a lab has a BSL-2 or 3 or 4 doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.

SH: No, not at all. It virtually guarantees that there will be accidents, no matter how many precautions you take. The article that was published in Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists said, “We gotta talk about putting these things in the middle of nowhere, if we’re going to have these kinds of labs, in a remote place in Alaska or something.” I don’t mean to throw people in Alaska underthe bus here or anything like that. But more to the point perhaps, this so-called Gain-Of-Function work, which seeks to make deadly pathogens more deadly, itself, it’s sort of an open-and-shut case that needs to stop. And arguably the prosecutions are involved here. You have scientists, with NIH funding, making deadly pathogens more deadly. This is documented. This has been acknowledged occasionally in the mainstream media. In 2012, the New York Times had an editorial entitled, “An Engineered Doomsday,” warning about some of the work that was done in Holland, with NIH funding, as well as the University of Wisconsin, making the Avian Flu more easily transmissible through people. They allegedly do this so that they can then come back and figure out how to defend against it if it becomes created in nature. Well, A: It might never be created in nature, and B: They never seem to get to the part that actually protects us. As we’ve seen. So the people at the University of North Carolina—who with the people at Wuhan, who did similar work, perhaps not as drastic but similar work that is documented, we don’t know all the work that they did because there’s no transparency or minimal transparency here—did Gain-Of-Function work on coronavirus, is published. They got an exemption from, this was during the prohibition on the funding, during the pause in the funding, they got an exception from the NIH to fund their work. Yeah, stop.

PT: So, as I said, I think Jonathan Latham mentioned this in our series too, if everybody’s not playing by the same rules, then the rules don’t actually matter. They don’t help us. They don’t protect us at all.

SH: What you have is a race to the bottom. It’s like China is saying, “Okay, you can do Gain-Of-Function work and you call it biodefense, well we can do that, too. Thank you very much.” The U.S. is the main culprit here. No matter what the outcome is in terms of this threat to humanity. The U.S. government has driven a biological weapons arms race. And that’s easily verifiable, including by scientists who are now currently silent on this issue.

PT: So just to nudge forward a little bit on this, evidence that the narratives that are not coming through in the mainstream media are surfacing in all kinds of forms on the internet, and this really is our first internet pandemic. I wonder if you can speak a little bit about the web’s role, for good or for ill, in this whole story.

SH: There’s some good, arguably, I can find out what Richard Ebright and Jonathan Latham and Stewart Newman and other serious people are thinking by looking at their Twitter feeds. I think that that’s very useful. There is a tremendous threat by what we euphemistically call social media. It’s not social media. It’s corporate, gigantic tech companies working in concert with the U.S. government in order to tilt the playing field or to outright censor content. Interviews with Francis Boyle, who wrote the U.S. Implementing legislation, and who along with Montagnier, the French Nobel Prize winner in medicine, have claimed that they believe this thing is actually bioengineered. He’s been outright censored now.

PT: Yeah, they’re gone. You can’t find them.

SH: Yes, on YouTube. Similarly, if you Google Whitney Web—a very interesting journalist who wrote a piece, or several pieces, but one of them sort of drew parallels between so-called “War Games” before the anthrax attacks and similar “tabletop games” they call them, essentially War Games, in the last year or so before the current pandemic—she quotes Francis Boyle in one of her articles. If you do a Google search on Whitney Web and Francis Boyle nothing comes up. So, things may seem available on the Internet, but they become less and less easily findable.

“Shadow banning” is a term that I’m becoming increasingly accustomed to. I did an interview myself that the producers of which now think that’s a shadow ban. They don’t ban me for example, explicitly. I think I’m conservative in what I say, so I don’t think that they can. But it’s intimidating because you know if you would make the slightest mistake on Twitter, you’re gone. If you’re really scrutinizing what the establishment is saying, and thinking in a serious way.

PT: This is a real problem with this consensus narrative. By not shining a light on other possibilities you force this out into the sort of Wild West of social media, where either people are talking in wild theories, or good people who are coloring outside of the lines again, I would say, are no longer there.

SH: And then, there’s one other aspect to this: The mainstream will go bonkers about Alex Jones. And he becomes the poster child for, “Of course, we’ve got to regulate because there’s this nut job who is saying all kinds of wacky things.” And then they actually build up those voices, even if they’re technically banned, everybody knows the name.

PT: Sure, but they also conflate journalists, like yourself, like me I hope, like others, with those people as well and we become just stuck in this template of so-called “crazies.” Which I find really offensive.

SH: Right, so-called “crazy,” but unrecognizable crazies because they don’t grant the same name recognition to a Pat Thomas or a Sam Husseini or Francis Boyle or Meryl Nass or Richard Ebright or whoever, as they do to these other individuals.

PT: Okay. Well, we’re coming to the end. I’ve got one more question for you. And of course, it’s not an easy one. We’re going to be facing up to uncertainty around this issue for some time to come, I think, so I suppose it’s a good time to ask: What does responsible reporting look like when there are no clear answers? Have you got any thoughts on what journalists should be doing, and what consumers of media ought to be looking for?

SH: Stopping this sectarian partisan mindset. Presenting actual evidence. The  audience of Democracy Now! didn’t know there existed a lab in Wuhan until they attacked the notion. Actually that’s not totally true. They attacked the notion on April 16. On April 6, they briefly mention the lab in Wuhan, to credit it for having discovered the virus, not hinting at the possibility that it could be [the place where the virus was stored or created]. So they’re just simply presenting, in a timely fashion, objective data and letting the public make up its mind and then presenting honest debate. We have two people here who have opposing views as to what’s going on here. Let’s have a factually driven debate that doesn’t simply rely on, “Oh Trump agrees with you therefore you were wrong,” or seems to agree with you, or Biden seems to agree, or whoever. I think having concrete facts on the table and an honest actual debate, and stopping all of the games [perpetrated] by so-called social media.

The good thing about major media is you know what they do. In all their biases and all of their contorting and all of their conniving and all of their snipping of quotes—that’s one of the things I document. They’ll take half of an Ebright quote and report it, and leave out the other half where he says, “Well maybe it came out of the lab accidentally.” The Washington Post takes that out.

But with social media we don’t know. It’s a secret algorithm. They get to know everything about us. We get to know nothing about how they process the information that comes before us and how we’re supposed to make decisions in this world.

PT: And also maybe draw from a wider pool of experts and institutions. Reassure those people that might speak out that it’s good that they do speak out, so that we can have a proper debate, a proper Town Square discussion, whatever. I think it behooves people who consume news to check out where the person who’s speaking is coming from. Demand to know where that person comes from, and what their connections are, because our media isn’t necessarily making those connections for us.

SH: Absolutely. A lot of these individuals that are funding their past statements, their past false statements, those should be highlighted by a functioning, independent media. Unfortunately, institutions who carry out that role are at best in their infancy right now.

PT: Okay. Well, let’s hope that we can encourage a few more people to be more inquiring and more courageous. Sam, it’s been great talking to you today. Thank you so much for coming on to the program.

Pat Thomas is a journalist and author of several books on health and environment including “Complete Wellness and What Works, What Doesn’t – The Guide to Alternative Healthcare.” She is also the editor at Natural Health News in the UK

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