Last week at Mind Matters, I talked about five ways traditional media changed in the age of the Internet. They boil down to this: Major media no longer really represent a vast number of average audience members so we must largely develop and curate our own news sources.
Here are three items I came across that might help illustrate what that means.
An article by James B. Meigs in City Journal chronicles the way in which government officials were very much less than honest with the public about COVID’s causes and cures. That’s a story worth telling. But for now, I’d like to focus on his account of the way media generally showed zero skepticism and played a significant role in generating and aiding the panic. For example, the lab leak theory, according to which COVID was the result of gain-of-function research in a lab in Wuhan, was always a reasonable idea. Whether it turns out to be correct is, of course, a separate question. But the U.S. government was funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, which meant that health administrators like Anthony Fauci went to great lengths to tar the idea as a conspiracy theory. And media went right along with that, asking no questions and gleefully dumping on thoughtful scientists who raised the issue as supposed conspirators.
Scientists who might have harbored doubts were mostly cowed into silence; media outlets were liberated to disparage lab-leak questions as “debunked bunkum,” in the words of MSNBC’s Joy Reid; and social media companies felt empowered to throttle discussions of the topic. Through it all, Collins and Fauci appeared to float above the debate; when Fauci described the lab-leak possibility as a silly conspiracy theory, he implied he was merely channeling the consensus of the scientific community. That was by design; his leading role in steering the origin-of-Covid narrative took place entirely offstage. In one perhaps unadvisedly honest email to a Bloomberg reporter, a top Fauci advisor explained that, “Tony doesn’t want his fingerprints on origin stories.” …
From early in the pandemic, the media often approached the possibility of a lab leak as conservative propaganda. In 2020, CNN’s Chris Cillizza said the question was “simply the latest example of how Trump seeks to shape reality to fit his predetermined conclusion.” Even after the winter of 2023, when the FBI and U.S. Department of Energy both announced that their investigators now lean toward the Wuhan lab as the source of the virus, many media outlets still treated the topic with distaste. Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik, for example, is a devoted critic of the lab-leak theory; he often writes about the group he calls “COVID conspiracy-mongers” and “table-pounding” Republicans in Congress. This framing is telling: The scientific arguments for and against the lab-leak explanation are dense, technical, and worthy of evenhanded coverage. But Hiltzik and other journalists keep implying that certain arguments should carry less weight if the wrong sorts of people espouse them.JAMES B. MEIGS, “THE COVID COVER-UP,” CITY JOURNAL, OCTOBER 1, 2023
Of course, historically, media people have often behaved this way about all sorts of things. But notice, in this case, they did it specifically in order to uphold the government’s narrative. That is, they entirely abandoned any traditional role as evaluators and critics of a government narrative on behalf of a broad public.
As I noted last week, that’s one way things have changed. Conventional media now exist largely to tell us what powerful people want us to know. And that’s a far cry from the traditional media role that the First Amendment was designed to protect (among other things): the right to tell and hear things that powerful people would rather we not tell or hear.
The outcome for science, of course, was that scientists like Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, whose COVID-related findings honestly conflict with what governments wanted everyone to hear, became targets of abuse and censorship.
Second, science media have long acted as enforcers of narratives that elites consider Correct. For example, in the evolution controversy, if you want to publish a paper that goes against the Darwinian story, you must pretend to be supporting it even while the reported facts undermine it. Of course, some papers sound like that even if they are perfectly sincere. At least, if readers have the facts, they can privately sort out what they mean.
But recently, climate scientist Patrick Brown of the Breakthrough Institute created a stir when he admitted that he had censored one of his published papers to improve his publication chances. That is, he didn’t tell all the facts but somehow constructed an explanation that supports the Official Correct View. He just left the inconvenient facts out. So no one who read the paper would know what they are:
In an essay for the Free Press, Mr. Brown explained that he omitted “key aspects other than climate change” from a paper on California wildfires because such details would “dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell.” Editors of scientific journals, he wrote, “have made it abundantly clear, both by what they publish and what they reject, that they want climate papers that support certain preapproved narratives.”ALLYSIA FINLEY, “CORRUPT SCIENCE,” WALL STREET JOURNAL, OCT. 1, 2023
The editors denied having an Official Approved Story, of course, despite the fact that everyone knows, ad nauseam, what that Story is. Many scientists have surely done what Brown did when addressing such a topic; few have risked admitting it.
One thing to see here is that science media, like other traditional media, are not interested in breaking new ground or testing ideas. As long as the paper sounds Correct, as the funding elite understand it, errors that support the cause may be entirely forgivable and inconvenient omissions may be expected. We shouldn’t expect much new ground to be broken though.
Lastly, what about the people who write science news for the public? Many are toiling hacks to be sure. They try to be as honest as they are allowed to be. But science writing seems to have been affected by elitism, too. Here’s what investigative journalist Ashley Rindsberg says about science writers:
… in the U.S. a large number of professionals who cover science for general readers and for news publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal are not — and do not pretend to be — journalists per se. They are science writers whose field is science communications — a distinction with a huge difference. They see their role as translating the lofty work of pure science for a general audience, rather than as professional skeptics whose job is to investigate the competing interests, claims, and billion-dollar funding streams in the messy world of all-too-human scientists.ASHLEY RINDSBERG, TREASON OF THE SCIENCE JOURNALS,TABLET, MARCH 8, 2023
They helped create the tangled folklore world surrounding COVID, in which we lived for years. Some have noticed:
Through journalistic investigations, often powered by FOIA requests that ensnared hundreds of email exchanges with scientists and science writers, a spotlight was turned on science journalism itself. Writers like Paul Thacker, a contributor to The BMJ, Emily Kopp, a reporter for the watchdog group U.S. Right to Know, Michael Balter, who has contributed dozens of pieces to Science magazine, and the powerful decentralized group of COVID investigators called DRASTIC, exposed the inner workings of an industry that claims to speak for science but often works for political and corporate interests.RINDSBERG, TREASON
This may be an inevitable phase in a culture where anyone with an Internet connection can write news. But the ground rule can’t be “Trust nobody” so we will need new ground rules around what we can trust and why. Stay tuned.
Cross-posted at Mind Matters.