I'm afraid I can't dunk about the lab leak

I am not really in the habit of defending the media. And I acknowledge that many were far too quick to dismiss the possibility that the virus that causes Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese lab, especially considering that whistleblowers have been saying for years that a lab leak somewhere was inevitable. It’s true as well that the term “conspiracy theory” was (once again) weaponized for partisan purposes. I also concede that the smug superiority and obsession with mocking the rubes that permeate professional media led to incuriosity about the origins of the coronavirus. There’s lots of blame to go around and I endorse Matt Yglesias’s analysis.

But I also think that a lot of the gloating about this issue has been unjustified and untoward. This is particularly true because we still don’t have the slightest idea whether the virus was zoonotic or escaped from a lab. It’s essential to underline that last point because if you only paid attention to all of the dunking going on you would be under the impression that we know for a fact that the virus emerged from a lab. We don’t know that, at all. It’s a strong possibility, but that’s as much as we can say, and given the nature of what we’re talking about there’s every chance that we’ll never know more than that. Pretending we know what we don’t was the problem in the first place, right? Yes, the media has lessons to learn here. But they are lessons about epistemological humility, which those prosecuting the case against the media seem to be lacking as well. Don’t commit overreach in condemning that of others.

I do not have the slightest idea what the origins of SARS-CoV-2 might be. (I assume no one would be so foolish as to think I’m worth listening to on that question.) I hope we find out and that the media learns lessons from its rush to belittle those who asked legitimate questions. But now is not the time to gloat. We are all still in the dark.

Consider the contrast with the January 6th Capitol riot. The failures there in terms of basic information were incredible; professional journalists were continuing to publicly claim that Officer Brian Sicknick’s skull had been bashed in with a fire extinguisher weeks after his family had publicly shared that he had called them (and told them he was fine!) the night after the event in question. To this day, people who had repeated such lies continue to mutter darkly about how the strokes that actually killed him might, if we’re being extraordinarily loose in our definition of culpability, mean the rioters were responsible for Sicknick’s death. Liberal journalists knew that the riot was an organized coup, that they had come armed with zip ties to kidnap lawmakers, that they had torn out the panic buttons, that they were heavily armed, that they had murdered members of the Capitol police…. And now, though they may have pulled back from those specific claims, kicking and screaming, they will not relent on their general stance that this was an organized and coup attempt that came close to succeeding. This is patently ridiculous; the January 6th rioters were a bunch of idiot deadenders who, while deserving of the arrests and censure they have received, could not have taken control of a Chucky Cheese, let alone the US government. But in the Trump era the media has been utterly transfixed by a decidedly unserious project: making everyone else panic as deeply as they panicked on November 8th, 2016.

The media made a mistake in dismissing the lab leak theory due to their Democratic partisanship and are now slowly learning their lesson. The media made far larger and more consequential mistakes about January 6th and due to their Democratic partisanship refuse to learn any lessons. They are convinced that they have found their 9/11 - that is, their chance to stoke fear in a way designed to prompt overreactions that harm their political enemies in precisely the same way that Republicans used September 11th. I find that far scarier, and far worse, than the lab leak failures. The facts about Covid-19’s origins were always shifting and unclear, and while I lament their false certainty, I forgive their errors to the degree that they are willing to apologize. Some are, and some aren’t, and by their humility you will know them. For the contrite, let’s have sympathy. Call me a simp if you’d like.