Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Crowd of people walking street wearing masks
Crowd of people walking street wearing masks

Why did the New York Times Discredit the Lab Leak Theory?

The Times led the way in zealously discrediting the quite reasonable COVID-19 lab leak theory. But what underlay its zeal?

Ashley Rindsberg, author of The Gray Lady Winked (2021), offers an eye-opening look at the close links between the New York Times and Chinese propaganda media. It may have been these relationships that caused the Times to go to considerable trouble to discredit the “lab leak” theory on the origin of COVID-19. It remains a viable theory despite powerful attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to discredit it. (For background, see “Lab leak theory vindicated: What that means for fighting COVID-19.”)

Sound like tinfoil to you? Then consider this:

In the opening months of the pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis was actively discredited by the media and scientific establishment, with anyone associated with it smeared as “racist”. The question we have to ask now is how, and why, did this happen?

To a great extent, I believe the answer lies with the world’s most powerful news outlet, the New York Times. At the start of the pandemic, the Times set the news and policy agenda on the lab leak hypothesis, discrediting it and anyone who explored it. The Times did so while taking money from Chinese state-owned propaganda outlets, such as China Daily, and while pursuing long-term investments in China that may have made the paper susceptible to the CCP’s strong-arm propaganda tactics in the first months of the pandemic.

Ashley Rindsberg, “Did the New York Times stifle lab leak debate?” at Unherd (May 2, 2021)

Rindsberg provides a good deal of valuable information on the distortions in the Times’s coverage that many depended on for news:

It all but ignored the unparalleled success of China’s arch-enemy, Taiwan, in containing the virus. It downplayed China’s economic war against Australia, whose prime minister early on questioned the CCP story on the pandemic’s origins. And it celebrated China’s success in battling Covid-19, taking the CCP’s absurd mortality numbers at face value, reporting in August 2020 that 4,634 Chinese people died from the virus and, six months later, that there were 4,636 total deaths. That in a country of 1.4 billion people only two people died of Covid-19 in the half a year defies logic and common sense. Still, the Times legitimised the CCP numbers by printing them as hard fact.

Ashley Rindsberg, “Did the New York Times stifle lab leak debate?” at Unherd (May 2, 2021)

Other media across the globe followed the lead of America’s “Newspaper of Record.”

Much more at Unherd but some of us are wondering, why would the Times would feel the need to do this? According to Rindsberg, the Times, like other media outlets, faces dire revenue losses from the internet. He says that it has taken millions of dollars from Chinese propaganda outlets, publishing hundreds of their “advertorials” (which have since disappeared from the site). It has also launched publications in China aimed at the enormous new middle class. Annoying the Chinese Communist Party would be costly indeed.

However, the Times is now beginning to take the lab leak hypothesis seriously, Rindsberg reports, possibly because prominent scientists were unwilling to ignore it. The paper then risked looking too compromised to be believable.

Rindsberg points to earlier historical instances of the Times’s compromised position with respect to news (from the former Soviet Union, for example). But one key difference is that yesteryear’s Times had a secure American readership and advertising base. Today’s Times, like most legacy mainstream media, is fighting for survival. They likely needed China’s cash.

A commenter, J. Bryant, notes some apt recent comments by writer and media analyst Bari Weiss “At the beginning of the interview, Weiss makes it clear that, about 10 years ago, the NYT faced the same choice as most mainstream media outlets: either try to do objective reporting and struggle to make a profit in the new media landscape dominated by the internet, or cultivate a tribe of avid supporters and become nothing more than the mouthpiece for that tribe. We all know which option the Times chose and its been a financial success for them.” Here’s the podcast.

It is wise to remember these facts when evaluating continuing claims that the New York Times is American’s Newspaper of Record.

What’s happening to the Times parallels other developments in the media industry, for example, the journalist becoming — as Glenn Greenwald puts it — censor, hit man, and snitch. It’s not a question of declining righteousness. The traditional journalist might have been a sleaze but he wasn’t in the business to do governments’ dirty work.

Similarly, anxious to please (or not offend), publishers today may depublish their own work — a rare stance in past eras when sensation sold books and government knew better than to get in the way of the uproar.

While newer media approaches like Substack (a return to the subscription model) create anxiety in the legacy media, they may well point to a future that does not depend on funds from the CCP. We are going to need one.

You may also wish to read:

Newsletter group creates alarm plus demands for censorship Substack is getting a lot of ink these days — raising both hope from readers and hand wringing from old media. The surprising thing about “controversial” Substack is that it is a restoration of the very old idea that we should pay a small amount for the content we want.

Why is “depublishing” so cool among publishers now? Publishers now Cancel their own books in a righteous fury! It’s because the industry changed. Now, often, it’s about currying favor with government, powerful people, not helping readers understand the world around us.


In Big Tech World: the journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship.

Mind Matters News

Breaking and noteworthy news from the exciting world of natural and artificial intelligence at MindMatters.ai.

Why did the New York Times Discredit the Lab Leak Theory?