The Media Owe Senator Tom Cotton an Apology

Sen. Tom Cotton talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 8, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
He never said China intentionally released the coronavirus, and his suggestion that the disease originated in a Wuhan laboratory looks increasingly plausible.

One of the biggest issues people have with the mainstream press these days is that some of its members are so insulated that they end up buying into and promoting false narratives without actually checking these narratives’ veracity. That seems to be exactly what happened in mid February, when major outlets overwhelmingly smeared Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) as a conspiracy theorist for asking legitimate questions about the origins of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Cotton was one of the first politicians to raise the alarm about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the dishonesty of the Chinese government, as NRO’s John McCormack has pointed out. Cotton emphasized at the time that China was not being transparent about the virus and its origins. Cotton further noted that Wuhan, which was the main location for the first outbreak, had a biosafety Level 4 laboratory that specializes in researching coronaviruses. Cotton specifically said that “we don’t have evidence that the disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says.”

It’s hard to see anything controversial about what Cotton said, but the press quickly twisted it into an unrecognizable and conspiratorial claim that they then proceeded to debunk.

Media outlets overwhelmingly declared Cotton was spreading dangerous conspiracy theories. The Washington Post insisted, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.” The New York Times, the Daily Beast, and other outlets repeated the same framing. Countless other members of the media and prominent commentators accused Cotton of being irresponsible and spreading dangerous claims. In perhaps the most embarrassing display, CBS’s Face the Nation had the Chinese ambassador on and set him up to label Cotton’s suggestion “absolutely crazy”.

How did the media end up declaring that Cotton was spreading a debunked conspiracy theory? By completely distorting what he said.

All those media outlets cited experts to declare that there was no evidence the virus was man-made or a bioweapon, which is a claim that Cotton never actually made. In almost every article, they cite Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers and one of the leading biosecurity experts in the world, to dismiss the possibility that the virus was a bioweapon. They do not address Cotton’s actual claim. That’s because Enright has repeatedly acknowledged, and recently reconfirmed, that it is a very real possibility that the COVID-19 spread began at the Wuhan lab. The very same expert they were using to “debunk” Cotton’s question and smear him as a conspiracy theorist actually agreed that it was legitimate. There are plenty of reasons to ask the question and demand transparency from China’s government given its dishonesty, the history of similar viruses escaping from Chinese labs, and the specific research focus of that particular lab.

Now the Washington Post has published another piece acknowledging that “scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus that had been collected for scientific study.” In other words, they are now publishing the very claim that they insisted was a debunked conspiracy theory a month and a half ago. None of the previous articles attacking Cotton have been retracted.

How are people supposed to trust these outlets and media personalities when they are willing to create a false narrative about a U.S. senator and accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist for asking legitimate and necessary questions?

All the outlets and commentators that attempted to smear Senator Tom Cotton owe him a public apology.


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