Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

Telling the Truth About Lab-Leak Theory Wouldn’t Help Trump

If reality has become “contrarian,” we’re in bad shape.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Last night, Lindsey Graham told Sean Hannity’s audience that the news media’s dismissal of the lab-leak hypothesis “changed the course of this election.” Graham’s argument is that, had the media acknowledged the theory, “the election would have been about holding China accountable,” and hence Trump would have won.

This analysis makes about as much sense as anything else said on Hannity’s show. First, the lab leak was and is a hypothesis, so the extent of China’s culpability, if any, would never have been proven in any case. Second, Trump himself repeatedly praised the Chinese government’s handling of the virus — “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus,” he tweeted on January 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency” — at a time Biden was raising questions about the lab leak. And third, Trump’s efforts to hold China’s government “accountable” would have simply failed, merely highlighting once again Trump’s total inability to handle the pandemic.

However the virus originated, Trump’s responsibility was to protect the country. Whether he failed to prepare, while repeatedly lying about it, after the virus came from a wet market or a lab seems unlikely to have made much of a difference.

Oddly enough, though, support for Graham’s case is also coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum. The left-wing writer Jeet Heer argues that a group of “centrist contrarians,” a group in which he includes me, has aided the far right by criticizing inaccurate media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis.

I question both terms in his label. Given that my views place me to the left of roughly 90 percent of the American electorate, my chosen description of “liberal” seems more accurate than Heer’s “centrist.” I likewise object to “contrarian.” After all, my position on the lab-leak hypothesis — that it is unproven but plausible — accords with the Biden administration, members of Congress of both parties and, now, nearly all mainstream media. If anybody is “contrarian,” it is the handful of progressive dissidents continuing to try to defend a position the authorities have soundly rejected.

Heer does not join the dead-end argument that the lab leak is still a conspiracy theory that should be dismissed out of hand. Instead, he argues, “Politicians on the extreme right are getting help in mainstreaming a conspiratorial view of the lab-leak theory” from we “contrarian centrists.” He cites, in particular, the belief by many Americans that the virus was created in a lab and deliberately released into their own population as a way to eventually hurt the United States, in some bizarre global-scale version of a plot from Breaking Bad.

Now, to be clear, everything I’ve written on the subject has explicitly denounced both the absurd claim that China deliberately spread the virus through its own population, and the conflation of this claim with lab-leak hypothesis by Trump and other Republicans.

So, Heer and I agree that lab-leak hypothesis is unproven but worth exploring. We also agree that the claim China intentionally caused a pandemic is absurd and should be described as such.

Our sole point of disagreement is telling. Heer believes it is wrong to criticize the news media for conflating the (plausible) lab-leak hypothesis with the (absurd) intentional-release charge. He does not actually defend the stories that claimed lab-leak was impossible — stories that have in many cases been corrected. (It’s possible he believes this, but nowhere in his column does he actually say it.) He simply objects to the criticism on the grounds that it “helps” the far right.

Here we have an apparent difference in how to combat right-wing conspiracy theories. My belief is that the proper response is to rigorously distinguish fact from fiction. While I’d mock, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s allegations that California wildfires were secretly caused by a Rothschild space laser, I would not deny that wildfires took place.

Indeed, had the mainstream media decided to respond to this theory by insisting the wildfires never happened, I would consider that a major error. After all, if the media labels something a false conspiracy theory, and the theory then turns out not to be false, it is much easier for conspiracy theorists to pass off the other, false parts of their theory. Heer’s view, in contrast, appears to be that the whole problem lies in criticizing the media’s coverage of the issue, rather than in the coverage itself.

Right-wing liars are obviously going to seize on any admission of failure by the mainstream media. But that failure isn’t necessary for Lindsey Graham to come up with some reason to tell Fox News viewers that Donald Trump was mistreated. In reality, the plausibility of a lab leak makes Trump’s performance look worse, not better, having based his case for doing nothing on the reliability and transparency of the Chinese Communist Party.

I would further suggest that if either of us is helping support Trump’s lies, it is Heer, by insisting that his false claims of an intentional leak should be treated the same way as more serious claims. To be sure, I don’t know it helps Trump. Perhaps the opposite is true. Politics can be tricky.

My controlling belief is that journalists should say what is true, rather than shade the truth out of fear that truth might help the wrong people. And if the progressive movement has gotten to a point where conceding the truth makes you “contrarian,” that is an indictment not of the “contrarians” but of the progressive movement.

Telling the Truth About Lab-Leak Theory Wouldn’t Help Trump