Journalists are giving us news and “facts” based on self-interest and groupthink
Not long after the world locked down last year, a story surfaced on The Epoch Times and other “fake news” sites claiming that COVID-19 had originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, and not at a grungy wet market as widely believed. Even more shocking, the story alleged that the U.S. government had funded research at the lab.
When Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese virologist-turned-whistleblower, confirmed the claims, the story went viral — and it’s not hard to see why. Imagine if the virus that had killed hundreds of thousands of people and brought civilization to a grinding halt had been created not by some fluke of nature, but intentionally with the assistance of the two most powerful governments in the world? It sounded crazy and disturbing on so many levels, but could it possibly be true…?
It didn’t take long for fact checkers to give us an answer. The claim was vigorously debunked, the Chinese virologist/whistleblower discredited, and for the past year — even as recently as February 2021 — it’s been written off as the scientific equivalent of urban legend.
Then a funny thing happened.
The debunked story re-surfaced two weeks ago, but this time it wasn’t on a “fake news” site. It appeared on “Rising,” a digital news program produced by The Hill, the largest independent political news source in the U.S. (ranking second in online readership behind CNN). In a fascinating expose, The Hill’s reporters found compelling evidence that the Chinese government had, in fact, collaborated with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci) to experiment with SARS-type viruses at — surprise! — a lab in Wuhan.
And why did The Hill decide to tackle this story? Because a week earlier Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, caused a firestorm on 60 Minutes when he opined that COVID-19 may have escaped from — yep, you guessed it — a lab in Wuhan. (Predictably, Redfield was rebuked for “counterproductive” comments that fuel discrimination against Asian-Americans, and he’s currently in the process of being ‘cancelled’).
So to re-cap: “fake news” sources told us a year ago that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab funded by the U.S. government, and now we’re learning that even the former head of the CDC believes this fake news. Oh, and we’re hearing this bombshell a year after most states (at the urging of Dr. Fauci) ordered lockdowns that destroyed millions of jobs and businesses, created a pandemic of depression and homelessness, and made masking, social distancing, and remote living our “new normal.”
Crazy, right? But here’s what’s even crazier: this isn’t the first time mainstream media has killed a “fake” story that’s turned out to be not-so-fake: When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was accused of adopting policies that needlessly increased deaths in nursing homes, Politi-fact debunked the claim as "mostly false." Yet a year later the story has morphed into real news, igniting a scandal that threatens to remove Cuomo from office.
In 2019, Hunter Biden was accused of using his father’s political connections to enrich himself by wrangling multi-million dollar deals with Ukrainian and Chinese companies. This story is especially curious because it was “real” news (when Joe Biden was lagging in the polls), that turned into “fake” news (when Biden became the Democratic nominee), only to become “real” news again (a month after Biden was inaugurated). Incidentally, Hunter is now under federal criminal investigation for violating tax and money laundering laws in his business dealings in China and other countries.
Anyone with even half an inquiring mind has to wonder what’s going on. How do “fake” stories that have been fact-checked and dismissed by “experts” suddenly emerge as “real” news months later? Are the mainstream media manipulating headlines? Are they killing or delaying the impact of stories that could weaken confidence in government or incriminate powerful people?
Ah, but if an inquiring mind asks these questions out loud, they’re likely to get this response from anyone within earshot:
“What are you, some lunatic Trump supporter?? Noooo, the media isn’t part of some ‘giant conspiracy’ (rabbit finger quotes to emphasize how nutty it sounds). That would take a ridiculous amount of secrecy and coordination with a whole lot of people. It would be impossible to pull off. The idea is bonkers!”
And you know what? They’re probably right.
It’s highly unlikely that journalists are secretly gathering with politicians, intelligence agencies, and heads of the scientific community at fancy retreats, plotting ways to mislead us. The odds that thousands of professionals working at newspapers, magazines, and TV networks all over the world would risk their reputations to dupe the public are close to nil.
So if the media isn’t part of some big conspiracy, then we have no reason to doubt what they tell us, right? If they debunk a story that turns out to be not-so-fake (or even true), it doesn’t mean they’re trying to fool us; it just means they can’t confirm a story until it comes from the “right” sources. After all, they’re not bad people. Mistakes happen. Move along, nothing to see here.
These are the mental hoops we’ve been conditioned to jump through when we see blatant inconsistencies or bias in mainstream news coverage. We’re encouraged to embrace a logical fallacy: either the media are conspiring with powerful people to deceive us, or the media are being 100% truthful with us. There is no middle ground, no other explanation. (This is, incidentally, the same false dilemma presented in any discussion of race relations: we’re conditioned to believe that white people are either racist, or they’re “woke” and anti-racist; there are no good white people anywhere else on the spectrum).
The problem with false dilemmas is that they don’t allow us to consider other possibilities. If we believe the media would only mislead or misinform us if they were part of some vast, elite-sponsored conspiracy, then we don’t consider another, much more likely scenario grounded in common sense and a basic understanding of human nature.
Journalists may be experienced and credentialed, but deep down they’re just like you and me. They have egos, needs, and desires. They’re social creatures who care what others think about them. Plus, they have mortgages to pay and families to feed, which means they need to keep their jobs. And these days journalists don’t have a lot of employment options. Most of them are paid — either through parent companies or their subsidiaries — by the same multi-national conglomerates. If these companies choose to run their businesses a certain way, the journalists they employ take note.
So if you’re a reporter and notice your colleagues’ stories about Russian collusion and racial conflict make the front page every day, you get the message. Conversely, if you notice stories are buried if they question the science behind lockdowns or expose Chinese influence on U.S. government officials, you get a different message. You don’t have to attend a top-secret retreat with muckety-mucks, get a memo from upper management, or interview a bunch of experts to know which stories will propel your career and which ones won’t.
As former New York Times writer Bari Weiss observed in her resignation letter in July 2020, “Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.”
Sure, there may be other stories out there, or even different takes on the same stories. But why waste your time chasing those when it’s soooo much easier to write what you know will advance your career (or at the very least, allow you to keep your job in an economy that’s coming apart at the seams)? This isn’t a trick question; it’s just common sense. Human beings — no matter how educated, intelligent, articulate, sincere, experienced, blah blah blah — are hard-wired to protect their own self-interest, and they prefer to do that by taking the path of least resistance.
The pressure to focus on certain stories isn’t limited to print media. Producer Ariana Pekary resigned from MSNBC a month after Weiss left The New York Times. Pekary could no longer ignore that commercial broadcast news had become “a cancer that stokes national division,” “block[ing] diversity of thought and content,” and “forc[ing] skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.” MSNBC booking producer Sasha Walek thought Pekary was “spot on” on with her letter. According to Walek, “[w]hile many smart and well-intentioned people work in news, nuanced discourse and reporting has been sacrificed for ratings. Sowing division and hyperpartisanship is highly profitable.”
And who benefits most from high ratings? The corporate behemoths that own 90% of all news media.
Journalists aren’t just motivated by job security; they’re also under tremendous pressure to fit in with their peers. Like anyone who is part of any organization, they’re not inclined to rock the boat because rocking the boat can make other people uncomfortable (especially when the waves are getting choppy and the boat is taking on water).
This is where groupthink comes in.
Weiss recalled “constant bullying by colleagues who disagree[d]” with her views and called her “a Nazi and a racist,” while others smeared her as a “liar and a bigot on Twitter” with no fear of repercussions from management. How many people do you know who are strong-willed enough to withstand this kind of treatment? I bet you can count them on two fingers. That’s because in any profession or organization, it’s easier to simply go along with the majority (or what you believe is the majority).
Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why the news we get is schizophrenic and littered with contradictions, why some stories are “fake” until enough journalists determine they’re “real.” It’s happening because the people who give us news are rewarded for stories their employers like to focus on, and they’re discouraged or bullied when they try to cover anything else. So while they might not knowingly misinform us, they might recklessly misinform us to protect their jobs, advance their careers, or simply make their lives easier.
In the words of George Carlin: “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge.”
Of course, it’s only easy to see how interests converge if you’re willing to use a little common sense — which is getting harder to do in a world filled with false dilemmas. Because when fear is rampant and we’re bombarded with convenient narratives, common sense goes out the window.
We’re trapped in a System that’s taken so much from us already, and now the people who run it are trying to capture the one thing we will ever own, free and clear, without taxes or fees: our minds. Don’t let them do it. Always, always remember to use your common sense, my friends.
I believe there is light at the end of this dark tunnel, and I think we have a chance of making it to the other side together, stronger than ever. But we can only do it if we keep our heads and don't forget how to think for ourselves.
Be well and stay sane.
The world is getting strange, and I do my best to help you make sense of it. If you enjoyed this, sign up here to get my latest posts as soon as they're available. You might also enjoy my new book, "Reality Bites: Insights on Bridging the American Divide," available on Amazon now!