Ashley Rindsberg on Media Malfeasance, New York Times Misreporting, and the Coverup of the COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory
“It’s come at the cost of people’s lives.”
I sit down with journalist Ashley Rindsberg, author of “The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions, and Fabrications Radically Alter History.”
We discuss the media malfeasance he sees in media reporting, notably when it comes to communist and socialist regimes and the origins of COVID-19.
“You don’t have front-page headlines saying, we were wrong. You have tiny little corrections in the back of the newspaper, or maybe online somewhere, or even stealth-editing … But in the minds of the readers, those stories stick,” says Rindsberg.
Jan Jekielek: Ashley Rindsberg, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Ashley Rindsberg: Thank you, Jan. It’s great to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Ashley, I have to say I’ve been stunned reading “The Gray Lady Winked.” It’s a dense book. You have a ton of information in here. Frankly, just a lot of details about some of the most disturbing media malfeasance. So tell me a little bit.
The story is about some of these massive stories; like The New York Times missing the reality of the Holodomor: its starvation of Ukrainians under Stalin to the tune of six, seven million. We don’t even know the exact numbers. And of course, Walter Duranty. Many people know this story. There’s been films about this, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How did you actually get interested in this?
Mr. Rindsberg: I was just really curious. It was just a question about what we read and what we consider to be credible. The New York Times is supposed to be this paragon of credibility and what they print is truth. That’s the narrative. That’s what we’re told and taught to believe, and that’s part of The New York Times brand.
I stumbled across this claim by William Shirer, who’s a journalist in the 1930s and ’40s reporting from Europe during World War II, who said that on the eve of World War II—the outbreak of hostilities—The Times had printed that Poland had invaded Germany. I was like, “Wait, what? Is this true? Can it be true?” And I started to look into it.
I went into The Times archives, which were by that point already online. I pulled up the stories, and that story from September 1st, 1939 was the lead story of that day. [It] did indeed report that Polish guerillas had invaded Germany along the border. Hitler was just responding as any tyrant would respond to belligerents, and that turned out to be a huge lie. That was a piece of Nazi propaganda that the Germans had put out, specifically to dupe outlets like The New York Times.
But I had to ask myself, “Wait a second, this is not 1929. This is 1939, the end of 1939. The world knew about Nazi propaganda and Nazi lies. This is not a new thing in the world. Why did they take the bait?” That’s what I really wanted to understand in that initial question. And that led me into that first chapter in the book, which was the gateway to the rest of the book and the subsequent nine chapters.
Mr. Jekielek: And Nazi aggression and Nazi expansion of the motherland and everything else. None of this was hidden by this point. Frankly, the racism and all the actions against the Jewish people, that wasn’t hidden either.
Mr. Rindsberg: Yes. As I did this research, I discovered that The New York Times was either downplaying it: completely omitting these types of stories, or painting them with a very kind brush—whitewashing, and not giving the truth in many cases. For example, casting the Berlin Olympics, the Nazi Olympics as the greatest sporting event of all time. That was the huge headline.
That’s what they took away from the games in which Jews were not allowed to participate. And there was really in that lead story—that big feature piece they did about the Berlin Olympics—there was gushing enthusiasm for the games by The New York Times reporter, and no mention that this was put on by the Nazis. That it was considered another propaganda ploy by the Germans; that swastikas bedecked the streets of Berlin. It was really just sanitized.
Again, you think, “How is this possible?” This is The New York Times. This is the great bastion of liberal journalism in America. This is how they reported on a grotesque display of German race superiority in the Nazis’ minds. That was just one of many such incidents that I discovered. As you mentioned, a pattern of obvious; of course, these are the Nazis. This is as evil as it gets. The New York Times is downplaying this stuff for years leading up to that 1939 lead story that they published that day.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you make an interesting connection here. Because, of course, the owners are Jewish and I think everybody knows that. So it seems particularly odd that they would do this. But at the same time, you mentioned that there is also this climate of antisemitism in America at the time.
Mr. Rindsberg: The owners at the time were a Jewish family. They were actually German Jews who had immigrated to America. And they were proud Americans, actually. Their overriding desire was to fit in, to keep their heads down, to not be called out as Jews. They went so far as to embrace this ideology that didn’t consider the Jews to be a people; just a manner of worship.
Like any other religious worship, you would just worship in a particular way, but you were not a separate people. What that led them to do was make these very strange contortions. For example, they tried to keep the word Jew out of the newspaper in all but the most necessary circumstances.
At the time in the 1930s, they were really worried that if they were seen as a Jewish newspaper, they would lose readers. They would lose their edge in the marketplace. That was another one of these considerations that had them keep a Nazi collaborator who turned out [was] running their Berlin bureaus. What explains all these insane stories about the Nazis and the sympathy for the Nazis was the guy running the show there was actually sympathetic toward the Nazis.
Again, that was about them getting the best stories, the best scoops because the Germans loved this guy. So they gave him great access. In return, they got great coverage. Everybody was happy, seemingly, except the American people. And of course, the Jews of Europe who didn’t have their story told in the most important news outlet in America at the time.
They are willing to either enable, empower or allow these journalists to really go rogue so long as they bring the goods back. But it’s come at the cost of the truth. It’s come at the cost of people’s lives: as we saw in the case of the Ukraine famine, as well through The New York Times’ cover up of the Holocaust, and their anti-immigration stance that they took against the Jews during those years.
That’s the common thread there—whatever the sympathies might be, The Times is willing to allow the sympathies to take hold. We’re seeing that right now with the 1619 Project, and this woke, radical awakening in the newsroom. For them, that works as long as it enables them to continue to push the brand, to grow their business.
We have to keep in mind, this is a $10 billion company with $2 billion in annual revenue, controlled by a family of just a few dozen people. That is real power. They’re shaping the way we perceive reality. That is the overriding factor: their ability to maintain that stranglehold on perception; a monopoly on the narrative.
Mr. Jekielek: You kind of speak to this pattern. You document this pretty well, for example, with Matthews reporting in Cuba. Arguably making Castro into this legendary figure through the reporting even before he was that way. So there seems to be this pattern that emerges from reading. That often people that are employed, were incredibly sympathetic to authoritarian leaders; in particular, communist leaders.
Of course, I think Duranty was invited by Stalin saying, “I want you to interview me. You’re going to do a good job for me.” These are elements of history that I probably should have known; Castro visiting The New York Times and thanking The New York Times for their excellent coverage of him. It’s wild stuff.
Mr. Rindsberg: He visited The New York Times over the course of decades to personally thank the publisher for what they had done for him. And they really had done a lot. They really deserved the thanks because when Herbert Matthews, the Cuba correspondent for The Times, went and found Castro in the mountains of Cuba, he was really gone.
He was irrelevant. He didn’t have money, he didn’t have guns, he didn’t have men. When Matthews published this front-page story about Castro as this democratic messiah, and kept publishing that story—that same trope over and over and over—and elevating him to the level of a superstar; then all of a sudden, overnight, you get the money, you get the guns, you get the men, you get the support—especially from Russia.
And that was the key. He was able to attract the backing of the Soviet Union, then he would be able to flourish, and that’s exactly what happened. It was because of The New York Times’ support for him to the point that the Senate convened hearings about what The Times’ coverage was doing for Castro, and The Times scurried to get Matthews out of there and replace him with another reporter. But by that point, it was already too late.
Mr. Jekielek: One reason why this was so interesting for me to read is back in the day, I was on the China human rights side before I went into journalism. One of the things that always I found stunning was The New York Times’ lack of coverage of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. It’s almost like you can count on your hand the number of articles which mentioned that over the years. Levi Browde makes this case in an article that he wrote.
The publisher of The New York Times in 2001 went to China seeking access, as you described. Met with Jiang Zemin, the dictator at the time who had started this persecution. Essentially, it’s since that time. So there was a bit of reporting 1999, 2001. But after that meeting, there seemed to be next to none. There were a few small exceptions. But that was just always fascinating. This is one of the most persecuted groups in the world. How can you be missing this story repeatedly? There’s this question—what happened at that meeting? We would theorize about this.
Mr. Rindsberg: The New York Times has put themselves in a very awkward, and I think, ethically dubious position with regards to China. They are desperately trying to enter that market. That is a huge consumer market, as we all know. Iit’s also a consumer news market; it is 1.4 billion potential news readers.
For The New York Times who is looking again to be number one; to stay number one, especially at a time where the news industry is so squeezed, and revenue is so hard to come by, that is an enticing market for them. I think for them, it’s an existential matter. It’s life or death in the long term. So, as you mentioned, they go to China trying to go through the official channels in order to penetrate that market.
What they understand is that if they don’t tow the CCP line on whatever issue’s important to the leadership at that point, they are simply locked out of the market, and they will remain so until they get in line. I think what we see is, I don’t necessarily think it’s on a reporter-by-reporter basis. That a reporter is out there on the ground saying, “Well, I can’t report on this topic because the CCP is going to be angry.”
But I think from the top where the culture is set at the newspaper, where the editorial guidance is set, there absolutely has to be that consideration. They’ve already found out the hard way when they bumped up against China’s great firewall, as it’s proverbially called; when they were locked out in, I think 2011, 2012. And now they are trying to get back in. They’re still maintaining a Chinese edition of the newspaper.
Like with the Falun Gong and the Uighurs, it’s exactly the same pattern we’re seeing right now. Where’s the reporting? Where are the op-eds? Where are the editorials? The pushback you often get about these issues is that “Well, it’s not possible to do this kind of reporting on China because there’s a stranglehold on information. The CCP’s not allowing any of the information to come out. They’re not allowing reporters to come in, et cetera.”
But what we see with other topics that The Times gets really interested in is that never stops them from churning out multimedia projects, podcasts, doing deals with Netflix or Oprah to elevate these issues when they so choose; when it really is in their way, or it lines up with their agenda. I think that’s the real key issue here, is that there’s an agenda at work.
Something people often talk about is bias in media. It’s a big topic, it’s a buzzword. What I caution people is to say that bias is not necessarily as big a deal as we think. It’s kind of like, “I come with my assumptions, my experience in the world. My reporting might reflect a little bit of that, but I don’t come with this massive financial and ideological agenda.”
That’s the big division here. That’s what we’re really seeing, not just with The New York Times, with all corporate media. That’s what the public is starting to get clued into as well, is that they cannot trust the incentives of a huge conglomerate to bring them the truth, to bring them their understanding of reality.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of these agendas, I don’t know if there’s a particular financial incentive for this one, but you documented this in the chapter, “The Crazy Vets”—extensive unprovoked killings. There was a whole series, which was problematic from the beginning—criticized. Tell me this story. This is really interesting.
Mr. Rindsberg: The story is that right as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are proceeding, The New York Times starts reporting in two different manners regarding veterans of these wars. One is that these people, these servicemen and women are coming back broken. They’re coming back with PTSD. Their bodies are torn apart. Their minds have been destroyed. Their souls are ripped apart. The other track that they’re reporting is that they come back as violent and homicidal, in a lot of cases.
Both were not true. The one track; that reporting was done by a young rising star reporter named Jayson Blair. It turned out he was just making this stuff up. He was not traveling to the places he was said he was going; he did not interview the people that he said he interviewed.
When The Times went back and actually interviewed these people, they said, “I was injured but I didn’t lose faith in the mission and what I was doing, what I believed in or in the country. I didn’t say any of those things.” Now what’s interesting in that case is that, again, Blair was able to get away with this stuff when, just like Duranty, it should have been caught. His reporting was going through the hands of multiple editors. There were flags raised around him, but The Times kept pushing that narrative.
And then in this other series that they did, or was a couple [of] series claiming that American servicemen and women were coming back from these wars, and killing people; which is an incredible claim to make. It’s astounding to make that claim.
But when you looked at the numbers, when you looked at the statistics, and I don’t mean you needed to hire a team of statisticians, you could just be me and do the long division, which is what I did. It shows you that there was no such pattern. In fact, those people—men and women coming back from those wars—were committing violent crimes at a lower rate than the general population. But they continue to push that line anyway.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s also this element where, and I think probably any news organization would be susceptible to this to some extent. But once you commit to a narrative: once you explore narrative, commit to it, [and] you’ve made some big stories about it—it’s going to take some challenge, some serious introspection to change that. You’re going to have to see some really serious evidence because it’s on the face of it. Because you have to admit to the world that you’re wrong and your detractors are going to celebrate and everything else.
Mr. Rindsberg: It does take that kind of courage. But I do think that that should be the norm. That should be standard operating procedure at any newsroom that considers itself to be serious. I think that’s where we see this big blind spot in the news industry; where you look for, in the US, for lawyers, accountants or doctors, or even real estate agents—they have to agree to some sort of code of ethics.
We have the Hippocratic Oath; we have the bar. In journalism, you have nothing. You can just one day say, “I’m a journalist and I’m going to do things this way or that way.” And one of those practices or malpractices is that when you have a huge story that’s reported by The Times, or by anybody else, and really seeps into the national conversation; becomes hard in fact.
And then it turns out that the story’s not true at all, as with the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. You don’t have front-page headlines saying, “We were wrong.” You have tiny little corrections in the back of the newspaper, or maybe online somewhere, or even stealth editing that you don’t even know it’s been corrected that has no ability to match the proportion of the original story. And that is a huge problem because the record never really gets corrected in our minds.
It gets corrected on newsprint or online technically. But in the minds of the readers, those stories stick. I think that’s what we’re seeing with a lot of the big themes, threads and stories of the past couple years.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re just making me think of The New York Times leads the world in Pulitzer prizes. Indeed, Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer for his incredibly fallacious and destructive reporting on the Holodomor. One of the things I had no idea about was that The New York Times had actually hired an independent consultant to assess whether that Pulitzer should be rescinded. And the consultant found that indeed it should. But then what happened?
Mr. Rindsberg: No big surprise there. They hire a historian to assess what they should do. He says, “Well, Duranty clearly covered up the famine. It clearly was a historical event, we know this. You should give the Pulitzer back.” This is an open and shut case.
The publisher of The New York Times, who was the chairman of The New York Times company as well as the scion of the Sulzberger family said, “No, we’re not going to give it back.” He came up with this series of ridiculous excuses. One of them, the most absurd was, “We don’t really know where the prize is.” I don’t think anyone was expecting them to wrap up the prize in a box and mail it back to Columbia University.
But the other and more problematic excuse that he gave was that to rescind the prize, to give the prize back would be something like an act of airbrushing history. Something that the Soviets used to do all the time, literally, with photographs.
And you think to yourself, “Wait a second. It was Duranty who airbrushed history. It was Duranty who whitewashed what was going on there. The crimes against humanity that Stalin had committed in Ukraine at the time—it is not an act of airbrushing to correct the record, it’s just correcting the record.”
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this inordinate effort being put into the 1619 Project you described. There are all sorts of highly credible historians across the political spectrum, so to speak, that note how problematic it is. You even have the lead reporter, creator of the project, basically saying, “This isn’t historical. This is a perspective, a lens.” Those aren’t the exact words; but effectively, I think that’s what she’s saying. But it’s not presented that way in the school curriculums that were created, that are being implemented, and this is interesting in itself.
Mr. Rindsberg: That is absolutely the case. The Times published this huge initiative, the 1619 Project very quickly. You have major historians from across the political spectrum and news outlets, again, from across the political spectrum, from the far left to the right, saying, “Wait a second, these claims are not historically supportable. They’re simply not true.”
For Nicole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, to write in her essay in that magazine issue that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery is just, on its face, false. There is no historical evidence to support it whatsoever. It was a claim that The New York Times actually fact checked with a professor of African American history at Northwestern University who told them it’s not a claim that they can make. It’s false, it’s wrong, and they made it anyways.
The key there is to understand that the mistakes, the errors and the falsehoods were not a problem for The New York Times. They didn’t correct the biggest ones. They tried to defend them. They left most of them in there. And what you really start to understand is that those falsehoods were the point. Because if you’re trying to change history, you literally have to change it. That’s exactly what the project does.
It literally changes history without any basis; without evidence, in a non-scholarly way. But for the population that is consuming this stuff in schools, on podcasts, in the production, the TV and film productions that are forthcoming, it is taken as hard and fast truth. Because again, it’s The New York Times brand. The New York Times wouldn’t print anything not true, right? And this is how these things get embalmed in the public consciousness.
Mr. Jekielek: Have you gotten any pushback for doing this book?
Mr. Rindsberg: Yes. There is always pushback when you’re challenging an institution as powerful and well entrenched as The New York Times. When it came time to try and get the book into the world, which actually was quite a long time ago—was really 15 or so years—I was met with resistance every step of the way.
I was able, through some relationships and connections, to get to the very top levels of the publishing world, where people told me outright that they could never challenge The New York Times. They could never take that risk of publishing a book like this. I understood from their point of view what they were saying.
So when we think about even within book publishing, the most powerful marketing tool in the entire book publishing industry is The New York Times’ best seller list. The New York Times has actually argued in court that that isn’t editorial property. It’s not something based on raw numbers.
It’s based on the decision making of their editors; which means they are able and they often do blacklist books and authors, and people are just afraid of it. They’re afraid of that blacklist. They’re afraid of falling out of favor with the king. That’s the resistance that I kept running up against back then.
Now, when I brought out the book more recently where independent media is much more powerful—there’s a much greater presence in the world today—I still met with that kind of resistance. I still had people within my own circles—people who are friends close to me—really react very strongly in ways that really could have deterred me if I’d allowed them to. If you allowed that fear to get inside you, what might happen.
But I think the tide is turning. We’re seeing that independent media is becoming very powerful. The voices are becoming louder. You’ve got great reporting coming from independent sources. I think this is where the future lies for news and for journalism.
Mr. Jekielek: Here’s the thing, The New York Times has written a number of hit pieces against us. The thing that troubles me the most with them, I don’t mind to some extent being attacked. I think that comes with the territory. But because of our connection in our origins to Falun Gong practitioners, most of these pieces actually end up being attacks on, as I mentioned earlier, one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
I don’t actually think The Epoch Times comes off terribly bad in it, but there’s all sorts of misrepresentations and stuff straight out of the Chinese Communist Party propaganda that I can see in these things. I find that really troublesome. I would hope someone would really think about this and change their tune. We can take our hits but don’t attack these people.
Mr. Rindsberg: That’s the thing that we see. That’s where this becomes tragic: is that, again, The Times is always willing to take the gloves off when it calls for it; when it’s within their interest, when it serves their agenda. We see it across the board. Israel is another great example of it. Their reporting on Israel sometimes borders on the ridiculous because it is an assault on Israel where balance is thrown out the window. What you end up with is not reporting. You end up with really something that more closely resembles someone pushing an ideology. I think that’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what we’re seeing.
With China, that’s certainly the case. With Israel, with India, that’s another hotspot. The New York Times loves to report on India in a certain way. But I think you’re right to say what they are losing in that is far more valuable. They’re losing trust. They’re losing people’s ability to say, “This is a respected news source. Surely they wouldn’t do that. Surely they wouldn’t put their own interest and their own agenda in front of this duty to gather the facts and present the truth.”
But people are starting to wake up to the fact that that’s not the case. That they do go on the attack. That they do attack groups like the Falun Gong, Israel, Jews, Indians and Hindus. And it’s getting more and more serious, and people are getting more and more turned off by it.
On lab-leak, which is something I reported on recently, The New York Times was absolutely instrumental in working to discredit the theory that the coronavirus might have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Other voices were saying, “Wait a second. That may not be the case. There might be reason to think that it did come from this laboratory.” Not that it necessarily did, but that it’s a possibility.
Where The New York Times on its corner saying, “There is no possible way. This is 100 percent animal spillover. It came from a bat. There’s no other way to think about this. And if you think about it any other way, you’re a racist and xenophobic and a conspiracy theorist.” On the other side of it, you have people saying, “Let’s just think this through. Let’s just consider the facts.”
Which is the model that is better suited to you as a news consumer? Personally, I want to hear people who are open-minded, open to considering alternative theories, to presenting different versions of what they believe to be the case; what happened there. Rather than to say, “Nope, let’s shut the door, lock it. There’s no possibility there. And if you think differently from us, you’re basically a lunatic.”
Mr. Jekielek: I’m glad you’re talking about this. You wrote this amazing piece in Tablet [Magazine]. Of course, at The Epoch Times, we’ve covered the lab-leak extensively. We have this whole giant infographic that catalogs everything that has happened. But you tackled the media response. Again, true to form, meticulously researched and thoughtful. I hadn’t really thought of it entirely that way.
We published in April of 2020, a documentary that essentially said exactly what you said; that the lab-leak idea, there’s evidence. There was some kind of genetic manipulation, potentially. It’s something that needs to be addressed. But to suggest that it’s not; it’s just impossible, it’s preposterous.
It was a preposterous position on this base, and it continues to be. Because there are still people today that are actually saying this. This conflation between lab-leak and bioweapon, which actually you chronicle in your article in Tablet extensively, it continues to this day. You want to talk about the lab-leak. People say, “It’s not a bioweapon.” “Hey, that’s not what I said.”
Anyway, let’s talk about this. Let’s take a little time to dig into how the media perception, initially, was actually quite rational and it’s almost easy to forget about that.
Mr. Rindsberg: For a very short, tiny blip of time, they had an okay sober reaction to the initial reporting, and really trying to think things through. It was very short. It was probably a week before they really started to flip and to generate this storyline that lab-leak belonged in the realm of conspiracy theory.
And as you mentioned, Jan, it was allotted by conflating claims about a possible scientific leak with claims of a bioweapons lab-leak, which are two very different things. Very few people were talking about bioweapons. This was all about a scientific lab-leak. That’s what Senator Cotton came out saying, “We need to consider the possibility that this leaked from a scientific lab.”
Never said anything about a bioweapons program, which again, that’s also not to say that that needed to be ruled out because China, as we all know, does run a bioweapons program. But nevertheless, that was not anything anyone was actually speaking about at the time.
What The New York Times, along with The Washington Post, Politico, Business Insider, CBS News, and a cohort of media organizations did was grab Tom Cotton’s comments about a scientific leak and conflate them with a bioweapons claim that he never actually made. And [they] came out saying, “Look at what this crazy Republican is saying about the origins of the pandemic. This is the kind of thing that lab-leak people are saying about the origins of the virus.”
Mr. Jekielek: How do you account for this sudden, dramatic, all-encompassing shift to natural zoonotic origin is the only possible explanation, or you’re a madman like you mentioned earlier? That happens like this and everybody jumps in. How does that happen?
Mr. Rindsberg: That’s a great question. And that’s a question that cuts to the core of everything that people are investigating regarding gain-of-function research and Peter Daszak’s involvement in all this; Fauci and Collins, and all these people.
There is this well-known episode of three or four really top-level researchers in the field of virology and surrounding fields going to Fauci and saying, “We have evidence showing that this is likely engineered. We have no other way to explain certain elements of the virus other than to think this was engineered.” They have the February 1st conference call with Fauci and company, and the scientist who came to him with this information.
Two days later, those same scientists come out saying, “We were wrong. There’s no possibility it was engineered. This was purely just a natural and a result of zoonotic spillover.” Everyone is now trying to understand what happened on that phone call.
What happened in the space of two days where these scientists flipped and came out with a very influential paper saying, “This is only possible as result of animal spillover. It is not possible that it came from a lab.” There are a lot of questions circling around this. How that got from there into the consumer media is a question we need to answer.
I absolutely think that, again, there is a role that China plays here that cannot be denied. As far as it came from China, it came from a place a few miles, as we all know, from a laboratory where they study these viruses. We have to acknowledge the enormous influence that China wields over the American media.
Again, we’ve talked about that with regards to The New York Times and its desire to enter the Chinese media market. We know, for example, with The Washington Post—which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon—half of their top sellers, 10,000 top Amazon sellers are in China. They have huge business interest through their cloud computing services in China. There is, again, a lever there.
What are the actual mechanisms of how the story suddenly flipped? We don’t really know that yet. But we know that it flipped very quickly and in a very extreme manner. It wasn’t that these outlets were coming out saying, “We think it’s probably zoonotic,” and most scientists say that.
They were saying on the other hand, “This is absolutely zoonotic, and anyone who think it was a lab-leak is a conspiracy theorist.” They polarized the entire conversation to an extent that you could basically not talk about it without being accused of being a racist or xenophobic or any other of those epithets.
[Narration]: When we reached out to The Washington Post, their spokesperson told us they operate, “With complete independence in making all news and editorial decisions.”
Mr. Jekielek: So, you described something that you call a Daszak’s triangle. Peter Daszak became this rock star, for lack of a better term, appearing all over the place. Of course, with EcoHealth doing the work that it did; saying that zoonotic origin is the only possibility and postulating theories about how it works and writing op-eds in The New York Times, and being on almost every corporate media you can imagine. What is Daszak’s triangle, and how does this fit in here?
Mr. Rindsberg: Daszak’s triangle, it was really a way for the media to create these three vertices of narratives about lab-leak, and people who purported or were exploring the theory.
What it was claiming was that you were basically anti-environmentalist because one of the overarching narratives about zoonotic spillover is that it’s the result of humanity’s clash with the environment. It’s about building too many roads, expanding cities too far into natural habitats. If you didn’t acknowledge that that was the truth, you were actually denying that there are environmental problems in the world made you an environmental denialist.
On the other vertices of the triangle is that you were a racist. If you were saying, “Wait, this might have come from China,” then you were saying Chinese people are responsible for the virus. Where in reality, what you were saying was, “No, we think maybe there was an accident. Maybe it was a lab accident. Maybe it had to do with poor procedures. Had nothing to do with 1.4 billion people in China. It had to do with maybe just three or four people in a laboratory.” So those are the two vertices.
Then the other one was that you were some crazy Republican conspiracy theorist. They love to put Steve Bannon in there in this reporting, talking about the fact that Bannon was talking about bioweapons ideas. That was the triangle that you got locked into—talking about lab-leak was environmental denialism, racism, and political reactionarism. Once you got locked into that triangle, there was just no way out. It was actually quite brilliantly constructed in that regard.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, as I was reading this article, and actually, just rereading this article this morning and having read your book, it struck me. You also mentioned in the book, I think in the 1619 Project chapter, you talk about John McWhorter’s work—about what he calls the elite and how he imagines people that essentially believe in woke ideology—he calls them, the elite, are practicing a kind of a religion.
He says it’s exactly a religion; I would dispute that. I would call it a substitute religion. That’s a whole other discussion. But the point is, there’s a kind of a religious fervor associated with promoting these particular ideas.
McWhorter’s book, I think, is brilliant in exploring this whole question. The whole picture here, I think to myself, “If you know what those touch points are in a newsroom, which is …” I don’t know if it’s dominated, but you could argue it’s very heavily influenced by this ideology, The New York Times newsroom. It would be very easy to manipulate these people and narratives. I’ve found myself wondering is this maybe what Daszak, and some of the others interested in doing this did?
Mr. Rindsberg: Well, he certainly had a very easy time propagating his message in The New York Times. I went through and I counted well over a dozen instances where they were turning to him as a source, which is fine.
But you also look at the sources that were not included on this topic; sources that major voices in the scientific community who were advocating for the exploration of the lab-leak topic, who were not used as sources by The New York Times. He’s got this really, almost mystical ability to get into the media.
And it was not just The Times. If you name a major media outlet in the United States and some across the world, he was in there. We’re talking BBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, Wired, Political Access, you name it, he was there. He was everywhere with this same message. The media really just grabbed it with both hands. Again, I think that’s the question of why.
It never made sense to me to think why any journalist would care one way or the other, whether this thing came from a lab or whether it came from a bat. We actually don’t have evidence to say it’s one way or the other. We don’t have an animal that we understand to be the reservoir for the virus. So why would anyone decide that it should be this or it should be that?
I think it was in part because there are relationships. If you go back, there are a lot of Fauci-related emails released through Freedom of Information Act order. And in one of them, we have Donald McNeil, The New York Times’s lead coronavirus reporter emailing Fauci with this cheerleading ra-ra email saying, “Great job, Tony. Wonderful. You’re doing the best kind of work.”
You’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a second. You’re reporting on this guy. Should there not be an element of distance here? An element of skepticism? You’re not his cheerleader behind the scenes telling him how great a job he’s doing.” Maybe there should be an element where you’re saying, “Are you sure this is the right way forward? What did you do in terms of gain-of-function research?”
But that’s when we got to peer behind the curtain a bit. What we see is that there’s this hand and glove relationship between the government and the media. And Daszak, even though he’s the head of a third-party nonprofit organization, he is very much enmeshed with the scientific establishment and with the government in that regard. I think that’s where we’re alerted, again, to these dangers of media working too much for an agenda that serves itself. In this case, by serving government interests.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, there’s this whole element of research that is being outlawed in America being done and funded through EcoHealth in China because you can do it there. I mean, we don’t know the entire picture, but there’s certainly a ton of data points that, on our end, we’ve been able to find.
Mr. Rindsberg: That’s absolutely the case. Again, this all came to light not because The New York Times was doing the very difficult investigation to bring it to light. It came to light because a lot of internet sleuths and a lot of independent media outlets were looking for this stuff [and] were doing the Freedom of Information Act processes necessary to get these emails to see light of day.
Again, this is the stuff that the mainstream media should have been doing from day one. Especially considering the considerable amount of resources and experience that they have to do just this kind of investigation. I mean, these kinds of deep investigations are expensive. They’re difficult to run, they require a lot of experience, they require a lot of access and there really should be the purview of The New York Times, The Washington Post, et cetera.
But what happened was it was left to internet sleuths; people on Twitter who were really piecing this stuff together in quite a remarkable way because it all turned out to be backed by evidence. It turned out that these guys were not just wildly guessing.
They were actually digging up. They’re going through databases, they’re finding these studies, they’re finding publications from China and they were piecing it together in a way that is creating something of a mosaic of the truth right now. It’s not fully there, but we at least have somewhat of a picture.
Mr. Jekielek: So, one of the theories you addressed as to why there was this media response was it was simply a Trump derangement syndrome. If Trump says it could be this, it has to be the opposite. But you actually debunked that theory to some extent.
Mr. Rindsberg: Trump had come out against China regarding the pandemic, and for exploring lab-leak, or saying lab-leak was the likely origin of the pandemic sometime around April. In February, when the media was calling lab-leak a conspiracy theory, Trump was still praising China for its handling of the pandemic. He was really on the same side of the issue as the Chinese government at that time.
That’s the common explanation that people get, is what Ben Smith from The New York Times gave me when we were talking on Twitter saying, “This was just all about Trump.” I got that from a number of journalists from mainstream media saying Trump did it. I had an interchange with NPR’s media reporter; told me the same thing. It was really just because Trump politicized the conversation by coming out against the Chinese government and for lab-leak.
Just look at the timeline, it’s really clear. Again, it doesn’t take a crack squad of investigators to go back and look at the timeline where Trump came out against China only in March, and for lab-leak only in April, and the media had really gone into overdrive against lab-leak in mid-February. So the timeline just didn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. So why again?
Mr. Rindsberg: Why I think is the difficult question to answer. I think it’s probably not really one thing. I think there is the background sympathy for the CCP that is in the media; that they are very nervous about angering the CCP. I think that’s become the sort of cultural moray within the media saying, “Don’t piss them off because we know what happens to journalists. We know they get their access revoked; they get thrown out of China.”
For journalists to do their jobs and for news organizations to cover China effectively, they have to have that access. I think there’s initially that reservation to do anything that is going to anger the CCP right off the bat.
I think another part of this is that you’ve got these relationships between top science reporters and people like Anthony Fauci and the rest of that cadre. The very top of the immunology and virology worlds, the scientific establishment, they’re enmeshed. It’s the same kind of client relationship.
Donald McNeil needs access to Fauci if he’s going to be the best in the business. He’s going to get access to that top player. In order to maintain that access, you have to toe the line. That’s that theme that we return to that I’ve spoken about through this entire conversation, is that you got to bring home the goods. If you’re going to bring home the goods, you’ve got to play ball. You’ve got to play ball with the right people.
In some cases, that’s Joseph Stalin. In some cases, that’s Hitler. In some cases, it’s Fidel Castro. In this particular case, it’s the very top ranks of the American scientific community. What we see throughout this is that nobody from the mainstream media was asking those people the tough questions.
What we got was Fauci is this really demigod of science. He’s the incarnate of perfection, and he’s leading us to victory. It was this bizarre campaign in the media about Fauci. We say, “Wait a second. This is just a human being. He’s just a guy. Maybe he’s making mistakes. Maybe he’s improperly incentivized. Maybe he’s doing things that were intended to be good for the country and for the American people, but had a bad outcome.”
We don’t know, but nobody was asking those questions. So, I think that’s another part of it, is that you’ve got this client holistic relationship on the part of the media. Then I think there is the X factor. What actually happened? Why was the science media so eager to take up this mantle against lab-leak so quickly? And how did that translate into the consumer media?
Who was calling those shots? We still don’t know. And the remarkable thing is that aside from one or two reporters out there, Josh Rogin at The Washington Post being a very notable exception, you have almost nobody looking into this stuff. It’s crazy. It’s remarkable.
It’s the story of our lifetimes. The pandemic that has killed. I don’t know what the number is now, but it is in the millions. It’s absolutely tragic. It’s a catastrophe that none of us had even conceived of before. And you would think that in every news organization out there, there would be a phalanx of journalists looking into the origins. And there’s not that reporting going on. That in itself is a red flag.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. Actually, to Josh’s credit, he does maintain these kind of relationships very clearly. When you look at his reporting with people that he’s not necessarily buddy-buddy with, but because of his professionalism, he’s able to get some great scoops. I keep thinking about this. There are all these examples of media malfeasance recently. Most recent being the reporting for a year on the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and creating an idea in people’s minds.
I think most Americans could be excused for believing all sorts of crazy falsehoods that were debunked in the actual trial, which was televised. It’s an interesting example. We talk about Jussie Smollet. He just was found guilty. Again, the media ran with a very different picture of the reality without really asking a lot of questions. These Covington kids situation; he got a sizable settlement from CNN and some other media for slander, and things like that.
We mentioned these things, but this is probably up there with the Russia collusion hoax as the mother of fallacious misreporting. Again, media malfeasance; I keep saying this word, but that’s what it is. Actually, do you have a thought on this? It’s a funny question to ask, isn’t it? Is this Russia collusion hoax worse, or is this whole situation around the lab-leak theory being impossible worse? Are there other things that we don’t even realize? And where’s the accountability?
Mr. Rindsberg: I think, comparing the two, it is a bit of an apples and oranges with the Russia, the Trump collusion reporting. At the end of the day, it was very revelatory about the media and their, not just their assumptions; which I think we all know their assumptions are for the most part. But the extent that they were willing to go to in order to prove those assumptions right in the public sphere. And again, it was at all costs.
This was a scorched earth campaign when it came to Trump and Russia. No matter what the cost, no matter what fact you had to trample to get to that destination, they were ready to do it. And they did it for three, four, five years. I think, it’s still going on in some ways.
I think there has been, in that case, this tiny bit of accountability, this tiny pullback. You’ve had an article here or there. The Washington Post, they took a few articles down. Everyone gasps at that, where Sally Busbee at The Washington Post removes a few articles and this is supposed to be this watershed moment for journalism that she did that. But in reality, it’s not proportionate in any way to the extensiveness of the reporting on Trump and Russia, and the so-called collusion.
That is egregious. I mean, there is just no other way to say it. Whether or not you like Trump or supported Trump, I think on either side of that issue, you got to say, “Wait a second. Forget the politics. They reported on this story for four or five years that it was just not true. And they were telling us all this was absolutely the case.”
This was taken as a premise. It was taken as the starting point that he had colluded with the Russians. And there was never any evidence to support that. In fact, the opposite; it was all false.
But when it comes to lab-leak, I think we are talking about something that has historic and universal significance. I mean, we’re talking about something that has forever changed the history of humanity. I mean, there is just nothing like this. We could say, of course, there have been major pandemics in the past, the Spanish flu killing untold millions.
But that was a hundred years ago where we didn’t have medical science that we have today; technology, all these investments by the Gates Foundation, and to being able to predict pandemics of this sort, head them off, treat them. This is something that has shaken all of our lives, every single one of us, to its core. We have all been changed, and I think in a lot of ways that we don’t yet understand. We still don’t know where this came from.
All we know is that the media acted in a way that was fallacious, unethical and still has not provided any sort of accountability, whatsoever; in terms of not just correcting the record where they were wrong, but correcting their actions. Which means to say, “Okay, we were wrong. Now let’s go investigate.” They haven’t actually taken that next step. Again, that’s the really worrying part.
Because it’s all very well for an editor to go and write a nice little paragraph online on the article saying, “Sorry, we got this wrong. We’re going to take out the word fringe theory here. We’re going to take out the word over here, replace it with an indefinite article.” Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that they actually do the reporting, and they’re still not doing it.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating because that’s what I was going to ask. What would accountability look like? But you’re saying, presumably, some sort of front-page or very large visible reporting that says, “We were wrong.” I guess that would be one of the elements?
Mr. Rindsberg: There’s this really interesting concept in the Jewish faith that I belong to, of repentance. The way Jewish people or the tradition thinks about repentance is that first, you change your actions, and then you say sorry, second.
I think that’s the case here is that first, you would need to change the actions, which means go out and start doing that reporting. Go create a team at each of these major media institutions that is looking into this question. That’s all that they’re going to do for the next two years until they get answers. Then you can come and say sorry to the American public or to the global public for lying to us.
But until they’ve done that first step, none of it matters. They can come out and write these nice articles or do podcasts on NPR about how they got it wrong, and about Trump and about whatever. It doesn’t matter. I think the reason it doesn’t matter is because we don’t believe them. That’s, at the end of the day, the important part. We don’t trust them. Until they take action that earns our trust, none of it is going to matter.
Mr. Jekielek: I know from having read your book and some of your other work that you are a truth-seeking journalist. That’s odd to have to say that because it seems to me there’s this other brand of journalism, and perhaps it’s connected with the elite, as John McWorther calls them. But frankly, what your book describes is that for decades, there’s been this type of reporting, which is much more focused.
Actually, come to think of it. You call it folk journalism, I think. You come up with this idea, right? Where you pick a narrative and you make everything fit that narrative. I don’t like it being called folk journalism, by the way. Folk journalism feels somehow positive. This is a terrible thing, or at least in my mind. But there’s a whole series of journalists out there that maybe don’t even believe that truth-seeking is their work. Are we in some kind of epistemic crisis here? What is truth?
Mr. Rindsberg: You’ve got this group of journalists and this culture of journalism that is not really about what we traditionally understood as journalism. It’s not really about gathering facts and trying to string them together in a cohesive storyline. It’s rather about serving power structures or serving themselves. In the case of these prize-winning journalists, get the Pulitzer. Again, this is the common thread.
Duranty got the Pulitzer; he brought home the bacon. The Berlin bureau during World War II and the lead up to World War II, two of those reporters won Pulitzers. The same thing with the 1619 Project and its Pulitzers; you’re serving yourself and the system, and the system rewards you for serving it. That becomes the goal. They’re very successful in that regard. They got a TV series; they got the Netflix production deal, whatever.
In my case, particularly, I’m probably never going to win a Pulitzer. I’m not after a prize. It’s not within my realm of consideration; it’s not what motivates me. I think when we look at other independent journalists, it’s the same thing. They’re not in that ecosystem anyway. They’re not seeking those shiny prizes.
They don’t need to think about serving power in that way. They’re able to run afoul of those power structures. What that means is that they’re free to do their work. They’re free to just go and follow the facts wherever they might lead, including to those very uncomfortable places that people don’t really want to talk about like lab-leak.
It’s not good for a career or for a journalist’s ability to get one of these great prizes or to get a book deal with a major publisher, if you are risking yourself being called a conspiracy theorist or a fringe theorist.
But if you don’t care about those things, then you’re able to seek them out and you seek out the truth anyways. I think that’s, again, this great frontline, this new emerging wave of independent journalism that is really just about finding what happened and telling it to people. It’s really that simple.
Mr. Jekielek: What about folks that ideologically; these people exist. Presumably the 1619 Project spawns from this idea—the truth is what we say it is.
Mr. Rindsberg: That, to me, is this core paradigm shift that we’re seeing, not just in journalism. We’re seeing it throughout the culture in America. We’re seeing it in academia, in media, and in entertainment. That shift is that in the enlightenment, we had this notion that truth is power. That if you could find the truth, you had an ability to understand the world in a way that gave you an inner power. With the woke awakening, so to speak, they’ve inverted that where power is truth. Whatever enhances their power in the world is just truth.
And that is actually the literal definition of critical theory. We’ve heard a lot about critical race theory stems from critical theory. Critical theory explicitly says, “Whatever helps emancipate oppressed people is the truth.” But the question there is, who decides who is oppressed and who is the oppressor? It’s us, the person who is seeking power. And that’s how they’ve made truth into a tool. In some cases, a weapon. That’s really, I think, one of the most dangerous trends we’re seeing in American culture right now.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Ashley, I’ve been really enjoying this conversation. Any final thoughts as we finish up here?
Mr. Rindsberg: Someone recently asked me, it’s a question I get asked a lot is, what do we do about this individually? We’re just little old us. My answer in one part is to say go out and seek for yourself. We all have the tools. Go find the sources that are important to you and the storylines that are important to you and go seek the truth. Do your best to approximate it.
Never, I think, go into a situation saying, “I have the full truth, unadulterated and pure. And it’s mine now.” I think that’s the wrong way. But to say, “I’m going to do my best to approximate it.”
I think another part of that is just to say to understand that truth, it’s something you practice. You can practice truth by reading a great book about whatever subject. It doesn’t have to be historical or political. It could be about biology or oncology or whatever floats your boat.
But when you put yourself in a position where you are embracing the truth, it’s something you do moment by moment, day by day, I think you create a positive force in the world. I think that’s what this is all really about.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Ashley Rindsberg, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Rindsberg: Thank you so much, Jan. I appreciate that.
[Narration]: Our team reached out to The New York Times for comment, but they did not respond.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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