Buzzfeed Takes a Stab at Journalism, Exposes Science Writer Activism
As scrutiny increases on the NIH spending millions of dollars for dangerous virus research, Buzzfeed’s Peter Aldhous shifts attention and spotlights a tiny animal rights group. No, seriously.
5 minute read
Investigative reporters and watchdog nonprofits have shone a harsh spotlight on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the last year, exposing the agency’s hidden funding of gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China, and catching the NIH’s Anthony Fauci giving misleading testimony about this to Congress. Internal emails have also exposed virologists privately agreeing that the pandemic could have started from a Wuhan lab accident, and the Washington Post has called on the EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak to testify before Congress and explain his financing of Wuhan researchers.
Meanwhile, President Biden just threw another $1 billion of taxpayer money at the NIH to support a new science agency. Politico reported some in Congress worry this is just “another slush fund for Fauci-minded scientists — unchecked scientists who will use more government money just to curate their public image rather than get results.”
But when Buzzfeed’s Peter Aldhous published a piece on the pandemic last week, did he dig further into Fauci’s incriminating behavior? Nope. Did he dive into scientists’ emails to explain why the Post editorial board says researchers need to be held to account? Uh-uh. Did he tear apart the budget of the new science agency to help protect American taxpayers and expose how much new money Fauci will pour into risky virus research? Are you joking?!
Instead, Buzzfeed’s Aldhous gave the world a 4,500-word hot-take that spotlighted the White Coat Waste Project—an obscure animal rights group with a little over a dozen employees, that few if any Americans outside of the DC Beltway even know exists. While the group focuses on animal rights, two years ago they tripped over and exposed an NIH grant from Fauci’s budget that funded risky virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. For some reason, Aldhous thinks this remains a vital reason the public remains worried about a possible Wuhan lab accident today. As an added twist, Aldhous peppered his article with references to the group’s ties to conservatives, although this repetitive refrain only served to hint that this offends Aldhous’s own personal politics.
But think about that for a moment. Instead of holding those in power to account, Aldhous played lion pouncing on mouse, snatching hold of a tiny nonprofit, and then batting it about for 4,500 words, because this meets his and Buzzfeed’s criteria for reporting. And this guy teaches journalism at UC Santa Cruz to young people entering the profession.
In between laughs, Jonathan Matthews, co-director of an even smaller and equally obscure British nonprofit called GMWatch, told me the article fits a pattern of science writers inverting the role of journalists and attacking anyone daring to question those in power. “It’s exactly the same pattern you find in these other articles of trying to find guilt by association, by suggesting there is another agenda: racism, Trumpism, anti-science. In fact, serious scientists are saying this needs to be investigated properly.”
Jon Cohen @sciencecohenA must-read, critical look by @paldhous and @BuzzFeedNews at the White Coat Waste Project and how it "pulled the 'lab leak' strings and channeled right-wing anger over COVID." https://t.co/xRXDEx9mZn
“Do you call this journalism?” said Gilles Demaneuf, a member of DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19) which has uncovered and published hundreds of pages of hidden documents pointing to risky virus studies at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “This tried to be a little subtle, but it fits within an echo chamber. You got these guys writing about their friends, for their friends. That’s all science writing is.”
Science writers: comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted
The repetitive references to the White Coat Waste Project’s conservative “partisan politics”—apparently liberals can’t be partisan?—served more as blaring bullhorn than subtle dog whistle, alerting science writers such as UnDark Magazine’s Deborah Blum, Buzzfeed’s Stephanie M. Lee, and Science Magazine’s Jon Cohen (of course!) that this was a super-duper important article to promote to the #scicomm community in order to help squash conservative enemies.
While most showed a modicum of restraint, Nature Magazine’s Amy Maxmen gave away the goods, tweeting what fellow science writers were implying on social media: White Coat Waste Project is “conservative” and thus a “hate group.”
“The focus in science journalism is ‘investigate the investigators,’” said Anthony Bellotti, during a long discussion with me about the Buzzfeed piece. Bellotti founded White Coat Waste Project in 2013, in part because he understood that liberals had cornered public discourse on animal rights, even though the issue cuts across partisan politics. “I don’t know what the sin is that we’ve committed,” he told me. “It’s not that we’re conservative: we do outreach to conservatives. We also do outreach to Democrats and I’m fairly confident that our membership skews slightly left-of-center, because that’s where the majority of people are who care about animal rights. Just not all of them.”
Bellotti said that Aldhous got his facts right in the article, and helped to point out some of their work to expose NIH funding that harmed animals. But they had only tripped across the NIH grant for virus research in Wuhan back in 2020 by accident. (Yes, reader. The Aldhous article tries to make the case that we are discussing a possible Wuhan lab accident today, because of work that Bellotti did back in early 2020.) Since that time, tons more evidence and documents have come to light pointing to problems with NIH funding for virus research in Wuhan.
Bellotti told me that he hadn’t even thought much about virus research until January 2021 when New York Magazine published an essay delving into a possible lab accident in Wuhan as the reason for the pandemic.
Since that time, Vanity Fair published an in-depth investigation last summer exposing how those who even hinted that a Chinese lab accident could have started the pandemic were baselessly attacked as racists or partisan conservatives. Science writers pilloried Vanity Fair for daring to publish the piece, but shortly after it appeared, two virologists shared a link to the Vanity Fair story on email.
“Good summary of what’s happened,” wrote Dr. James Le Duc, the director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Around the same time Vanity Fair published that article last summer, a POLITICO-Harvard poll found that most Americans believe COVID19 leaked from lab, which makes you wonder why science writers remain so isolated from public sentiment. On top of this, three books have been published delving into the Chinese coverup of the pandemic’s beginning and Fauci’s role in funding dangerous virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Read an interview with book author Elaine Dewar, here.)
Bellotti told me he is both confused and flattered that Buzzfeed wants to give his organization such prominence. But he worries that the Aldhous article is part of the media trend to cast aside skepticism of powerful people and institutions: “Unfortunately, this is what the establishment media has become: rooting out people who have the wrong politics or opinion. It sucks.”
Is science writing “journalism,” or “journalism adjacent”?
The pandemic has become a real low point in science writing, a profession that has always struggled with doing journalism instead of promoting science and scientists. Many science writers are fans of the people they cover—more interested in cheerleading their sources than scrutinizing their research and finances.
Daring to point this out only causes science writers to deny they behave this way, even though friends I have at multiple media outlets dismiss them as “scicomm.” Like porn, you know scicomm when you see it.
Science writers don’t deny that they defy the norms of journalism, with partisan hot takes and defense of those in power, because they don’t realize they do so. They deny defying the norms of journalism, because they want to continue using scicomm as a weapon, and want allies to feel comfortable wielding this same cudgel.
It’s much simpler for science writers to band together and pretend they aren’t behaving how they behave, rather than spending countless hours on social media defending their indefensible conduct.
Their groupthink adheres to the classic gaslighting playbook of clown-world politics: first deny; then minimize; finally, justify and embrace.
“It’s a club,” DRASTIC’s Demaneuf told me. “And frankly, it’s so tiring.”
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