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.”
“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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In April of 2020, I noticed on twitter that a professor of biology at the University of California at Berkeley was tweeting about the relationship of the coronavirus outbreak with Wuhan in China. They mentioned that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which does coronavirus research, was also located in Wuhan. I thought it was really strange that we were not hearing more about this in the news.
I work in electronics and have a master's degree in electrical engineering. In 2017, I had completed a two year period in my career where I worked at the defense research agency DARPA in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. Although my focus as a contractor at DARPA had been in electronics, I happened to know that DARPA also funds some research in biology. Because of my work at DARPA, I knew how to research federal contracts.
Based on the comments of the Berkeley professor, I did some google searches to see if the Wuhan institute of Virology had ever been funded by any US Agency. I stumbled on some contracts with the EcoHealth Alliance. Peter Daszak's name came up.
I saw that Jonathan Cohen and Peter Aldhous had been tweeting about Wuhan and virology. I noticed that they were not mentioning that the EcoHealth Alliance had had a relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They did not mention that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had worked on gain of function experiments. Yet, the information was there in publicly available federal contract information.
In April or May, I tweeted to Jonathan Cohen that there had been a series of federal contracts with the EcoHealth Alliance that included the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a collaborator. He responded to me on twitter in a very hostile manner.
I also attempted several twitter communications with Peter Aldhous about the EcoHealth Alliance federal contracts. He similarly refused to even consider the potential implications of the EcoHealth Alliance contracts.
At about that time, I noticed that my twitter account went very quiet. I also noticed that when I attempted to tweet with people on twitter, they assumed I was Trump supporter (I am not. Actually, the reason I left DARPA as a contractor is because I did not like the transformation that happened there after Trump was elected.) It was pretty shocking to see so many supposedly smart people refuse to even look at the EcoHealth Alliance contracts and consider their potential implications.
In October, realizing that my twitter account had probably been shadow banned and had become essentially useless, I decided to abandon Twitter.
Meredith Wadman at Science Magazine went to my high school in Vancouver, British Columbia. She graduated one year ahead of me. Meredith is not blameless in this tale, and has unwaveringly supported Jonathan Cohen's denial about the US funding and relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology gain of function experiments.
Peter Aldhous lives in Bernal Heights in San Francisco where I also live. I can tell by the perspective of the photos he often posts on twitter. I don't know Jonathan Cohen, but I do often read Science Magazine articles. My aunt and uncle in Alberta, Canada, were a polio survivors, so I've always been interested vaccines.
Anyway, all of this is to say that Peter Aldhous' and Jonathan Cohen's actions are not without harm. They have harmed people who tried to raise clear evidence of a connection between US federally funded programs and gain of function experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Since this experience, I have down rated my former opinion of these Science Magazine and Buzzfeed journalists.
Academics like Aldhous are simply today's equivalent of the arse-kissing lower echelons of Medieval royal courts, or the functionaries and assistants to the Holy Inquisition launched by Holy Mother Church to crush all thought that fell outside the parameters decided upon by the power structures of the day. He's just one more petty vacuous amoral career shill for power. The kind of person that leaves one thinking: "how does he live with himself?"