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ProPublica Takes Another Look at Wuhan
Trying to know the unknowable. And a reminder that it is easier to preach transparency than to practice it.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China. Is this where the catastrophic Covid pandemic began? That is what a blockbuster report from one of America’s most respected news organizations implied last year. Now … they’re not so sure. (Getty Images.)
This post is a followup on the highly-publicized report last fall from ProPublica and Vanity Fair about Covid’s origins. (Henceforth PP and VF.) It’s prompted by another PP item five days ago, revisiting and revising their approach to this very consequential topic.
I realize that what follows could be confusing. I’m going to be talking about three government reports, and three journalistic stories. Here’s a guide, with names I’ll try to use consistently (and will place in bold).
The three reports are:
The House Report, which came out in August, 2021. It was from the Republican staff of the House Foreign Affairs committee, and it argued that Covid had begun with a “lab leak” in China. (Ie, that it wasn’t natural “zoonotic” spread from wild animals.) You can read it here.
The “interim report” was an early version of a report by GOP staffers on the Senate committee on on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It came out in October, 2022, and also argued for a lab leak. You can download a PDF here.
The DNI report, from the Director of National Intelligence. This is a declassified version of the pooled views of US government intelligence agencies. It came out in
MayJune, 2023, after a Congressional vote in March mandating that such information be declassified and released. It concluded that no possibility could be ruled out, but that more agencies doubted “lab leak” than believed in it. It is short, clear, and highly readable. You can read it here, and I hope you will.1
Now, the three stories:
The original story was published by VF and PP on October 28, 2022. It relied heavily on the interim report and indirectly on the House report to make a lab-leak case
The Editor’s Note was in PP in late November 2022, in response to criticisms of the original story.
The “final story” was in PP five days ago, July 7, and reflected the DNI report’s assessment that nothing could be ruled out.
And, while I’m at it, two disclosures:
I recognize and celebrate ProPublica as a crucial investigative and civic champion of our times. What PP’s Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, Alex Mierjeski, and colleagues have unearthed about Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and the corruption of the current Supreme Court is only the latest and most powerful example. ProPublica has defended the public interest in countless other realms. Its handling of the Covid story seems atypical.
This is a post about journalistic practice. I am explicitly not taking a position in the enormously complex lab leak debate. I don’t know enough to judge the possibilities and the expert views. The DNI report, from people who are experts, said that the origins of Covid might never be known, unless Chinese officials decide to be more forthcoming. Perhaps even those officials are in the dark.
Now, what this all amounts to.
Late October 2022: The ‘original story’ makes a splash.
Last October, the jointly produced PP/VF “original story” was seen as providing significant evidence in favor of the “Chinese lab leak” hypothesis.
In both outlets the opening spread was illustrated by a large, dramatic, spooky black-and-white photo, evoking the secrecy and mystery of what the reporters were about to unveil. To emphasize the significance of these findings, VF billed the story this way in its sub-headline:
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, the cutting-edge biotech facility at the center of swirling suspicions about the pandemic’s onset, was far more troubled than previously known, explosive documents unearthed by a Senate research team reveal.
Explosive documents. Unearthed. These are terms you choose when you want to signal big news.
But immediately the story provoked curiosity. Why this atypical joint venture, between two organizations you don’t normally think of as partners or peers? What was the division of labor between those organizations, and the two authors? (The byline was shared by Katherine Eban of VF and Jeff Kao of PP.) How did the story get started in the first place? And how did the authors come across the US government employee who was the central figure in their narrative? And get early access to the interim report?
PP declined my requests, and I assume requests from others, to answer any questions or say anything more about the story.
A spokesperson from PP suggested that I have an off-the-record discussion with one of PP’s senior figures. I declined. Among other reasons, that would put me in the position of knowing things I was not allowed to reveal or discuss. “Off the record” is mainly for when you are gathering information that might put a source in jeopardy. It’s not a normal arrangement with the person or organization you are writing about. I believe that most PP reporters and editors would decline such an offer in comparable circumstances.
Early November, 2022: The criticisms roll in.
Critical reaction to the original story came in almost immediately. It involved points of detail, some of which PP later acknowledged and corrected. But it had two main themes, both of which were connected to this story’s heavy reliance on the Interim report and implicitly also on the House report.
One was that the “explosive documents” at the heart of the story amounted to one specific American official’s translation of internal Chinese government memoranda, which he claimed he understood better than almost anyone else.
This person was a State Department employee named Toy Reid. The story quoted Reid as saying that the version of Mandarin used in Chinese bureaucratic documents was “almost like a secret language”—and one that he happened to have the rare ability to comprehend. As PP and VF credulously put it:
For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins.
According to the original story, Reid’s linguistic talent and research had allowed him to unearth powerful documentary indications of a lab leak. In Reid’s interpretation, the coded language of some memos indicated panic and chaos of the sort that would accompany a laboratory emergency:
Reid studied the words intently. Was this a reference to past accidents? An admission of an ongoing crisis? A general recognition of hazardous practices? Or all of the above? Reading between the lines, Reid concluded, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.”
And that, in fact, is exactly what happened next, according to a meeting summary uploaded nine days later.
The words “that, in fact, is exactly what happened next” were in the original story, as shown by the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine.” They have been altered in the current online versions of both the VF and PP story to read this way:
And that, in Reid’s view, is exactly what happened next, according to a meeting summary uploaded nine days later.
To spell this out, “in fact” has been changed to “in Reid’s view,” without an indication from VF or PP of the change or how the story was originally phrased.2
Other issues lost in translation.
It turns out that a lot of people other than Toy Reid also think they can understand bureaucratic Mandarin. Many of them, including a number whom I’d known as translators and interpreters when I lived in China, quickly spoke up to challenge crucial parts of Reid’s translation that bolstered the lab leak view. I went into some of this in an interview with Brendan O’Kane, a well known translator.
There was even an important element of mistranslating numbers in the circumstantial evidence for a lab leak. This was not specifically cited in the PP/VF story or the interim report but was a prominent part of the House Report that bolstered the lab-leak hypothesis:
Two of the strongest governmental indicators of chaos following a lab leak were Toy Reid’s translation of the memos, and strange budgetary patterns for the Wuhan lab that might have indicated a post-crisis cleanup. The House report cited the startling fact that the Wuhan lab had received a sudden appropriation of more than $600 million to redo its air-purifying systems at just the time when a lab leak might have happened. Like the memos Toy Reid translated, this could have been a sign of a true emergency.
As it happens, that claim was off by a factor of 1,000. The actual air-conditioning grant was for around $600 thousand, a more routine sum. The error apparently arose from confusion about the Chinese character万, which means ten thousand. (Details are below.3)
Who the “Senate researchers” were.
The other big problem with the PP/VF report was the nature of the dedicated “nine-person team” that Toy Reid was sharing his views with, and through that team with PP and VF.
Although it was nowhere mentioned in the original story, this team was the Republican staff of a Senate committee. The story repeatedly calls them “the Senate researchers,” not mentioning a party affiliation. The closest it came was once calling the group a “minority oversight staff”—”minority” referring to the Republicans’ minority status in the Senate then and now.
Why was this omission of the word “Republican” significant? Because of the recent track record of other GOP-controlled Congressional “research teams” and “oversight staffs” on politicized topics. For instance, former Rep. Trey Gowdy’s research team that led to the multi-year Obama-era Benghazi “investigation,” and current Rep. Jim Jordan’s research team on the purposeless Durham report.
Obviously partisan identification doesn’t disprove any group’s views. But the information is relevant—as PP itself seemed to acknowledge in its final story last week, which takes pains to identify the “Republican oversight staff” in when referring to the report.
Late November, 2022: The ‘Editor’s Note.’
A month after the original story appeared, PP published an Editor’s Note, signed by its editor-in-chief, Stephen Engelberg. It said that PP and VF had reviewed their reporting and writing and deemed it proper. As Engelberg’s note put it:
Over the past several weeks, reporters and editors at both publications have taken a hard look at those criticisms.
Our examination affirms that the story, and the totality of reporting it marshals, is sound.
OK. And many details followed. But who conducted this examination? Was it the same reporters and editors who oversaw the original work? Did any outside reviewer play a role? Who were the independent translators PP and VF consulted to vet Reid’s all-important phrasing—and who judged it merely “plausible”? Could anyone follow up to ask them about their larger views on the project? And, again, how did the whole enterprise begin? Did the Republican staffers come to VF and PP? Or did the two bylined authors seek them out? Since the project involved a Republican staff report, why wasn’t that made clear? And… and …
I raised those questions and others with PP. I was told again that the organization would have no comment beyond Engelberg’s note.
It may be churlish to point this out, but: The central theme of PP’s remarkable Supreme Court coverage is that people shouldn’t be left to judge their own propriety. That’s true in flagrant fashion of Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The press should bear the principle in mind about itself.
The discussion unfolds this year
Then a sequence of other events ensued:
-In February, news reports said that the FBI and the Department of Energy had sided in favor of the lab-leak hypothesis.
-In March, the Congress unanimously passed a bill mandating that the grounds for these and other government conclusions be declassified and made public.
-In June, the DNI report containing the declassified results came out. As noted above, it said that the intelligence community was divided; that more agencies doubted lab-leak than supported it; but that Chinese intransigence meant that no one could rule out any possibility or be sure.
-On June 28, Katherine Eban of VF wrote a response to the DNI report. Its headline said that the DNI report “suggests that the lab-leak wars will never end.” And last week, on July 7, PP published its final story noting this new intelligence-community assessment.
News for a summertime Friday.
What caught my eye in this latest ProPublica update? Several things:
—The final story had no byline, unlike the original story by Eban and Kao and the Editor’s Note by Engelberg, the editor-in-chief. Were the original authors revisiting and revising their work? Had someone else stepped in? Was this an “official” statement from the editor? You can’t tell.
—The story was as underplayed as the original report was trumpeted. When I looked, it had modest placement on the PP site. Its headline was deadpan: “Intelligence Report Says Safety Training at Chinese Government Lab Complex in Wuhan Before the Pandemic Appears Routine.” It came out on a summertime Friday. As Julian Barnes of the New York Times put it when discussing a different government Covid report, “this is traditionally a time when administrations put out news they want buried or ignored.”
—The story emphasized repeatedly something wholly missing in the original report: that it had been a Republican Senate staff doing the earlier lab-leak report, not just “Senate researchers.”
Why the change in tone? Why the missing byline? What had ProPublica learned from the episode? Why the decision to refer to “Republicans”? I asked and received this response from a PP representative two days ago, which I quote in its entirety:
Our story Friday speaks for itself. There were additional developments that we felt our readers should learn about, so we published an update.
The story does speak for itself, but perhaps not in the way they had in mind.
Wherever this virus came from, we can assume that more such threats are on the way. Coping with their effects doesn’t depend on resolving the Covid-19 origin story: Once a pandemic begins, it’s up to the public-health and medical systems. But knowing more about how this disaster started would obviously provide clues and insights for reducing future outbreaks.
Gaining accurate insights in turn depends on transparency from all involved. Chinese officials have most to answer for, because of their secrecy and concealment. But many other institutions could make themselves more open and accountable. Including the press.
Just yesterday another Congressional report appeared. This was from the Democratic staff on a Republican-led House Select Committee on Covid origins, and you can download it here. It was a prelude to yesterday’s hearings in which scientists rebutted Republican accusations that they had been pressured or bribed to reject the lab-leak view.
A familiar way to indicate a correction or change is with strikeout. For instance you could say, “And that,
in fact, in Reid’s view, is exactly…” PP and VF did not do this. As they should have.
How can this be? A budget figure for air conditioning at the Wuhan virus lab, which is cited in the House report and which you can see in original Chinese form here, is listed as this:
To parse out the relevant budget line, in red: The 元 character means yuan, the Chinese currency. 人民币 means renminbi or RMB, another name for the yuan. And—here the plot thickens—the 万 character means “ten thousand.”
The counting units for Western numbers are usually tens, thousands, millions. In many Asian countries ten thousand is a common counting unit. So the Chinese budget line above said that this expense would be “392 (and change) ten-thousands.” By multiplication that comes out to just over 3.92 million RMB. Depending on exchange rates, that’s around $600,000.
I know from personal experience how confusing it can be for Westerners to reckon with large numbers denominated in ten-thousands (rather than thousands or millions). For whatever reason, the U.S. researchers read this not as 3.92 million RMB but 3.92 billion. Leading to this line in their official House report, saying that one research center in Wuhan suddenly spent $606 million on air conditioners.
Everything is big in China, but c’mon. And before this Congressional report was released. no one involved stopped to say, What??? Again, this mattered because it seemed to fit the Toy Reid analysis of an agency trying desperately to cope with a mishap.