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Editorial: How did the New York Times end up publishing a piece of Chinese propaganda?

There's a simple explanation

Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images

I don't read the New York Times anymore (and haven't for years), but Thursday night I saw someone tweet a Times piece titled, "World Feared China Over Coronavirus. Now the Tables Are Turned," and I couldn't help myself.

It shouldn't be surprising anymore to find a piece that might literally be communist propaganda in the pages of the Old Grey Lady — after all, I lived through the Cold War when such a thing was a regular occurrence, and Tom Friedman has been publishing communist China's press releases as columns in the NYT for years.

It is still jarring, though, to see what unbelievable suckers NYT writers can apparently be for even the most fantastic and unbelievable claims, as long as those claims are made by a totalitarian communist regime. The actual thesis of Thursday's piece was that China has done a much better job of containing the coronavirus than has most of the West and that the Chinese government (and people!) are now sitting around wondering why we in the West are all so bad at containing the coronavirus.


Here is just one of the pieces of obvious bovine fecal material that slipped through the layers and layers of editors and fact checking that we are constantly assured exist at the Times: "But on Thursday, [China] reported no new local cases for the first time since the outbreak began. Its uncompromising response — locking down cities, shutting factories, testing thousands — seems to have brought China's contagion under control."

Now, it might be technically true that China reported no new local cases on Thursday. However, only the world's most irresponsible journalist — or the world's biggest idiot — would print that claim without pointing out that it's obviously false.

The chances that there were zero new cases of coronavirus in China on Thursday are, well, zero. You do not have to be an expert in infectious diseases to know that this is not how they work. You just have to be possessed of the common sense and skepticism that God gave the average fifth-grader.

If President Donald Trump had announced Thursday that there were no new cases of coronavirus reported by the United States government, the Times would have printed five news articles debunking the claim and three opinion columns about what an irresponsible leader Trump was for making such an obviously false claim. But when the Chinese government — which has literally kicked out Western journalists so no one can see what is going on — made the same claim, the Times just uncritically printed it.

Of course, numerous courageous whistleblowers from inside China have stated the obvious — that the Chinese government's claims of a miraculous recovery are fake. But no one should need those whistleblowers to know that the ChiComms' claims were obvious lies, any more than North Korea needs whistleblowers to tell the world that Kim Jong Il did not actually bowl a perfect 300 the first time he ever bowled.

Making up fantastic lies about the perfection of their government and leadership is what communist governments do. It's a signature hallmark of communism to never ever admit that the government has made a mistake and to further claim that the government has accomplished fantastic miracles that Western governments could not replicate (because, in every case, no government could actually do those things).

But even if you got a job at the Times without somehow being aware of how communist governments have operated for the last 100 years, any person possessed of a fully formed cerebral cortex should have known not to uncritically reprint such fantastical claims about China's success at controlling the spread of the virus, especially after China kicked out all journalists who don't work for its state-sanctioned media.

So why didn't these reporters and editors from the Times?

I think a lot about Stephen Glass, in my line of work. Glass, if you will remember, hoodwinked his editors at the liberal New Republic for years with stories that were entirely made up. He quoted people who didn't exist. He retold stories that never happened. And when his malfeasance was finally exposed, his editors had a day of reckoning. And what they admitted, frankly, was that they did not check his work as diligently as they should have because his stories confirmed their pre-existing biases and beliefs.

Newspaper editors ought to have pictures of Stephen Glass hung on their walls, if they don't want to end up getting embarrassed like the New Republic was. Because that lesson — always question stories that confirm your beliefs the most — is a necessary one.

I try to be fair and accurate with the facts as an editor. But I am not so unaware of myself that I don't think I have natural biases and beliefs. I'm aware that I tend strongly toward libertarianism and suspicion of government power, regardless of which major political party is in power.

So when I see a story that tends to suggest that government is doing a great job or that a burdensome regulation is necessary, my pre-existing beliefs provide skepticism for me. I automatically look to poke holes in the story and question the underlying assumptions therein specifically because they challenge my core beliefs.

However, when a story confirms those beliefs and biases, the natural tendency is to let your fact-checking guard down. "Why, of course this story is true," I might think to myself, "Because of course government and regulation are mostly evil." This is where danger arises both as a private citizen and also as a person in the news business.

And this, I think, is where the Times got suckered into being a national laughingstock Thursday — again. The media have somehow convinced themselves that it's really important to obsess about the fact that President Trump refers to coronavirus sometimes as a "Chinese virus," and they hate him so much that they would like to believe that even the obviously corrupt and dishonest Chinese government is doing better at controlling coronavirus than he is. After all, that would help sell their most treasured belief, which is that he should be defeated at the ballot box in November.

And so, because of these pre-existing biases, the Times let down its guard and allowed really obvious lies to slip through uncritically.

It should be noted that this is the most charitable possible explanation for this travesty of an article. It is, I suppose, possible that the Times is following the craven example of the NBA and openly kowtowing to the Chinese in an attempt to get its reporters back into China.

Either way, it's a shame. The world could use honest reporting in the middle of this crisis about what's really going on in China. Sadly, they will not get it from the New York Times.

One last thing…
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