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Opinion ‘60 Minutes’ cites ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ for coronavirus misinformation

The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on April 17. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

How does all that nonsense and speculation on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” affect real life?

60 Minutes” on Sunday night provided a case study.

The storied newsmagazine profiled Peter Daszak, a scientist who works as president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which describes itself as being “on the front lines of disease emergence and discovery. In Malaysia and China we are testing people and wildlife for new and potentially dangerous viruses.” As correspondent Scott Pelley noted in his “60 Minutes” story, EcoHealth worked for 15 years with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study “hundreds” of bat viruses.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is an organization at the forefront of coronavirus news. Its location near the origination of the covid-19 pandemic has launched chatter as to whether it unleashed a man-made virus (no way, say scientists) or perhaps allowed one to leak from its premises by accident (no evidence to that effect, though State Department cables warned of safety concerns).

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

On his April 14 show, Fox News host Tucker Carlson continued his exploration of China’s role in the pandemic by focusing on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “So the lab in Wuhan was unsafe. That was obvious to Americans visiting there two years ago, and because of the practices there, the Chinese may have unleashed a global pandemic on the rest of us,” said Carlson. “Here’s something remarkable and upsetting: The work in that lab, including its research into disease-carrying bats, was funded in part by you, by U.S. taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health.” Carlson then introduced Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who said, “Yes, I’m against funding Chinese research in our country, but I’m sure against funding it in China. The NIH gives this $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Hold on a minute. In the words of “60 Minutes”: “There never was a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan lab. But the falsehood spread like a virus, in the White House and, without verification, in the briefing room.” Spread it did, on various websites as well as on social media.

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To be clear: The grant story didn’t break on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Three days earlier, the Mail on Sunday published a story with this finding: “Documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday show the Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan — funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.” The White Coat Waste Project, a group that opposes taxpayer funding of experiments on animals, did an “exposé” on the issue.

The funding story wound its way through various media chambers and then onto the hot griddle of one of those Trump-led coronavirus task force briefings. Asked on April 17 why the Obama administration would provide such a grant to China, President Trump showed why he’s such an ideal repository for bogus information: “The Obama administration gave them a grant of $3.7 million? I’ve been hearing about that. And we’ve instructed that if any grants are going to that area — we’re looking at it, literally, about an hour ago, and also early in the morning. We will end that grant very quickly.” Bolding added to highlight the U.S. president’s receptivity to rumor.

Actually: The grant went to EcoHealth Alliance for its disease prevention work, according to “60 Minutes.” Referring to Daszak, Pelley reported, “His work was considered so important that, last year, the grant was reauthorized and increased by the Trump administration.” Daszak spent about $100,000 per year working with the Wuhan lab, according to the “60 Minutes” report.

Emma Wojtowicz, a public affairs specialist with the National Institutes of Health, told the Erik Wemple Blog, “The grant was for $3.4 million over 6 years distributed across all sites: the primary awardee, EcoHealth Health Alliance Inc., and sub-awardees, Wuhan Institute of Virology (Wuhan), East China Normal University (Shanghai), the Institute of Pathogen Biology (Beijing), and Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore).”

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Yet after the uproar that the Carlson-Gaetz duo helped to ignite, the Trump administration revoked the grant. “Dishonest and negligent allegations have now ended EcoHealth’s carefully reviewed research designed to stop pandemics,” said Pelley.

The sequence highlighted by “60 Minutes” leaves a fair number of follow-up questions. To Fox News: Does it deem the exchange between Gaetz and Carlson worthy of a correction? To the Mail on Sunday: Any reaction to the debunking on “60 Minutes”? To Gaetz: Has he addressed this matter or made any corrections? His office released this statement: “Following criticism of taxpayer funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Congressman Gaetz spoke with President Trump, Chief of Staff Meadows, and senior leadership at HHS. Portions of the $3.7 million went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is why it took several days following his criticism of the grant for HHS to successfully divorce the money going to the WIV from funds otherwise appropriately spent.”

Still waiting for on-the-record responses from the media organizations. An on-the-record response from Trump, as it happens, is already at hand:

The Fox News personality's coverage has been so irresponsible that he should be off the air, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: Erik Wemple/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Americans are savvier than the media think

Greg Sargent: Trump’s latest effort to gaslight America is falling apart

Dana Milbank: Other countries are winning against the virus. We are quitting.

Erik Wemple: Kayleigh McEnany fails to reframe her famous coronavirus gaffe

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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