Back in February, the Washington Post wrote a piece responding to Sen. Tom Cotton’s public suggestion that the lab leak theory of the origin of the coronavirus should be investigated. The piece was headlined: “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”
As of yesterday, that was still the headline on the piece more than a year later. You can see that by looking at this capture of the article on the Internet Archive. But today the Post has revised the headline. It now reads, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed.” Someone posted screenshots of the two headlines on Twitter:
Democracy dies in stealth edits on 15-month-old headlines pic.twitter.com/FW6DoiqXSz
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) June 1, 2021
The Post also added a correction to the piece which reads:
Earlier versions of this story and its headline inaccurately characterized comments by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) regarding the origins of the coronavirus. The term “debunked” and The Post’s use of “conspiracy theory” have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.
The rest of the story hadn’t been changed because, aside from the accusatory tone, it always acknowledged that Sen. Cotton wasn’t claiming the lab leak theory was a fact he was just saying we should consider it and be willing to question China about it.
“We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that,” Cotton said. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”…
“Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” Cotton said. “And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.”
That was a perfectly reasonable thing to say in February 2020 because a) we didn’t know how the virus originated and b) China can’t be taken at its word. In fact, 15 months later both of those things are still true which is one reason the lab leak has been getting a second look.
Is it a good thing that the Post went back and edited the headline? If they’d tried to do it without some sort of correction I would say no. In this case they did add a correction at the top of the piece so it wasn’t a stealth edit.
I guess I’m not sure why they bothered. The misleading headline had been sitting there for 15 months. Whatever damage it did to the debate more than a year ago has been done. Changing it now serves no purpose except to once again remind us what a botch job the media did with this story last year.