- The Indian American journalist who has since deleted the tweet and posted an explanation received flak from the right-wing ecosystem, including from Fox News and Trump apologist Sen. Ted Cruz.
A New York Times health and science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, who has been covering the COVID-19 pandemic for the paper, has landed in controversy for a recent tweet. The now deleted tweet posted on May 26 night said the COVID-19 “lab leak theory” had “racist roots.”Mandavilli’s original tweet read: “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here.”
The tweet came on the heels of President Biden’s abrupt order to U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. As per The New York Times, Biden’s move was supported by many scientists, who “reacted positively, reflecting their push in recent weeks for more information about the work of a virus lab in Wuhan, China. But they cautioned against expecting an answer in the three-month time frame of the president’s request.”
Mandavalli, who has broken several important stories on the pandemic, later deleted the tweet and issued an explanation. “I deleted my earlier tweets about the origins of the pandemic because they were badly phrased. The origin of the pandemic is an important line of reporting that my colleagues are covering aggressively.”
According to CNN’s Oliver Darcy, the criticism came from inside the Times, too, where staffers “were frustrated that a reporter would make such an assertion online as her colleagues actively work to report on the origins of the coronavirus — including the possibility of a lab leak.” According to Darcy, “some staffers in the New York Times newsroom were quite displeased by Mandavilli’s tweet.” Citing a source, she the staffers were also frustrated as Mandavilli’s tweet “gave the right free ammunition to attack the paper.”
Mandavalli’s tweet was criticized on the microblogging site. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also chimed in. “This is the ‘science’ reporter for the New York Times,” he wrote. “She calls herself an ‘investigative’ reporter, covering Covid-19. She just isn’t willing to investigate or report on anything that might hurt her tender feelings.”
Many Indians and Indian Americans were also quick to react.
Some called for Mandavalli be fired. “The @nytimes must stand for higher standards without question. Every reporter must be held accountable for their #socialmedia opinions. That’s why Apoorva Mandavilli must be fired without hesitation.”
“Not for one second. That’s what legitimate journalism is all about.” replied Ed Berliner.
Another supporter tweeted: “But the actual “scandal” that started this whole thread is a nothingburger. Apoorva Mandavilli wasn’t saying the origins of Covid-19 shouldn’t be investigated, just that she thinks the lab leak theory is false and that eventually everyone else will come to the same conclusion.”
On May 26, the day she posted the controversial tweet, Mandavilli wrote a story in The New York Times on how immunity to the coronavirus may persist for years. “Immunity to the coronavirus lasts at least a year, possibly a lifetime, improving over time especially after vaccination, according to two new studies,” she wrote.” The findings may help put to rest lingering fears that protection against the virus will be short-lived.”
According to her profile on The Times, Mandavilli says she likes to tell stories “about complex science through the lives of people directly affected by it — whether that’s the second person ever to be cured of H.I.V., women with autism, the people who live near the abandoned Bhopal factory or a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury.” She “revels in reporting offbeat stories in far-flung locales: from a ‘Fablab’ in South Africa that’s turning housewives into inventors, to a neuroscientist who’s teaching blind Indian children to ‘see’ and the peer review revolution online.”
At an April 28 virtual event hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences, Mandaviili and other health and science reporters spoke about the challenges of covering the pandemic. “I’ve tried to have as professional a relationship with the virus as I can at this point,” Mandavilli said. “But I have two children, one in elementary school and one in middle school. My parents live in India, so I’m terrified of getting up in the morning, knowing there will be bad news. It’s hard to be living the pandemic while you’re reporting on it.”
The 2019 winner of the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting, Madavilli is the founding editor in chief of Spectrum, “an award-winning news site on autism science that grew an audience of millions,” where she led the team there for 13 years. She joined The Times in May 2020, after two years as a regular contributor. She also co-founded Culture Dish, an organization dedicated to enhancing diversity in science journalism, and was the founding chair of the Diversity Committee for the National Association of Science Writers. She has a Master of Arts degree in journalism from New York University and a Master of Science degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Brooklyn with my husband Josh Easdon, a squash pro and documentary filmmaker, and their two children.