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Donald McNeil

The Marvelous Mr. McNeil


For nearly 50 years, the quintessential New York Times reporter, Donald G McNeil, Jr. “did it all:” from copy boy to foreign correspondent to science reporter; ultimately to global health linchpin: his career successes symbiotically intertwined with his most frequently quoted domain experts, former NIAID- and CDC- chiefs, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Tom Frieden; trading access for placement. Then came Covid.

The pandemic beat throughout most of McNeil’s reign (2002-2021) was nonetheless disappointing: breathless public health alarms that (fortunately for us) flopped: SARS, Ebola, swine flu, avian flu. The late 20th century’s major scare, HIV, brought mundane non-news headlines such as “After Long Scientific Search, Still No Cure for AIDS. McNeil wrote (2010), “Despite decades of effort, no magic bullet for AIDS has been invented.

In late 2015, his approach changed, from passive purveyor to pandemic producer. Donald McNeil “discovered” Zika; whereupon both his profile and the world changed. 

And was it definitely Zika? “It’s a big question,” 

I sent a long note to Tom Skinner, the chief spokesman for Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the CDC. … From that point on, the Times was driving the story forward. We wrote about it frequently, and the stories were often on the front page and prominently displayed.

Donald McNeil’s first book, Zika, The Emerging Epidemic subsequently brought him accolades, attention, importance, and speaking engagements. Even as this pandemic also “flopped” – immediately disappearing by mid-2016, there was no pushback within the essentially closed-loop public health/propaganda network, and McNeil’s rush to judgment was never repealed. 

Thus, hubris is created, and the cycle repeated in early 2020 upon China’s coronavirus release– with panicked fear again centrally and prodigiously fanned by Mr. McNeil, via his Times bully pulpit: e.g. “Go Medieval On It.”

An unexpected deus ex machina (woke cancel culture) engendered a 2021 divorce from his lifelong NY Times post, but he has continued unabated with monkeypox smoke-signals, via How did Mr. McNeil come to take such a central role in proclaiming pandemics?

In 2012, Public Editor Arthur Brisbane queried readers “whether news reporters should challenge “facts” (sic) asserted by newsmakers…” Henry Blodget, CEO of Insider was incredulous: “In other words, the Times’ ombudsman (is) asking readers whether they want it to tell them the truth. Seriously? The only other option, it would seem, would be for the paper to just be a propaganda bullhorn for anyone who wants publicity.” One reader commented “It’s a slander to call ‘pursuit of the truth’ ‘vigilantism.’”

Adherence to fact is less of an issue reporting “soft news:” feature stories on entertainment- lifestyle- and leisure- topics. “Hard news” ostensibly is serious: covering politics, economics, criminal activity, and public events – providing readers with insights and information essential to their making informed decisions. 

I thought back to this “Truth Vigilante” –kerfuffle when evaluating the long oeuvre that is Mr. Donald McNeil’s. Was the Times’ (self-proclaimed) “main global health reporter,” acting under hard news’ obligations to challenge “facts” asserted by newsmakers — or, did McNeil afford himself the soft news’ leisure of writers covering leisure? Our societal expectation with matters as potentially dire as “global health” is the reporter’s presentation of as much of the truth as is known — notwithstanding whether it may make him unpopular with government officials.

Does Donald McNeil’s work support the conclusion that he was a “hard news” reporter at the frontlines of epidemics and pandemics: challenging public health officials on their asserted facts; discharging the traditional reporter’s duty to treat government officials adversarially: and setting the record straight for Times readers as they expected of him? With rare exceptions– no, it does not. 

McNeil humble-brags he was hired by the Times in 1976 through “nepotism” (but deservedly so with a UC/Berkeley BA in Rhetoric). His nearly half-century of regular output yields nearly 3,000 results on the Times’ website. It was his prodigious writing skill (absent any science background) that gave him the Science Correspondent post, 2002. Thereupon, Mr. McNeil covered all the infectious diseases that public health officials talked about – Swine Flu, Ebola, H5N1, Avian Flu, MERS, SARS, Smallpox, Monkeypox, Seasonal Influenza, Covid-19, and Zika– as well as the CDC pretty regularly, along with the WHO and NIAID. 

McNeil reported extensively (and never critically) on the pronouncements and thoughts of Dr. Tom Frieden, in more than 50 articles spanning Frieden’s highs as NYC Health Commissioner (2002-2009) and CDC Director (2009-2017) — and lows following Dr. Frieden’s “groping”/sex-abuse arrest (2018) and guilty plea (2019). This bond remains after each of their scandals: Columbia University hosted both in its #VaccineSymposium, 2022

Dr. Frieden’s continued positive coverage and bylines within the New York Times perhaps enabled him to pull off quite a neat post-scandal, professional trick. For all Frieden’s persistent talk of vaccine immunity, he has achieved some different “elite immunity” — maintaining post-conviction a $400,000 per annum “CEO” sinecure at nonprofit, Resolve to Save Lives, — underwritten by the utmost trifecta of billionaires’ philanthropic foundations: Bloomberg’s, Zuckerberg’s, and Gates’. Foresighted “Regulatory Capture” never smelled so sweet. Understandably then, not one single McNeil report exists in which he has challenged “facts” asserted by Dr. Tom Frieden, not once in twelve years

Similarly not one McNeil report exists in which he has challenged the “facts” asserted by Dr. Anthony Fauci (cited in ~150 articles) or the WHO (cited ~900x). For example, during 2003’s SARS, McNeil sides with the WHO over Taiwan, ignoring PRC control over the WHO — which (even in 2003, under China’s proscriptions) would not set foot in Taiwan.

McNeil’s pattern of repeated acquiescence and obeisance to (these questionable) authorities is interesting for one good reason: i.e., when (summa cum laude rhetorician) McNeil does decide to challenge newsmakers’ asserted “facts,” he is very, very good at it. 

McNeil’s discharging his duty as a “hard news” reporter (“punching up” at government) has resulted in one notable report, and it mostly hits the mark. This unique report is about the huge amount of money paid to (Democratic activist and fundraiser) Ronald Perelman’s Siga Technologies through a no-bid contract to commercialize a pill for treating smallpox (and later monkeypox) using research handed over free from Dr. Fauci’s tax-funded NIAID, and then paying Siga $250 per pill to buy it for the government stockpile. 

Even so, McNeil equivocates, “Whether the $463 million order is a boondoggle or a bargain depends on which expert is talking.” Doctors expected the government to pay much less for an antiviral drug since they cost little to make and the alternative, vaccines, cost the government $3 a dose. But McNeil does leave us with this: “ ‘If they’re talking $250 a course, they’re a bunch of thieves,’” Dr. Russell said.” 

Of course with his Times’ career scuttled, Mr. McNeil may be hoping for some of Dr. Frieden’s same “luck” (via ‘pox billionaire, Ron Perelman?). His page is suffused with monkeypox-panic:

So, what about the rest of McNeil’s writing? When he is in the mood, in particular when covering exotic illnesses abroad while emoting concern for the poor, he is excellent at interweaving interesting personal storylines with doctorly quotes. But on the underlying disease narrative topics, he adheres to predictable fundamentals: 

  • Public health officials are good and of course have humanity’s best interest at heart.
  • Anything announced by public health officials is a priori true and must be taken as such.
  • Skepticism is inappropriate when evaluating a public health recommendation and will kill people due to lack of faith and respect. 
  • Dangerous tropical diseases are inexorably marching into the United States and inevitably shall establish local reservoirs. 
  • If public health officials raise any alarm (Ebola, avian flu, swine flu, coronavirus, SARS, Zika, monkeypox): then we must all immediately become — and thereafter remain, alarmed.
  • Of course, Zika virus caused microcephaly; and of course, Zika was a real and fearsome epidemic.
  • Moreover, it remains unfathomable that the WHO and CDC did not mandate a pregnancy moratorium until a Zika vaccine could arrive on the scene.

That last improbable-sounding sensibility is from McNeil’s own book , Zika: The Emerging Epidemic — in which he interviews Denise Jamieson, team leader of the CDC’s women’s health and fertility branch. 

McNeil asks, “Why would the CDC not advise women to wait?” 

Jamieson explains, “I think the government getting involved in highly personal decisions about when to have a baby is not likely to be very effective.” 

PS: she might have a point. In 2015 McNeil wrote: “The $1.3 billion spent since 2005 encouraging Africans to avoid AIDS by practicing abstinence and fidelity .. was largely wasted.”

Mr. McNeil’s otherwise extremely close ally, science journalist Laurie Garrett (author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance), calls him out in her review of his Zika book:

  • “Mr. McNeil favors a universal pregnancy avoidance plan for countries in the grip of Zika, and denounces virtually all sympathy for women facing family planning decisions as “patronizing” feminism.
  • “The debate had been hijacked,” McNeil writes. “Millions of poor women were being denied life-saving advice because it had become politically incorrect. I didn’t see why women’s groups had not taken the opposite tack” — that is, birth control and zero pregnancies in the Zika-hit nations. Acknowledging that birth control and abortion would save women from misery (sic), they could have used that as a wedge to try to get conservative governments to ignore 50 years of church pressure.” 

And here we have an admission against interest. This is not all about “the science” or any objective standard of “global health” for Mr. McNeil. It’s about using (and abusing) the “facts” for political ends, in this case to overturn Latin America’s (religious and governmental) constraints against abortion. Mr. McNeil claims to abjure politics, avoiding even registering to vote – to maintain plausible deniability, but his true inclinations are visible.

How does one explain McNeil’s total faith in public health officials: the unelected mandarins, boffins, experts in white coats — whose words somehow deserve higher priority than facts on the ground? That very year, Brazil found ZERO increase in microcephaly, yet McNeil demands Latin Americans cease having children, pending some future Zika vaccine (still absent from the scene eight years on, by the way). His devotion to these bureaucrats’ utterances is likely some combination of 

  • uncertainty of his own scientific knowledge
  • complete agreement, despite repeated exaggerations from those quarters
  • political alignment, hitching his wagon to their star stealthily to further progressive goals, cf. Zika’s emergency abortion necessity.
  • hopes for a Dr. Tom Frieden-type regulatory capture / “Golden Handshake” to come.

My own foray into examining 2015’s sudden emergence of the never-before-seen Zika microcephaly engendered the opposite approach, one of scientific skepticism, careful attention to the scientific method at every step, and a conclusion based strictly on reproducible hard facts, and with absolutely no faith or deference to experts in white coats. 

(Dr. Bock) examines the evidence as it stands, contextualises this within the scientific paradigm and examines some of the social and media forces at work which fan the flames. The simple facts are that a case of microcephaly was attributed to Zika without a shred of evidence that Zika was the cause.Roger Watson, PhD

And I found that there still is no proof anywhere that Zika causes microcephaly, that Zika caused those specific cases of microcephaly, that those specific cases indeed met objective criteria to be classed as microcephaly, and that there was a real epidemic anywhere — even if the WHO and CDC and Dr. Fauci said so. 

And this approach of mine is the exact same approach taken by Australia’s Dr. Barry Marshall when he found the vast majority of peptic ulcer disease cases to be caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, contradicting the dominant “scientific consensus” at the time. Dr. Marshall’s approach, the exact opposite of McNeil’s approach to “facts” asserted by experts in white coats, led to a simple treatment that immediately ended “the bland diet” (and worse) — and won him a Nobel Prize in medicine. 

So where does this leave us? With the undeniable conclusion that, during McNeil’s two decades as Science Reporter for the New York Times

  • He did not serve as a Truth Vigilante, challenging “facts” asserted by newsmakers. 
  • The Times’ editorial leadership treated the Science beat as more akin to the paper’s “soft news” lifestyle sections. 
  • And (by inference and lack of complaint), so too did its readers.

But for the Times editorial leadership’s capitulation to its employee-mob’s suddenly going as woke as Mao’s Red Guards (given this fodder; later contradicted by McNeil), this happy arrangement between McNeil, the Times (and its readers) would have continued unchanged. 

Mr. McNeil’s bio proudly announces: his having “won awards for stories about cities that have successfully fought AIDS; about patent monopolies that keep drug prices high in Africa; about diseases that cannot be eradicated; about cancer victims in India and Africa dying without pain relief; and about the Love Canal toxic waste dump.” 

I’m supposed to track the world’s vital signs and cover every pestilence and plague that comes down the pike, so among my worries are AIDS, tuberculosis,… Guinea worm, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, leishmaniasis [et alia, 40 other infectious diseases]

(Non-scientist) McNeil also saw it as his job to debunk “many myths held by Americans:” “Because distrust in science among Americans is powerful, I cover some controversial diseases and persistent myths like Morgellons disease, delusional parasitosis, chronic Lyme, and the notion that vaccines cause autism.” Given this declaration, I was taken aback by McNeil’s immediate full-throated support for Zika-Microcephaly and his open desire for a public health mandate to prevent hundreds of millions of women from getting pregnant. 

Per McNeil’s Zika book (ch. 5), he first learnt about Zika from Dr. Scott Weaver at the University of Texas. Dr. Weaver informed him of an astounding article published in the New England Journal of Medicine which asserted, sans any pushback from scientific peers, that the clinicians on Yap Island were able clinically to distinguish dengue patients from Zika patients, something that had never ever been seen before in any place on earth, and they did so during Zika’s very first appearance on Yap. 

Any real scientist would have sat up and said, “Are you kidding me? Not Donald McNeil. If tenured faculty published that “fact” in the New England Journal, then of course it was the unassailable truth, and anyone who would question that must be a delusional conspiracist. The Yap misapprehension I have summarized here:

In 2007, residents of Yap (Micronesia) experienced aches and fever, which was a laboratory-confirmed dengue-recurrence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a post hoc determination of Zika, while acknowledging its dengue cross-reactivity. Duffy claimed, based on retrospective questionnaires and circularity of logic: “a clinical illness (was) probably attributable to Zika virus”, (falsely) asserting that Yap’s clinicians had noted some (erstwhile) differences from dengue.”

This same two-step modus operandi was followed in the microcephaly exaggeration and panic in Brazil. First clinicians claimed that they had identified a cluster of microcephaly cases – without conforming to WHO metrics. Then they retrospectively identified those cases as involving mothers infected with Zika virus, in the absence of an objective lab test. And the final flourish involved leaking the momentous news directly to the media without any peer review, and bad-mouthing actual scientists in institutions set up for exactly that purpose. 

But that is not how McNeil saw it. He describes his immediate response as horror. “On Google News, I saw a small CNN story out of Brazil. It had “Zika” in the headline. Remembering the earlier conversation, I opened it—and read with growing horror. Brazil had declared a state of emergency. Hospitals were seeing a wave of babies with microcephalic heads, more than 2,700 of them (sic, during a PANIC). Zika was the suspected cause.” 

Predictably, his sense of growing horror involved the ominous fear that Zika was soon to arrive in the United States. “I looked at the CDC’s website. It had very little information: a paragraph stating that Zika virus was in Polynesia and South America, and that some cases had been reported in returning travelers. Nothing about microcephaly, nothing about Guillain-Barré. It did have one ominous line: “These imported cases may result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the United States.”” 

Owing to a lifelong belief in civility even when folks disagree on specific issues, I reached out to McNeil many times to have an objective discussion about the lack of evidentiary support for the claims that Zika can be clinically distinguished from dengue; that Zika caused microcephaly, that the danger was so strong that millions of women must avoid pregnancy. 

McNeil’s written responses document his faith in who made the statements, and thus the truth of the statements depended on who made them. First he asserted that “The rumor that it was all just a miscount born of panic and that there was no surge in microcephaly in northeast Brazil was thoroughly debunked years ago.” As bald assertions go, that one is a doozy. 

McNeil followed that with “Brazilian neonatal ICU clinicians aren’t idiots. They know what microcephaly is, they’d seen it before. They were used to seeing one or two cases a year — and suddenly they were seeing a dozen or more in their hospitals at the same time. My colleagues and I interviewed those doctors, both in Brazil and in Colombia.” So, there was a surge of microcephaly cases because Brazilian neonatal ICU clinicians aren’t idiots and Donald McNeil interviewed them. And this, Ladies and Gentleman, is how science is done. 

In 2021, after McNeil read my Overturning Zika -book on Google Docs, I respectfully reached out to him for his valuable thoughts. His response: “I read enough to see that your Zika theories, which I consider false, have not changed. My answers from February 2020 have not changed. … I am repulsed.” N.B. ad hominem, he’s referring to false, exonerated claims made about my professional medical practice, see here and here; not a problem for him vis-à-vis Dr. Frieden’s declared guilt.

McNeil’s own words demonstrate that his personal fears and biases played an overwhelming role in his total unalloyed support for pushing whatever the public health leadership desired at the moment. In 2020, his personal inclination veered strongly into open authoritarianism, when HIS personal fear of infectious disease justified total abrogation of OUR basic human rights.

Accordingly, here is what McNeil wrote on February 28, 2020, at the beginning of what has been deemed Covid-19: “To Take On the Coronavirus, Go Medieval on It:” “Quarantines and restrictive measures served a purpose in the old days. They can now, too.”

McNeil also wholeheartedly approved of the “progressive” leader of China and his total lockdown policies – “The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was able to seal off the city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, because China is a place where a leader can ask himself, “What would Mao do?” and just do it! The bureaucracy will comply, right down to the neighborhood committees that bar anyone returning from Wuhan from entering their own homes, even if it means sleeping in the streets.” Anything done to billions of other people is acceptable, if it makes Donald McNeil feel safe. 

August 2020, Mr. McNeil ran a victory lap for his Corona maledictions. There is possibly is no clearer “smoking gun” for the United States’ Covid overreaction, panic, and fear early 2020 than McNeil’s’s “go medieval” war-cry, which he wrote before there was a single New York City case. Mr. McNeil — never reprimanded for the exaggerations of the Zika pandemic, mutated his own role as “reporter” of the news to “creator” of the narrative. McNeil, unchecked, unelected, unsubstantiated had become (American Dad’s Roger character’s) “THE DECIDER.” Mr. McNeil DECIDED to choose China’s closed data set over the openly observable “perfect experiment” of the contemporaneously-quarantined cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, which had more than an order of magnitude less fatality: only 10 died of the 3,711 passengers; with a median age of 82 years old.

Donald McNeil’s body of work is a good example of what Ben Franklin warned Americans: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Donald McNeil’s credo instead, is Do It To Them, Lock Them Into Burning Buildings Even, Just Keep Me Safe! 

One can only hope that the next person whom the Times claims is its Science Reporter is not a person whose personal fears or interests irredeemably vitiate every single report on infectious diseases. Science requires a detached mind to begin with, and Science is way more than scary bugs. It would also help to have the Times finally have in place before the next Zika-style scam a Science Reporter who actually functions as a Truth Vigilante and adversarially challenges “facts” asserted by public health officials instead of loyally churning them out to the readers. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Randall Bock

    Dr. Randall Bock graduated from Yale University with a BS in chemistry and physics; University of Rochester, with an MD. He has also investigated the mysterious 'quiet' subsequent to 2016 Brazil’s Zika-Microcephaly pandemic and panic, ultimately writing "Overturning Zika."

    View all posts

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