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USA Today Still Won’t Explain the Slur in Peter Navarro’s Fauci-Bashing Op-Ed

The term "China virus" was a big honking clue to why that piece was such a bad idea

Photograph by Flickr user Bill Couch.

Peter Navarro is President Trump’s top adviser on trade. His White House biography does not recount any medical training. Yet USA Today allowed him to write Tuesday that he’d confronted Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for decades, “with scientific studies providing evidence of safety and efficacy” of hydroxychloroquine, a drug favored by Trump.

Late Wednesday night, after the White House distanced itself from the piece, USA Today finally pulled the ripcord on Navarro’s star-crossed piece of editorial content. The op-ed contained criticisms of Fauci that “were misleading or lacked context,” the paper wrote in an editor’s note now perched atop it. “As such, Navarro’s op-ed did not meet USA TODAY’s fact-checking standards.”

USA Today ran the op-ed against a house-made editorial that describes Fauci as “an annoying truth bomb that keeps going off in [Trump’s] garden party of falsehoods and blame shifting.” It pushed back against his claims about hydroxychloroquine by linking to an FDA document explaining why the agency revoked its approval for the drug as a treatment for Covid-19.

And yet it missed a big honking clue as to why the idea of running an op-ed by Navarro was such a terrible idea, one that has little to do with fact-checking.

“When I was working feverishly on behalf of the president in February to help engineer the fastest industrial mobilization of the health care sector in our history, Fauci was still telling the public the China virus was low risk,” he writes.

That term, bolded here and not in the original, is a slur. It’s also propaganda. Trump employed it at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to shift culpability, and some in his orbit duly took it up until the President took a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and backed off it. Recently he brought it back into the rotation alongside the more explicitly racist “kung flu” as part of what appears to be a renewed attempt to scatter blame for his widely panned handling of the pandemic.

Navarro’s piece appeared on USA Today‘s website Tuesday evening, after days of reports that White House staffers had begun to drop opposition research on Fauci, after the President retweeted a game-show host who claimed doctors were among those “lying” about Covid-19, and after one of Trump’s closest advisers posted a cartoon that  portrayed Fauci as a faucet whose words are drowning Uncle Sam. USA Today said it solicited Navarro’s piece because it “put an on-the-record name to the attacks on Fauci, and contradicted White House denials of an anti-Fauci campaign.”

That explanation hews to longstanding justifications of running an opinion operation separate from a publication’s newsroom. (It probably didn’t hurt the decision-making process that Navarro’s broadside would likely drive more readers to USA Today‘s website than a month of columns by actual medical professionals.)

But you don’t need to look at James Bennet’s ouster at the New York Times to understand why this type of thinking is so wobbly today. It’s similar to what tripped up NPR when it interviewed Attorney General Bill Barr: the term “China virus” is a small, smelly part of a political operation that views Trump’s reelection as the paramount issue facing the United States of America in 2020. It’s used by people who have offered few sustained plans to battle a pandemic that’s killed more than 130,000 Americans but who can still find time to take shots at experts. USA Today could have cut the calumny when it first got a whiff—or, if it felt it was imperative to include it, linked to its own story about how terms like “Chinese virus” are part of a pattern of harassment Asian Americans began to experience as the pandemic first steamrolled the US.

Instead, it let it fly.

Reached by email Wednesday, editorial page editor Bill Sternberg directed Washingtonian toward his comment to his own paper about how USA Today solicited the op-ed. He did not reply to a follow-up email asking whether USA Today allows op-ed writers free rein with regard to language such as “China virus.” Late Wednesday evening, a Gannett spokesperson emailed Washingtonian a link to the updated story with the editor’s note attached. Today, the phrase is still there.

I searched in Nexis and was able to find only one other appearance of the term “China virus” in USA Today since January 31: A May article that quoted a Trump administration official who claimed during a TV appearance that lockdown would “kill many more people than the China virus ever would.” The official’s name? Peter Navarro.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.