As mentioned in Friday’s Blind Spot wrap I have a semi-interesting story about Dr Robert Malone, the self proclaimed inventor of the mRNA vaccine delivery system and man who nearly got Joe Rogan cancelled.
It’s worth telling because, according to Dr Malone’s own Substack, he is now threatening to sue The New York Times for defamation in response to their latest piece calling him a disinformation star. Defamation in the American system is a hard case to win, so the fact he thinks he has a case at all seems pretty relevant. It might also create a credible legal environment for some of his broader claims to be tested in.
My story about Dr Malone, however, goes something like this…
I initially came across Dr Malone in June 2021, when I was investigating the Wuhan lab leak theory for the FT and when his follower count on Twitter was still in the low thousands.
I was interested in getting his take on the early days of mRNA development since he was one of the few connected scientists who seemed happy to speak publicly about that period. I wanted to know how closely connected, if at all, mRNA work had been with that of gain of function research.
Most scientists involved on the GOF side of things (who were not critics of it) had failed to reply to my inquiries. Only Dr Baric at UNC had passed messages on to me via a comms person.
By July I was having to get creative on sources to contact, not least because I had also become constrained on who I could blitz due to internal politics about whose patch it was and competition over sources etc (but that’s another story).
A prelim fact check via Factiva confirmed in my mind that Malone wasn’t fibbing about his early involvement.
And so it was that on July 22, 2021 I sent Dr Malone an email. At this point his follower count has had grown to about 130,000 but he was still mostly unknown in the wider popular press. The prominent Atlantic piece that initially described him as a misinformation spreader, meanwhile, was not to appear until August 12.
The quick punchline to that story is that he didn’t reply to me either! I didn’t think anything of it and went on my way.
But then a weird thing happened
Come December, I was talking to a comms person about something else entirely, and they mentioned that they were also helping with comms for the anti mandate movement that Malone was part of (something I did not know when I had started the call). I casually mentioned I had tried to speak to Dr Malone but never got a response.
Suffice to say, by December 10 a call between me and Dr Malone had been arranged.
Malone’s reputation had by this point been so vilified, however, I very much doubted anything much would amount from the interaction — at least not formally in print.
Nevertheless, I figured there would be no harm in hearing his side of the story given I was the one who had initially reached out to him. I also figured that I owed it to myself to close the gap in my research for posterity – and that it would be worth trying to ascertain his credibility on a personal level. And who knows, maybe a worthwhile story-making lead could still emerge from the conversation?
Separately I was growing annoyed by the new media mindset that some people’s views were too dangerous to hear out altogether. (That’s not to say that screening for suspected cranks and shills is bad journalistic practice. It’s to say that it should not be considered bad practice to hear out a suspected shill or crank to determine if the popular perception is justified. Louis Theroux, after all, has made a career out of it.)
In the end we only had a limited amount of time on the phone as Malone was on his way to the airport. About 40 mins. We never got round to the key topic of gain of function research that I had originally wanted to ask about and overall I came away with more questions than answers. I asked if I could follow up with some further questions by email, which I did. (Stupidly, however, I didn’t keep a note of this follow up email. But it exists somewhere in the ether on the recipient side.)
In the end the follow up questions also went unanswered – though not because I suspect Malone was dodging them, but rather because he was travelling and in high demand and probably missed them. In the meantime his profile was just getting more and more controversial, so I decided to park things for the time being regardless.
Little did I know that in a few weeks time Malone would be talking to Joe Rogan and breaking the internet for days on end, while igniting a campaign to have Rogan himself cancelled.
How I perceived Malone
When I spoke to Malone I never got the impression he was an antivaxxer. He was very clear that he was pro vaccines and a scientist with a scientific mindset. His concerns, he stressed, were related to marketing protocols, suppression of adverse effects in the media and a one size fits all policy that ignored risk/benefit variance across different demographics. Nor did I get the impression he was a fantasist. He raised compelling data-led points throughout and was always quick to caveat any research that was preliminary or yet to be corroborated.
His retort to the Atlantic article was also very reasonable. Having assessed the piece myself I found myself agreeing with Malone that it was not a very objective take and clearly had a pre-determined agenda. I also thought it rushed to conclusions without actually addressing the criticisms Malone was making — a sleight of hand which has been similarly copied in the most recent NYT article.
Accusations, meanwhile, that Malone is not reliable because he features too prominently in right wing or conservative press, or because he is making a lot of money from Substack, also seemed very weak to me. These again have been repeated in the recent NYT article. But I doubt very much that the skew has ever been based on Malone’s own preferences. It seems more likely that liberal networks were uninterested in hearing him out until he had amassed a large enough audience to make him worthy of a public debunking. But the fact he happily spoke with me, the Atlantic (and has since also clearly entertained the NYT) suggests it was not Malone being selective about the media he appears on, but rather the other way around. And that’s just the media we know about – he may have spoken to others who also decided not to publish.
In the end, however, the Rogan debacle made it even harder for me to follow up in any serious way. Not because I didn’t think Malone had a point — I am open minded to many of his arguments — but rather because it seemed more trouble than it was worth. I was in my final weeks at the FT, and pretty much off the Wuhan beat too.
What’s more, as a financial reporter I thought I would be better off addressing Malone’s observations about why pharma companies had an incentive to behave as badly as he was claiming. Specifically, I wanted to tackle the view he presented on the Joe Rogan show that the overly dominant market position of asset managers like Blackrock and Vanguard may be playing some sort of role.
At the very least it seemed a topical way to pick up on a point I had long wanted to argue in a column – that index investing was contributing to a collusive effect in markets in many sectors.
But it turns out that just mentioning Malone in a lead — even in the context of distancing oneself from his wider vaccine views — was too controversial for the FT. The column was spiked at the last minute. (I was, however, able to get it published a few weeks later by MoneyWeek, pretty much unedited from the final version.)
All of this seemed very unreasonable to me.
Upon going independent I felt very much inclined to recount my Malone experiences publicly. But in the end I didn’t. Why? Because a big part of me didn’t want to get cancelled for just having dared to speak to the man. I also decided most of what he had told me had already been publicized and really I needed those follow up points addressing for any story to be considered credible.
But then an even weirder thing happened this week
While touring a very popular tourist destination in Europe not disconnected to the common man’s fight for freedom and liberty I happened to hear a familiar voice marvelling at the historic art surrounding us. I thought to myself, where have I heard that voice before?
I then spotted the jacket:
It sounded a lot like Robert Malone. But surely, I thought to myself, that would be too much of a coincidence?
And so, like some sort of mad woman, I edged closer to the white-haired freedom-loving jacket wearer to check out his face. (Some might say impolitely close given social distancing norms.) The woman next to him caught me staring while squinting with befuddlement. “Yes, it really is him,” she offered helpfully.
So yeah. It was Malone. It turns out he was touring the very same attraction with a small entourage including his wife.
I quickly introduced myself as that FT reporter he had spoken to in December who had never written a story about him. We ended up having a short but amiable chat — mostly about the nature of journalism today. I gave one of his contacts my card because I’m still interested in hearing his answers to my follow up questions. I’m also interested in hearing more about the whole Joe Rogan experience and about his opinions about how the media has handled him.
Also, at this point, I figured this was too much of a coincidence not to write about. Irrespective of what anyone thinks, I don’t think hearing out Malone’s perspective or giving him a platform to make an opposing argument makes for bad journalism. As long as his points are scrutinized, checked out and balanced, giving him a fair hearing seems the right thing to do. If he gets back in touch this time I would certainly like to do what the NYT and the Atlantic never did – which is address the actual substance of his arguments not merely their perception.
Though I’m also curious to know what TBS readers think about the matter, so do let me know.
*For those who don’t know their Janis Joplin, that’s a verse from “Me and Bobby McGee”.