(RealClearWire) — Last month, the economist Jeffrey Sachs appeared on the Substack podcast Nonzero, hosted by the writer Robert Wright, to discuss American foreign policy failures in the post-Cold War world. Wright asked Sachs if he felt American journalism is in decline. Sachs – who, as the head of multiple U.N. non-profits and director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development, is one of the most institutionally recognized figures in public intellectual life – said that it absolutely had, and then shared an anecdote.
“I had a chat with a longtime friend of mine… a senior reporter at one of the most important newspapers,” he said, “and I said to him, ‘When I was young, I turned to your paper because of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and I loved it.’” According to Sachs, this nameless friend, who in a later appearance Sachs would identify as a senior New York Times reporter, replied, “That paper is so dead and gone, Jeff. You have to understand that.”
Sachs spoke with the reporter last September. The issue that provoked the reporter’s comments was the recent bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines and its subsequent coverage in the media. In the days and weeks after the attack, a flurry of conjecture about who was responsible dominated mainstream outlets, with CNN and the New York Times echoing U.S. and European government allegations that Russia had sabotaged its own piece of critical infrastructure in a dramatic bid to turn European favor against Ukraine.
Sachs, who worked closely with Mikhail Gorbachev and knows his way around U.S.-Russia relations, read these reports and called his friend: “The U.S did it!” he said. “Why is your paper saying today that Russia did it?” The reporter responded, “Of course the U.S did it. Who else? But come on, Jeff. The editor isn’t interested in that.”
In relating these stories, Sachs expressed a view shared by a coalescing group of anti-establishment thinkers, journalists, pundits, and academics: that the mainstream media in the United States has been corrupted beyond repair and is so deeply beholden to U.S. intelligence and security interests as to be of little journalistic value. Sachs has been increasingly vocal about this over the last year, as the war in Ukraine – the fault for which he places squarely at the feet of the United States and its decades of NATO bellicosity, even blaming specific State Department operatives for the 2014 ouster of Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych – escalates shockingly, with little mainstream media attention given to potential American culpability in provoking and prolonging the bloodshed.
Sachs is not the most vociferous critic of the Biden administration, the American foreign policy establishment, or the corporate media. Where commentators like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, Tucker Carlson, and Noam Chomsky are quick to make strong claims about deep-state conspiracy and propaganda, Sachs often demurs. “I know all the theories [for the degradation of American journalism],” he said in a recent appearance on Greenwald’s “System Update” news show. “Money, advertising, power. But why, I don’t fully understand.” Greenwald routinely takes a harder line. He would go on in that conversation to say that “[the New York Times] is in another universe now in terms of their willingness to write down whatever the CIA wants them to say, even when they know it’s false.”
What distinguishes Sachs among this burgeoning anti-establishment cohort is the extent of his establishment bona fides: U.N. appointments, COVID-19 commission assignments, World Bank and IMF advising, and innumerable plaudits as one of his generation’s top economic minds. Vanity Fair included him in their 2008 list of the 100 members of the “New Establishment.” This has leant a whistleblowing-like quality to his criticisms of the United States and its behavior both at home and abroad. Having been instrumental to some of the most consequential diplomatic and economic negotiations of the last 40 years, including the structural transition from communist central planning to market economies in numerous post-Soviet bloc countries and Latin America, Sachs is a man whom people listen to when he says that the U.S. is lying or acting in bad faith.
While Sachs’s new role as the establishment’s contrarian inner critic was solidified by the war in Ukraine, it was birthed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In spring 2020, just months after the outbreak began, Sachs was tapped by Lancet editor Richard Horton to serve as chair of the medical journal’s committee investigating the origin of the virus.
At the time, it was uncontroversial in both Washington and the mainstream media to entertain the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 had leaked from a high-security lab or research institution. Sachs had strongly opposed this theory (and then-President Donald Trump’s flirtation with it), but he accepted the position with an “open mind” and went on to staff the committee, appointing his colleague at Columbia, Peter Daszak, to head the task force. The group was to produce a report on the various theories of COVID origin – zoonosis and lab-leak, primarily – and assess their validity.
By the summer of that year, Sachs was re-evaluating his position on the lab-leak theory. In his telling, he had been alerted by a few “top scientists” to certain biological signatures of the virus that indicated potential laboratory manipulation; he had also been made aware of an NIH grant to the New York non-profit EcoHealth Alliance that was used to perform so-called gain-of-function viral experiments on mice in Wuhan. Daszak was, and remains, president of the EcoHealth Alliance. When Sachs asked the new COVID-19 Commission task force leader to disclose the precise nature of the work he had funded in Wuhan, Daszak refused, on advice from his lawyer.
Reports differ here. Sachs claims to have fired Daszak immediately, while Daszak claims to have stepped down. Either way, in June 2021, Daszak was no longer leading the origins task force, and Sachs was thoroughly convinced that the conflicts of interest (such as those meticulously documented by Nicholas Wade in a May 2021 essay) at play in the search for the origin of the virus ran so deep that the commission was functionally compromised; he shut it down in September 2021, and he is now one of the leading voices against the censorship and stigmatization of the lab-leak story.
To many people skeptical of our public health officials’ response to COVID, this was one of the most meaningful public breaks from the institutional narrative solidifying at the time. Since the Lancet debacle, Daszak has become the face of a catastrophically mishandled pandemic response.
One way to characterize Sachs’s commitments to government accountability and freedom of speech is that they are rooted in a deep institutional memory. On the war in Ukraine, he seems animated by the blatant and well-documented attempts at regime change and invasion executed by the U.S. government – in Vietnam, Iraq, and Syria – as well as the countless broken promises made to Russia in the wake of the Cold War (promises that Sachs was instrumental in negotiating).
Few deny, with the benefit of hindsight, the disastrous claims made about Saddam Hussein’s connection to Al-Qaeda and the presence of WMDs in Iraq that the media sold to the American public before the invasion in 2003. However uneasy some may feel hearing criticism of continued U.S. aid to Ukraine as that country continues to suffer in a brutal invasion, Sachs is attempting to hold America accountable for the mistakes it has made in the recent past. These mistakes were enabled in large part by a complicit press, overeager to parrot government narratives.
For his trouble, Sachs has swiftly been branded a conspiracist, a Putin stooge, and a useful idiot. Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who Sachs and Greenwald remind us, was one of the loudest champions for the invasion of Iraq, recently published an essay deeming Sachs “intellectually bankrupt.” It’s a tactic that has become almost banal at this point: when an erstwhile ally drifts too far outside of the acceptable window of discourse, declare him no longer worth listening to.
“I grew up in the Vietnam War era, in the Kennedy assassination era, in Watergate. Governments lie for a living,” Sachs said to New York magazine in March of this year. “That’s not conspiracy theory; that is how governments operate because they deal in power. They don’t deal in truth.”
Sachs may sometimes speak with undue certainty on matters still unsettled, but he is playing the role of a principled if nagging inner conscience, and we need more public figures to do the same.
Reprinted with permission from RealClearWire.