Fox tries to cover up its failure to challenge Michael Brown's conspiracy theories

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

Yesterday, on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, former FEMA director Michael Brown repeatedly suggested that the Obama administration deliberately chose to let the BP oil spill "get really bad" so it would have an "excuse" to "shut down offshore drilling."

Today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called out Fox News for airing Brown's absurd conspiracy theories without pushing back on them.

Now, Fox appears to be devoting the full resources of its news division to covering up what Brown actually said and Cavuto's failure to call Brown out on it. The network has repeatedly insisted that Gibbs was wrong without ever showing viewers what Brown clearly said.

So since Fox won't report the truth, here's what actually happened.

On May 3, Cavuto introduced his interview with Brown by saying that Brown "now says this president didn't act fast enough and is playing politics with the spill." Cavuto didn't explain what he meant by "playing politics," but Brown made clear that he thought Obama purposely delayed his response to the spill and wanted the spill to approach the Louisiana shore and "go up the East Coast" so that he could "shut down" offshore drilling:

BROWN: First of all, you have a disaster occurs, and the Coast Guard shows up immediately. That's their job. In Katrina, FEMA showed up immediately. The president is off in San Diego strumming the guitar. Obama is back East going to White House Correspondents Dinner. You're now nine days into the storm -- into the disaster, and actually now, only now is the president appearing to be engaged.

And I think the delay was this. It's pure politics. This president has never supported big oil. He has never supported offshore drilling. And now he has an excuse to shut it back down.

You've already heard Bill Nelson, senator from Florida, talking about offshore drilling is DOA. They played politics with this crisis and left the Coast Guard out there by themselves doing what they're supposed to do.

CAVUTO: So, Michael, you don't take him at face value when he says a temporary halt in offshore drilling is just that, a temporary halt?

BROWN: No, no. Look, Bill Nelson -- and, you know, they don't say these things without it being coordinated. And so now you're looking at this oil slick approaching, you know, the Louisiana shore, according to certain -- NOAA and other places, if the winds are right, it will go up the East Coast.

This is exactly what they want, because now he can pander to the environmentalists and say, "I'm going to shut it down because it's too dangerous." While Mexico and China and everybody else drills in the Gulf. We're going to get shut down.

Cavuto made no effort to push back on these claims.

Moments later, Brown doubled down -- this time telling Cavuto that he wouldn't be "surprised" if the White House "let this crisis get really bad ... to shut down offshore drilling." Again, Cavuto offered no rebuttal:

BROWN: The media has been ignoring it for two weeks. You don't think that there were -- look, they could have gotten on helicopters. They probably were on helicopters. We had other reconnaissance images from there.

But we only started to see them when it started to approach the Louisiana coast. And, then, oh, my God, look, we got to do something. I just -- I think the media sat back. And I would not be surprised if the White House said, you know what, we might be able to, guess what, do what? Use this crisis to our advantage. Let this crisis get really bad, and then we will step in. We will be able to shut down offshore drilling. We will be able to turn to all these alternate fuels.

And I think the problem they have right now is, they waited too long.

CAVUTO: So, by constantly referring to this as the BP spill, the BP leak, the BP disaster, that there's a method to that, right?

BROWN: Oh, absolutely.

At the briefing today, Gibbs responded by calling out Fox for allowing this to happen unchallenged:

GIBBS: No, no, but FOX had the very special and unique interview with Michael Brown -- you opened it and I had to do it -- who for those who weren't let in on the big secret, Mr. Brown, FEMA Director Brown under Katrina, intimated on FOX, and it wasn't -- I will editorially say, didn't appear to be pushed back on real hard -- that this spill was leaked on purpose in order for us to walk back our environmental and drilling decisions, and that the leak that we did on purpose got out of control and now is too big to contain.

[...]

GIBBS: I got to tell you, [Fox reporter] Wendell [Goler], I'm not entirely sure that a factual answer that I might give to any one of your questions is going to change the notion that your network put out the former FEMA director to make an accusation that the well had been purposely set off in order to change an offshore drilling decision.

At this point, a real news network would apologize.

But Fox News is a political operation, not a news network. So they went on the attack.

On Special Report -- which is supposed to be Fox's flagship hard news show -- reporter James Rosen aired footage from a part of Brown's interview where Brown didn't push his conspiracy theories. Rosen carefully avoided describing those conspiracy theories and then announced to viewers that Gibbs was wrong:

ROSEN: Among those inclined to see additional parallels is the man most scandalized by the now-accepted judgment of history that the federal government responded sluggishly during Katrina. ... The much-maligned FEMA director at the time.

BROWN [Your World video clip]: Even though BP may have been telling the Coast Guard and others we're doing everything we can, EPA should have been there themselves, verifying whether that's true or not. And I think they just dropped the ball.

ROSEN: When our own Wendell Goler tried to raise the BP-Katrina comparisons today at the White House press briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cut him off to complain about those comments and others by Michael Brown, some of which Brown did not, in fact, make. You and Major Garrett, Gibbs snapped, should get on a conference call with others at Fox and maybe do some work.

Rosen gave viewers absolutely no indication of the outrageous conspiracy theories Brown had floated on Fox that led to Gibbs' comments.

Next up were Bret Baier and Brit Hume. Hume did say that Brown's comments were "nutty," but rather than show -- or even quote -- what Brown had said, Baier and Hume asserted that Gibbs was wrong and provided viewers with this utterly incomprehensible description:

BAIER: Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to former FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was on Fox, on Neil Cavuto's show, and said that our network put out former FEMA Director Brown to make an accusation that the oil well had purposefully been set off in order to change an offshore drilling decision by the administration. From what we can see, Brown never said that in that interview.

HUME: No, what Brown said was that once this had happened that he believed -- and he was not put out. He was asked on, and he was a guest on Neil Cavuto's program. He said that he believed that the administration was looking for a way to take political advantage of the situation to move itself away from the position that it had taken on offshore drilling and it deliberately used it in that way and responded as it did. I happen to think that's nutty. I don't think that's what the administration did at all. And if Robert Gibbs wanted to complain about Brown having said that, it seems to me he could direct his complaints to Brown. We have all kinds of people on Fox News who say all kinds of things. I don't recall Neil Cavuto exactly endorsing what Brown said. But it's certainly different from what he -- from the way it was characterized today.

Three points here.

First, Fox's defense seems to hang largely on the fact that Brown didn't say that the oil spill had "purposefully been set off" to stop offshore drilling. But what Fox refuses to tell viewers is that Brown very clearly did suggest -- repeatedly -- that Obama deliberately delayed the response to the spill and "let this crisis get really bad" in order to create an excuse to "shut down offshore drilling." So Fox is making a pretty insignificant distinction.

Second, Hume's description of Brown's comments is extremely misleading. According to Hume, Brown said that once the spill took place, "the administration was looking for a way to take political advantage of the situation to move itself away from the position that it had taken on offshore drilling and it deliberately used it in that way and responded as it did."

"Responded as it did"? No viewer who hasn't already seen Brown's comments would interpret that to mean that Brown said Obama purposely allowed the spill to get worse. Most viewers would probably take that to mean that Brown had simply accused Obama of demagoguing the issue.

Third, does Hume really think that Cavuto had no responsibility to challenge Brown's wild conspiracy theories? What if Brown had accused President Bush of allowing 9-11 to happen? Would that not be Fox's responsibility either?

Fox got caught uncritically airing wild conspiracy theories. Again. It's time for them to own up to it.

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