How Fox News is supporting the right’s Paul Pelosi conspiracy theory

Fox News is working hard to ensure that its viewers believe that a leftist conspiracy to demonize Republicans was at work behind Friday’s violent assault on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, by a man obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories.

Federal prosecutors charged David Wayne DePape on Monday with assault on the immediate family of a federal official and attempted kidnapping of a federal official in connection with the attack on the Pelosi family. The charging documents state that police witnessed DePape “striking Pelosi in the head” with a hammer; that DePape “had zip ties, tape, rope, and at least one hammer with him that morning”; and that the alleged assailant subsequently divulged to police that he had broken into the home as part of a plan “to hold Nancy hostage and talk to her. If Nancy were to tell DEPAPE the ‘truth,’ he would let her go, and if she ‘lied,’ he was going to break ‘her kneecaps.’”

The federal complaint amounted to a complete debunking of the conspiracy theory that had percolated through the right-wing press over the previous three days, in which DePape is actually Paul Pelosi’s leftist gay lover, and the police, Democrats, and the press are covering up that the assault was really a lovers’ spat.

Fox’s evening hosts – among the most popular and influential figures in the right-wing information ecosystem – could have used their programs on Monday to debunk the conspiracy theory that had consumed the right. Failing that, they could have simply ignored the story altogether. But instead, they used their platforms to detail the purportedly unanswered questions surrounding the attack and warn that Democrats were trying to take advantage of the story.

By Tuesday morning, the talking points were so well established on the network that its “news side” was doing the same thing.

Fox is giving their viewers permission to buy into the conspiracy theories, without directly adopting them. 

Star host Tucker Carlson’s lengthy Monday opening monologue provides a useful case study in how that strategy works. He does not explicitly say that he believes Pelosi and DePape were lovers. What he does do is run down the same set of details of the case that conspiracy theorists had spent the weekend ranting about; present those details as open questions that could lead to reasonable suspicions; ignore that the charging document specifically answered those questions; and hide the extreme right-wing views DePape has expressed online, instead suggesting that the assailant is is actually a leftist.

Carlson began by arguing that there is little “we can say for certain” about the story besides that police found DePape and Paul Pelosi in the Pelosi residence and observed DePape strike Pelosi with a hammer. The rest of the story, he claimed, “remains muddy.” 

Carlson then presented a series of questions he claimed had not been sufficiently answered. The questions largely matched the claims right-wing conspiracy theorists had been promoting over the past few days, and have answers, even if Carlson apparently doesn’t like them.

Carlson’s first question was, “How, for example, did DePape get inside the Pelosi home?” He claimed that there should have been security present at the house and suggested that DePape might have been let in. 

In fact, the charging document states that in his Mirandized interview with the San Francisco Police Department, DePape “stated that he broke into the house through a glass door, which was a difficult task that required the use of a hammer.” That is consistent with aerial photos and video showing shattered glass around the rear entryway.

Carlson’s second question was, “Was there a third person at the home? We don't know, but it's not crazy to assume there was.” According to the Fox host, “San Francisco police suggested there was a third person in the home when police arrived and Politico dutifully reported that, ‘officers arrived at the house, knocked on the front door and were led inside by an unknown person.’ In other words, by a person who was not David DePape or Paul Pelosi.” 

In fact, San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said during his Friday press conference that “When the officers arrived and knocked on the front door of the residence this morning, the door was opened by someone inside. And the officers observed through the open door Mr. Pelosi and the suspect, Mr. DePape, inside the entryway of the home.” This is admittedly vague language that apparently confused reporters. But Scott did not actually specify that a third person had been present, SFPD subsequently confirmed that only DePape and Pelosi were present at the Pelosi residence when police arrived, and DePape told SFPD that Pelosi had opened the door, according to the charging document.

Third, after stating that “common sense suggests it probably couldn't have been Pelosi or Pappy who opened it” because “they were locked in a life-or-death drama, a struggle, over a hammer,” Carlson then suggested the two knew each other before the home invasion. “The documents filed today assert that Paul Pelosi had never seen David DePape before yet in Pelosi's 911 call he knew DePape's first name and apparently referred to him as a friend,” Carlson said, citing the 911 dispatcher relaying Pelosi's call to police. 

Carlson does not reveal that Pelosi, according to law enforcement, was making that 911 call surreptitiously from the bathroom and speaking in “coded information” to the dispatcher in an attempt to avoid raising DePape’s suspicions.

Fourth, after alleging that “basic facts seem to be in dispute,” Carlson stated: 

Local KTVU investigative reporter Evan Sernoffsky, for example, initially reported that DePape was "found in underwear" when police arrived. Today, Sernoffsky made a specific point of retracting that claim. "I'm now told by other sources that DePape was not dressed only in his underwear." Well, okay, fair enough. We'd be satisfied with either explanation. Not really our business. But you can't blame (and this is the point), you can't blame people watching all of this at home for thinking that maybe there's something weird going on here. Parts of the official account don't seem to make any sense. 

Carlson’s framing – that Sernoffsky “initially reported” one thing but then “Today… made a specific point of retracting that claim” – suggests that something is afoot. But it’s inaccurate – Sernoffsky actually retracted that claim on Friday, and his story “was corrected within two hours.”

After suggesting DePape’s political leanings are actually leftist, Carlson pivoted to trying to raise doubts about the voluminous evidence of his belief in right-wing conspiracy theories. First, he baselessly suggested that the websites were fabricated.

Well, according to some reports, the homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted illegal alien David DePape somehow maintained websites with right wing content on them. One of these sites was apparently called "friendy-frens-dot-com" and the strange thing about that website is that the web address for it was registered back in September, but there's content on the site that is backdated to August and internet archiving services didn't register any content from that blog, apparently David DePape's blog, until October 28. That was the day of DePape's attack on Paul Pelosi.

He then described the content of DePape’s blog as “a bunch of incoherent posts about UFOs and Peter Navarro.” He continued: “I'm not making that up. Those are the facts. What do they mean? Well, it's a right-wing conspiracy, obviously. Better indict Marjorie Taylor Greene for the crime.”

This is Carlson’s usual schtick of pretending that claims of right-wing extremism are overblown by simply lying about the content that generated concerns -- in this case, conspiracy theories that substantially overlap with the Fox host's own commentary. He’s also ignoring more details from the DOJ complaint, which stated: “In the course of the interview, DEPAPE articulated he viewed Nancy as the ‘leader of the pack’ of lies told by the Democratic Party.”

Based on these pieces of evidence – the same faulty initial reports, miscommunications, and distortions that were commonplace in the right-wing ecosystem all weekend long – Carlson concluded that all this is happening because “the midterm elections are next Tuesday and Democrats are in trouble, and they believe the attack on Paul Pelosi might help them.”

Carlson didn’t provide his viewers with an alternate explanation for what happened last Friday. He doesn’t have to. He’s shown them that the doubts they are inclined to have are reasonable, and that’s enough: His fever swamp allies can take it from there.