Conspiracy theories about impeachment witness show that Fox News has not solved its Seth Rich problem

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is a busy man these days following his impeachment inquiry testimonies to the House Intelligence Committee. But, as The New York Times first reported, when a Fox News segment endangered his personal safety, he found time to get his lawyer to send a formal request asking the network to retract an October 28 segment which claimed that Vindman is a Ukrainian spy. Here’s the segment, described by Fox host Laura Ingraham as “breaking news,” in which guest and torture advocate John Yoo said “some people” would believe Vindman was engaging in “espionage”:

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Citation From the October 28, 2019, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle

LAURA INGRAHAM (HOST): Fox News has confirmed that a White House national security official -- his name is Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman -- he's going to tell impeachment investigators tomorrow in a statement that's been distributed to some media outlets that he twice reported objections over Trump's call with Ukraine. 

But get this -- this is buried in the New York Times piece tonight -- but I found it very interesting.

He's a decorated colonel, by the way, in the Iraq War -- but because Col. Vindman emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him about how to deal with Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani, though they typically communicated in English.

Now, wait a second, John. Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine, while working inside the White House, apparently against the president's interest, and usually, they spoke in English. Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?

JOHN YOO: I find that astounding, and in -- you know, some people might call that espionage, but it doesn't actually seem to add any new facts to what we know.

After the segment aired, both Yoo and fellow panelist Alan Dershowitz tried to distance themselves from the claim. Yoo appeared on CNN to say that he had meant to accuse the Ukrainians of espionage. He also wrote a piece with the admission that he had really “stepped in it” during the Fox segment. Dershowitz claimed he “had never heard of Vindman and had no idea why he was being attacked.” On the November 18 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Dershowitz praised Vindman’s “very distinguished career” and said it “would be a mistake” for Republicans to attack his integrity. But Ingraham pushed back and continued to attack Vindman.

Though clearly both Yoo and Dershowitz scrambled to save face in the segment’s aftermath, Fox News has made no such effort. In fact, the network has refused any accountability for the segment. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a Fox spokesperson stated, “As a guest on Fox News, John Yoo was responsible for his own sentiments and he has subsequently done interviews to clarify what he meant.”

The letter from Vindman’s attorney detailed how Ingraham’s “breaking news” segment spilled over from the network onto Twitter, noting that it “sparked a torrent of republications and copycat false charges.” It also highlighted a similar smear pushed by Fox host Tucker Carlson on November 20, nearly a month after Ingraham’s initial segment.

This isn’t the first time Fox has exposed itself to legal problems because of its hosts’ penchant for spreading falsehoods and disinformation. In 2017, on-air personalities attempted to plant a seed in the minds of their audience that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered supposedly in retaliation for leaking Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks. Sean Hannity spent months pushing a baseless conspiracy theory about the tragic murder, which the police had said was due to a botched robbery attempt, at the peak of his hysterical coverage. Rich’s parents were forced to write an op-ed in The Washington Post begging the media to stop smearing their son. In March 2018, the Rich family filed a lawsuit against Fox News claiming its hosts “aided and abetted the intentional infliction of emotional distress” in promoting the “sham story.” The suit is ongoing.

While Hannity gets most of the blame for exploiting the murder of a young man for political purposes, Ingraham didn’t let it pass without also lending a hand. On Fox, she attacked Rich’s family and suggested they were trying to cover something up, saying, “When people don’t want information to get out and when an election is on the line, … a lot of people will do a lot of things that otherwise they wouldn’t do.”

Yoo and Ingraham’s suggestion that Vindman is a spy because he was born abroad and speaks multiple languages puts a new xenophobic twist on a true hallmark of Fox News’ legacy -- peddling right-wing conspiracy theories that put innocent people in harm’s way. In his letter, Vindman’s attorney described how Fox’s coverage of his client “created a false factual basis to render sinister otherwise innocuous facts.” Through their op-eds and media appearances, Yoo and Dershowitz have effectively retracted what was said during the segment, but Fox News has so far refused to budge. It’s probably because if the network ever started to sift through the towering stack of journalistic failures of the last three years (let alone the many, many ethical lapses since its 1996 launch), the whole thing might come tumbling down.

Fox’s failure to stop itself from staggering into legal problems for spreading baseless conspiracy theories shows how little has changed since the days of its Seth Rich reporting. The network has no control over its on-air talent, especially hosts like Ingraham, Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Carlson who are most likely to push wild conspiracy theories, and it takes no responsibility for hosting guests who accuse a career national security staffer of being a Ukrainian spy (or name the purported whistleblower). Until Fox News faces real consequences -- such as pressure from advertisers and cable providers -- it is sure to keep happening again and again. If Vindman’s attorney needs any advice, he may want to talk to the Rich family’s lawyers; they’ve been down this same road of Fox News smears.