Just after 6:30 yesterday morning, Fox News reported that “unrelenting winds continue to spread wildfires across SoCal.” Concomitantly, Fox News began to spread speculation and misinformation across the airwaves.

To wit, (hat tip, Salon’s Tim Grieve):

Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocey asked on-the-scene-in-California reporter Adam Housley if he had “heard anybody suggest [the fires] could be some sort of terrorism?” — noting that some people have “talk[ed] about this a little bit just to me.” Housley replied, “It’s funny you mentioned that,” as there have been “hundreds of comments [on his Fox News blog] suggesting that exact same thing from viewers…”

Excitedly, Doocey continued:

So you’re telling me that people are coming up to you all the time over in California and saying, you know, there is a possibility this could be terrorism? And the bloggers as well?

Housley affirmed, adding that, “These are just people like you and I, they’re not officials” (nor are they reporters) but that it is “definitely a topic” … in the comments’ section of Housley’s blog, anyway.

We’re all for citizen journalism. That said, it’s probably not a good idea, in the middle of a live report on a dangerous breaking news situation, to repeat seemingly unfounded “suggestions” made by random commentors on your blog (actually, we were only able to find one commentor raising the terrorism question, and said commenter seemed to be specifically fingering homegrown environmental terrorists (and/or illegal immigrants):

Is anyone asking how these fires started? I see no comments or speculations. Could it be linked to illegal alien misadventure on the border…say in the Harris fire? Or for that matter else where in the state? Terrorism? ELF or other environmental extremist? That many fires at one time in so many places not geographically connected sure seems suspicious to me. Could it be linked to disgruntled illegals upset with the Gov. veto of the Dream Act? If you are a journalist, then these questions need to be asked and investigated. Your coverage is admirable but the emotional journalism about the loss of peoples homes is not helping to find the causes.

Two hours later Doocey et al added a dash of misinformation to their earlier speculation:

We were talking earlier… with Adam Housley and apparently police officers in a hovering helicopter saw a guy starting one of these fires. And, [Fox & Friends co-host] Alisyn Camerota, an FBI memo from late in June of this year is poppin’ up this morning and it is ominous.

The FBI memo Doocey referenced here actually “popped up” back in late June of 2003.

Maybe that’s what Doocey’s co-host Camerota was trying to say when she chimed in with:

This actually has happened for many years in the past as well. An FBI memo sent out to local law enforcement said that an Al Qaeda detainee had given them some information that the next wave of terrorism could be in the form of setting wild fires. So Adam Housley raised the specter and said lots of people on his blog asked him about it. Obviously this is something the FBI looked into and they will continue to investigate it.

Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade then weighed in, also implying that the June 25 memo was from this year:

A June 25 memo from the FBI’s Denver office, it was reported three days ago—excuse me five days ago—by the Arizona Republic, a newspaper, they have been carrying the story and continue to expand on it…

Again, the Arizona Republic reported on it not five days ago but closer to five years ago, back in July of 2003.

Doocey continued:

The plot according to the detainee—and they don’t know if the detainee is telling the truth—the plot was to set three or four wild fires. But they don’t mention California. They mention Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. We do know for a fact that a number of the fires in Southern California are of a suspicious nature and they are investigating arson.

So, to recap Fox News’ analysis:

A 2003 memo from FBI’s Denver office + suggestion made by a commentor on a FoxNews.com blog + “guy” spotted in California by “hovering helicopter” and picked up on suspicion of arson = Al Qaeda set fire to California!


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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.