Notre Dame fire: Fox News anchors shut down right-wing conspiracy theories about cause of inferno

'We are not doing that here, not now, not on my watch,' says anchor Shepard Smith

Chris Baynes
Tuesday 16 April 2019 10:44 BST
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto diligently shuts down Notre Dame caller during conspiracy theory attempt

Two Fox News anchors were forced to abruptly end interviews with guests spouting conspiracy theories about the Notre Dame fire.

Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto each cut off right-wing commenters who suggested without evidence that the inferno at the famous Paris cathedral was started deliberately.

Although the cause of Monday’s blaze was not yet been established, French officials believe it was an accident – possibly linked to restoration work which was being carried out on the 800-year-old architectural masterpiece.

That did not stop Philippe Karsenty, a controversial right-wing politician in France, from describing the fire as “a French 9/11” during a live phone interview with Fox News.

The deputy mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a western suburb of Paris, told Mr Smith: “You need to know that for the past years, we’ve had churches desecrated each and every week in France, all over France. So, of course, you will hear the story of political correctness which will tell you it’s probably an accident, but...”

He was quickly shut down by Mr Smith, who said: “Sir, we’re not going to speculate here of the cause of something which we don’t know. If you have observations or you know something, we would love to hear it.”

Mr Karsenty protested he was “just telling you something, we need to be ready”, prompting the Fox News presenter to end the interview.

“We are not doing that here, not now, not on my watch,” Mr Smith declared.

The anchor’s decisiveness in shutting down the conspiracy theory won him praise from some on social media.

But others criticised Fox News for inviting Mr Karsenty to take part in the interview in the first place. In 2006, he was successfully sued for libel by France 2 after falsely accusing the French television channel of faking footage of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy being shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a gun battle in the Gaza Strip.

Mr Karsenty “was a known conspiracy theorist who has been convicted of defamation related to said conspiracy theories,” tweeted Huffington Post journalist Andy Campbell. “You don’t get kudos for inviting a corn cob as your expert and then saying ‘who let this corn cob in?’”

Mr Cavuto later cut off another guest who said he was “suspicious” about the cause of the Notre Dame fire.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative American organisation, told the presenter: “Well, Neil, if it is an accident, it’s a monumental tragedy, but forgive me for being suspicious.

“Just last month, a 17th-century church was set on fire in Paris. We have seen tabernacles knocked down, crosses have been torn down, statues have been smashed.”

The anchor responded: “We don’t know that, we don’t know, so if we can avoid whatever your suspicions might be.”

Notre Dame fire: What we know so far

He added “we cannot make conjectures about this”. After ending the interview, Mr Cavuto told viewers: “We’re not trying to be rude to our guests here – there is so much we do not know about what happened here.

“We do know that about four hours ago, something started here. There are incidents that have been raised against the Catholic Church on popular tourist sites in and around Paris, no stranger to attacks, but another leap to start taking views like that when we don’t know.”

Mr Donohue later responded indignantly on social media, writing on the Catholic League’s Twitter account: “Fox News asks me to be available by phone to discuss the Notre Dame fire with Neil Cavuto. I explicitly say it may be an accident and then say it may not be. I try to give examples of recent attacks by thugs destroying churches, and then I am cut off. What has happened to Fox?”

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The interviews came as right-wing provocateurs attempted to seize upon the Note Dame inferno to spread conspiracy theories designed to fuel anti-Muslim hate.

Neo-nazi figurehead Richard Spencer said he hoped the fire would “spur the White man into action”, while French far-right troll Damien Rue and British InfoWars contributor Paul Joseph Watson both claimed without evidence that Muslims were celebrating the ruin of the Catholic cathedral.

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