This isn’t the first time lately that the news side of Fox has pushed back on the opinion side on a point about Ukraine. A few days ago Greg Gutfeld complained on “The Five” that the media was exploiting the horrors there to draw an “emotional” response from viewers, leading to this rebuke:
After Greg Gutfeld said the media is airing emotionally manipulating viewers on Ukraine to push a narrative, Fox News correspondent Benjamin Hall pushes back:
“Speaking as someone on the ground, I want to say that this is not the media trying to drum up some emotional response.” pic.twitter.com/QFom203TCB
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 8, 2022
Days before that, Russia apologist Doug Macgregor went on Fox and said … a lot of things, asserting without evidence that Putin has no interest in taking western Ukraine. Fox reporter Jennifer Griffin appeared later in the same hour and fact-checked him at length. (“What he just said was so distorted that I do feel that our audience needs to know the truth.”) Two days later Tucker Carlson praised Macgregor by observing, “Unlike so many of the so-called reporters you see on television, he is not acting secretly as a flack for Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon.”
Was that a dig at Griffin? Tucker’s not above taking shots at members of this own network’s news team, don’t forget.
Last night it happened again. Carlson began his show with a long monologue about Russia’s claims that the U.S. is operating bioweapons facilities in Ukraine. (You can watch here or read the transcript.) That’s a longstanding Russian allegation, of a piece with the Kremlin spreading disinformation in the 1980s about HIV having been manufactured in a U.S. lab. Russia wants the world to believe we’re making bioweapons across their border for various reasons, starting with the fact that it provides false-flag cover for Russia itself to deploy a biological weapon against Ukrainains if they eventually go that route. It also conveniently allows Russia to blame America if disease begins spreading naturally in Ukraine, as frequently happens in war zones. And it gives Moscow an Iraq-style pretext for its invasion: Surely if the Ukrainians are working on WMD with their evil American patrons, Russia has good reason to perceive a threat.
Against all odds, the bioweapon claims was credulously received last night on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Or rather, it was credulously received after State Department bigwig Victoria Nuland confirmed it in testimony yesterday — sort of. Here’s what Nuland said:
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Does Ukraine have chemical or biological weapons?
VICTORIA NULAND: Ukraine has a biological research facilities, which, In fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of. So, we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.
Biological research facilities containing dangerous pathogens? Tucker was astounded. The Russians — and also the Chinese, he made a point of saying — were right, he marveled, dismissing the difference between bioweapons programs and research facilities containing dangerous germs as a distinction without a difference.
An hour later, Griffin appeared on Sean Hannity’s show:
Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin expertly dismantles Russian propaganda about bio-labs in Ukraine
“Those are Soviet-era bio-labs that the U.S. has been engaged [in] since 2005” as a way to clean up and convert what the Soviets left behind, essentially de-proliferate Soviet-era weapons pic.twitter.com/dvjeuP4SyZ
— Nicholas Fondacaro (@NickFondacaro) March 10, 2022
The “debate” over U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine isn’t a debate about bioweapons at all, of course. It’s not even a debate about how much you should trust the U.S. government, the only source for information on what’s happening in these labs. Any conservative worth his salt when asked how much the federal government should be trusted would say, “Not much.”
The actual “debate” here is this: Should you trust the U.S. government more than you trust the Russian government? Carlson’s answer, implicitly and characteristically, is no. Griffin’s answer, and the answer most Americans would give, is yes.
The Dispatch has a nice explainer today about the Ukrainian labs. They’re not new and they’re not secret.
There are laboratories in Ukraine that receive funding from the U.S. government as part of the defense threat reduction program. The USSR had a massive secret biological weapons program known as Biopreparat, and when the USSR collapsed the scientists and facilities did not just evaporate. The U.S. program, run as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, provides funding to prevent the proliferation of bioweapons and make sure that the next plague does not emerge accidentally from an old Soviet lab. This involves helping make sure scientists with the skills that could be used to create bioweapons stay at home and work on important medical research instead (so they are less likely to get poached by higher-paid gigs in China, or Iran, or North Korea, for example). This program involves upgrading the facilities in the former USSR where the remnants of the Soviet bioweapons program might lay in order to ensure their security and guard against theft or accidental leaks.
In fact, just days before Russia began its propaganda barrage about these documents, the head of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program Robert Pope expressed concern about the effects of the war in Ukraine. In an interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Pope said that he did not believe that Russian forces would deliberately target any of the Ukrainian biolabs because they “know enough about the kinds of pathogens that are stored in biological research laboratories,” However, Pope was concerned that the facilities could be damaged by conflict, which could lead to disastrous consequences.
That’s why the U.S. and the Ukrainians are rushing to destroy pathogens in the lab as the Russians advance. It’s not a matter of “covering up evidence,” it’s a matter of not wanting anything to escape the lab if a Russian shell should accidentally hit it. We’ve already seen one near-miss on a Ukrainian facility hosting a weapon of mass death, remember.
Again, not only is this not a secret, the U.S. has acknowledged the labs before — including during the Trump administration, Greg Sargent notes. And even if you’re disinclined to believe Trump’s State Department, basic common sense points to an innocent explanation for the facilities. As Dispatch reporter Andrew Fink says, it would be batty for the U.S. to outsource something as sensitive as a bioweapons program to a country that’s crawling with Russian spies and which contains many Russian sympathizers. (Although far fewer now than it did two weeks ago.) We’d be asking for trouble, whether Russian penetration of the lab or a Wuhan-style accident that brings about a global pandemic. It makes no sense.
But the idea is useful to forces foreign and domestic grasping for ways to portray Russia as a victim of murderous American aggression rather than a perpetrator of murderous aggression against Ukraine. Here’s one of Moscow’s propagandists today accusing the U.S. of some sort of plot to spread disease via birds, which I assume refers to Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. It’s totally possible that the labs had samples of that virus; what’s less possible is American and Ukrainian officials thinking it’d be a good idea to unleash it on the Ukrainian population.
The chief spokesman for #Russia‘s Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said the #US had a plan to use migratory birds to spread biological pathogens from #Ukraine to #Russia. pic.twitter.com/COkslq9uNE
— DRM Journal (@remilitari) March 10, 2022