Fox News drew criticism on Thursday over its coverage of the death of Mollie Tibbetts from an unlikely source: one of its own.
Geraldo Rivera, the flamboyant correspondent who appears regularly on "Fox & Friends" and "Hannity," accused his own network of putting "spin" on the Tibbetts story, turning it into a political debate over illegal immigration. Authorities have said that the man accused of killing the Iowa college student entered the country illegally, a piece of information that Rivera said has been inflated, creating a "false impression" about undocumented immigrants more broadly.
"We, at this network, are putting that spin on this story," Rivera told Fox News host Martha MacCallum, who had commented that the suspect never should have been in the country. "This is a murder story. It's not an immigration story."
Rivera said he was well aware that "most of the Fox audience disagrees with me - but I'm begging you to have compassion and not brand this entire population by the deeds of this one person."
The evening segment presented a microcosm of how the tragic death of a 20-year-old woman has fanned the flames of the immigration debate and become a talking point for GOP politicians with hard-line immigration stances, including President Donald Trump. MacCallum argued on behalf of Americans who see the suspect's immigration status as directly related to Tibbetts' death. Rivera argued on behalf of those who believe immigration status has nothing to do with it, that its prominent display in the narrative of Tibbetts' killing runs the risk of painting all undocumented immigrants as threatening.
Lost in the mix are the voices of Tibbetts' family, some of whom have spoken out against attempts to politicize the college student's death. As her aunt told CNN, "I don't want Mollie's memory to get lost amongst politics."
"Mollie Tibbetts would be horrified by the fact that this case is being used against unlawful immigration," Rivera told MacCallum, citing some recent statements from family and friends. "They would be horrified. She wasn't that person. Anyone could have done this. They do it on a daily basis: white people, black people, red people, yellow people. It is horrible that they do these crimes."
Rivera's comments appeared to be triggered in part by an earlier claim from Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R, on Fox News that the media, Democrats and Rivera were "accomplices" in Tibbetts's murder, a claim for which Patrick provided no explanation.
"The CNNs, the MSNBCs, most of the print media in this country and the Democrats, they are all accomplices in the death of this young girl and the death of everyone else. And even Geraldo Rivera," Patrick said toward the end of an interview on "America's Newsroom."
Patrick then appeared to reference earlier statements from Rivera warning against politicizing Tibbetts's death - before challenging Rivera to a TV debate about it.
Rivera accepted. He began his segment with MacCallum saying that Patrick was "stereotyping 11 million people in our country here without documentation." The focus on the suspect's immigration status, he said, "feeds the false impression that this population increases violent crime.
"It is a falsehood and to use this case to make the point is wrong," Rivera said.
Tibbetts was found dead in a cornfield in Brooklyn, Iowa, more than a month after she went on a jog and disappeared. According to a court affidavit, the suspect, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, told police he saw Tibbetts while she was on her run along a country road, parked his car and decided to follow her. Eventually, Tibbetts noticed and threatened to call the police, and that is when he "panicked and got mad." But then he claimed he blacked out.
The next thing Bahena Rivera claims to remember is that he found a headphone piece in his lap, and then realized he put Tibbetts in his trunk, according to the affidavit. He found her with blood on her head, he said. Then, he dragged her into the corn and covered her body in the stalks, he told police.
Revelations from authorities that Bahena Rivera was undocumented led to immediate responses from GOP politicians. (His defense attorney, Allan M. Richards, has disputed claims his client was in the country illegally.)
Trump used the opportunity to ratchet up support for the border wall and slam Democrats for inaction on immigration legislation.
"A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her," Trump said in a Wednesday video message posted to Twitter. "We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren't going to do it."
"If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble," former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich told Axios in an email.
The Tibbetts case recalled the death of Kate Steinle, who was fatally shot in San Francisco in 2015 by a Mexican national, a felon who had been deported multiple times. Steinle's death became a flash point amid a contentious debate over "sanctuary cities," such as San Francisco. Lawmakers quickly blamed Steinle's death on the sanctuary city policy, turning the tragedy into ammunition that would be used to condemn such policies throughout the country.
The suspect, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted of murder and involuntary manslaughter charges and convicted only of being a felon in possession of a firearm. His defense attorney had claimed the shooting was a result of an accidental weapon discharge.
"You just hope it ends one day," Steinle's father, Jim, told the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to the use of his daughter's name in America's immigration debate. "I don't know when."