Fox’s newsroom got an incredibly rare scoop undermining Trump. It may be falling apart.

Wallace Fox News

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Fox's “news” side finally broke some news that is damaging to the Trump administration this weekend. But in true Fox fashion, the network promptly buried its own news, and now the story seems to be falling apart. Worse still, if the report holds up, it’s a devastating commentary on the network’s ethical standards.

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, has been pressuring Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden since earlier this year, citing a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence. Trump currently faces an impeachment inquiry following a whistleblower’s report that he had corruptly leaned on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Giuliani on the probe, in an apparent effort to impact the 2020 presidential campaign.

On Sunday, Fox anchor Chris Wallace appeared to break major news on the story when he reported on Fox News Sunday that Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, a high-profile husband-and-wife team of Republican lawyers who are relentless Trump defenders, “have been working with” Giuliani to dig up “dirt” on Biden in Ukraine. Citing an unnamed “top U.S. official,” Wallace said that the trio has been reporting directly to the president about the “oppo research” they were generating. 

It is vanishingly rare for Fox to produce original reporting that undermines the Trump administration. The network’s “news” side apparatus normally generates reporting that advances Republican narratives, serving up tidbits that Fox opinion hosts use to attack Democrats. Until this weekend, Fox’s big “scoop” on the whistleblower story involved credulously providing a platform for an anonymous administration official to downplay the impact of the pending release of a document detailing the call between Trump and Zelensky -- a report that fared poorly after the damning document was made public.

Several news outlets considered Wallace’s scoop important enough to report on. But true to form, Fox itself has all but ignored it. His report was mentioned only a handful of times on Sunday and Monday morning. FoxNews.com’s homepage similarly downplayed the network’s scoop on Sunday, giving top billing to an interview Giuliani did that day. By Monday morning, the story’s only homepage presence was in a sidebar of Fox “exclusive clips.”

In any case, by midday Monday the story appeared to be on life support. That’s when The Daily Beast reported that diGenova had said that while Giuliani had asked them to represent Ukrainian whistleblowers “who wanted to provide information to U.S. law enforcement,” the representation had never actually occurred, in part because Giuliani canceled a planned trip to Ukraine in May. He further denied that the president had ever been involved in the scheme.

It’s certainly possible that diGenova is lying, that his firm’s work with Ukrainains went further than he is acknowledging and that Trump was read in on it. But Fox already seems to be distancing itself from the report. Rather than defending his work directly, a Fox spokesperson passed on to the Beast Wallace’s own statement that he stands by his single-sourced reporting.

Adding to the confusion, in a Lou Dobbs Tonight segment last week, Toensing took credit for the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovich, a 33-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, had reportedly worked to thwart Giuliani’s effort to push Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 U.S. presidential election. “We got on your show and tried to get rid of her, remember?” Toensing told Lou Dobbs. “And we did.”

Video file

Citation From the September 26 edition of Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight.

Strangely, it might be better for the network if it turns out that one of the most high-profile members of the network’s “news” division blew a high-profile story. If Wallace’s story holds up, it will raise serious questions about his network’s ethical standards, suggesting that Fox hosts -- wittingly or unwittingly -- have allowed Toensing and diGenova to promote conspiracy theories about Ukraine without disclosing that they have clients with an interest in their commentary.

The pro-Trump lawyers are frequent guests on Fox News and Fox Business, making  more than 90 appearances on the networks’ programming thus far this year alone. The pair has played a key role in providing a legal gloss to the conspiracy theories that hosts like Dobbs and Sean Hannity have assembled to provide a counternarrative to reporting about Trump malfeasance generated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, leading to their near-employment on Trump’s legal team. 

In recent months, that Fox commentary has included regular discussions of the Ukraine conspiracy theories that Giuliani has been weaving, beginning with a June 20 appearance of Lou Dobbs Tonight and continuing through Thursday night’s Hannity, during which they did not mention having any “Ukrainian whistleblower” clients. 

Dobbs and Hannity are more than just Fox hosts -- they’re quasi-official Trump advisers, speaking to the president regularly and helping him plot his political and communications strategy. If Toensing and diGenova were representing Ukrainians with an interest in the Biden smears at the time they were making Fox appearances, that raises the question of whether Dobbs or Hannity was aware of that.

Perhaps it’s best for the network if it simply turns out that one of its stars ran a false report about the president.