Fox’s “unmasking” story fell apart, so its propagandists moved on to the next “damning” scandal

The network ran hundreds of segments on the “unmasking” story -- and only three mentioning its collapse

Hannity unmasking

Citation Aubrey Bowler / Media Matters

A story frequently touted by Fox News as evidence of Democratic wrongdoing collapsed on Tuesday when The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had closed an investigation into whether Obama administration officials had improperly “unmasked” the identity of a top adviser to President Donald Trump. Fox hosts had portrayed those events as a sinister plot implicating former President Barack Obama and former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in crimes. But the network’s propagandists haven’t skipped a beat -- or bothered to tell their audience the story they hyped had fallen apart. Instead, they’re already hyping a new scandal they say will be a bombshell, the New York Post’s deeply flawed story about Biden’s son Hunter.

Fox ran at least 250 weekday segments that touched on the “unmasking” story or the broader “Obamagate” conspiracy theory in the month of May alone, according to Media Matters’ database. But that story’s Tuesday unraveling has been mentioned in only three Fox segments, none of which ran in prime time. And by 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Fox had covered the Hunter Biden story in at least 39 segments -- even with the network’s Wednesday daytime hours largely consumed by live coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing. 

Fox’s political coverage is an endless cycle of these pseudo-scandals. Network personalities concoct tales of progressive wrongdoing themselves or pick them up from elsewhere in right-wing media, inflate the story to absurd proportions, spend weeks frothing over it, demand that other media outlets cover it in the same overheated manner, and then ignore the news that the story has inevitably dissolved. Then the cycle begins anew.

The basis of the pro-Trump “unmasking” scandal is simple: In intelligence reports derived from the legal surveillance of foreign targets, analysts routinely anonymize (“mask”) the identities of U.S. persons to protect their privacy. Senior U.S. officials following designated procedures can then request to reveal (“unmask”) those identities in order to better understand the reports. Trump allies have alleged without evidence that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, had been improperly unmasked by Obama administration officials during the presidential transition as part of the wide-ranging “Obamagate” conspiracy theory. 

The right-wing “unmasking” theory took on new urgency in mid-May, when then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified and then released a document listing several dozen “officials who submitted requests” to the NSA between Trump’s election and the end of January 2017 to unmask an identity which turned out to be Flynn. 

While the document showed no actual wrongdoing, Fox’s Trumpists went into overdrive hyping it to their viewers in hundreds of segments. Sean Hannity claimed Grenell had uncovered “the biggest abuse of power scandal in American history” and warned that “the great American republic will disintegrate before your eyes” if the officials involved didn’t face “justice.” For Tucker Carlson, Flynn’s unmasking was a “domestic spying operation” that was “hidden under the pretext of national security” whose perpetrators committed “felonies.” And Fox & Friends hammered the rest of the press for not giving the “huge story” enough attention. 

Amid Fox’s overheated coverage, a DOJ spokesperson revealed on Hannity’s program that Attorney General William Barr had appointed John Bash, a U.S. attorney in Texas, to review whether those Obama-era unmaskings were improper. On Tuesday night, The Washington Post reported on the results of that probe, stating that Bash had “completed his work without finding any substantive wrongdoing” and that the Justice Department would not be filing charges or issuing a formal report.

If you get your news solely from Fox, you are almost certainly unaware that a story the network had trumpeted as evidence of alleged criminality at the highest levels of the Obama administration had fallen apart. The Post’s report that the Justice Department had ended its “unmasking” probe hasn’t been mentioned by Hannity, or Carlson, or the Fox & Friends crew. In fact, it’s been discussed just three times on Fox, garnering one full segment on “straight news” broadcast The Story, less than a minute of discussion during a broader segment on the “straight news” broadcast Special Report, and a brief mention by Juan Williams on the panel show The Five, according to a review of the network’s transcripts.

Instead, all the same Fox propagandists who touted “unmasking” to their audiences have moved on to a new purported tale of Democratic criminality: the New York Post’s Wednesday report which falsely suggests that Joe Biden had corruptly sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to bolster Hunter Biden’s business interests. The central premise of that story is wrong, and the emails it is based on don’t say what the Post says they do and were allegedly obtained through a remarkably sketchy and potentially illegal chain of events involving the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a known conduit for Russian disinformation who Fox’s own “Brain Room” says is unreliable

But no matter -- Fox has already flooded the zone with more than three dozen segments talking up the Post’s findings. Hannity claimed on Wednesday night that the paper had uncovered “an avalanche of damning information” detailing the “corrupt practices” of the “Biden family business.” For Carlson, the story was “entirely accurate” and “damning,” and he went on to speculate that Joe Biden may have become a “rich man” by taking payoffs from foreign governments.” On Fox & Friends, they're complaining that lack of similarly screaming coverage from the rest of the press shows “disdain” for viewers, and demanding that ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos ask Biden about the story at Thursday night’s town hall. 

On Fox, it’s the biggest and most damning story ever -- at least until the next one.