Fox News is now pushing a dishonest spin of a phone call that President Joe Biden had in July with then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, reported on Tuesday by Reuters, discussing ideas for the government of Afghanistan to survive against the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Through sheer force of will and imagination by Fox’s propagandists, the network is now comparing the call to a real political scandal in which former President Donald Trump attempted to use a foreign government as a political tool against his own domestic opposition.
Not only that, but this series of right-wing talking points — both distorting the plain reading of the Reuters article, and dreaming up a comparison to Trump’s first impeachment — originated from Fox’s supposed “straight news” side and have circulated back and forth between figures on the network’s opinion side and other Murdoch-owned media voices. Just on Thursday afternoon, for example, the false comparisons and talk of impeachment have come from both Fox News contributor and former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Fox News anchor John Roberts.
The reason why such an extreme narrative can circulate between these supposedly different two sides is really very simple: Fox doesn’t have a news side, just a different mask to put on its opinion commentary.
What the Reuters article actually said
An honest reading of the Reuters article from Tuesday would highlight the ways in which the Biden administration was still attempting to salvage the U.S.-backed Afghan government’s chances on July 23, deploying air strikes and offering more aid if Ghani could achieve his own share of the work:
In the call, Biden offered aid if Ghani could publicly project he had a plan to control the spiraling situation in Afghanistan. “We will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is,” Biden said. Days before the call, the U.S. carried out air strikes to support Afghan security forces, a move the Taliban said was in violation of the Doha peace agreement.
Right-wing commentators have zeroed in on just one section of the Reuters article, trying to accuse Biden of telling the former Afghan president to lie about the situation. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden said. “And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
But from the very next paragraphs in the Reuters article, it is clear Biden was talking about changing the “perception” of things going wrong by making clear moves to change the situation itself.
Biden told Ghani that if Afghanistan’s prominent political figures were to give a press conference together, backing a new military strategy, “that will change perception, and that will change an awful lot I think.”
The American leader’s words indicated he didn’t anticipate the massive insurrection and collapse to come 23 days later. “We are going to continue to fight hard, diplomatically, politically, economically, to make sure your government not only survives, but is sustained and grows,” said Biden.
Fox News compares this to Trump’s attempt to force another country to slander his own domestic opponents (yes, really)
The regular line from Fox’s propagandists has been that Biden was telling the then-Afghan president to lie about the situation. But others have gotten more creative, comparing this call to a major scandal from the Trump years: the phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to the former president’s first impeachment.
For a quick trip down memory lane: Trump was first impeached in late 2019, following revelations that he had threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless that country’s government announced an investigation against then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. The investigation would have involved a series of false accusations that Biden had forced Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating a company linked to Biden’s son Hunter. (In fact, the prosecutor was not actually investigating the company at all, and the international community had wanted him removed because of corruption.)
At the time, Fox News served a major role in spreading propaganda to build up political support for Trump’s acquittal in the Republican-led Senate.
Fox began the spin with its “straight news” side, ironically accusing Biden of “pushing a false narrative”
The spin began Wednesday afternoon, when Fox News White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki whether Biden had been “pushing a false narrative” in the phone call with Ghani.
Anchor Martha MacCallum later spoke with Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, who said initially that the call was “not a good look,” but the two presidents were “talking as two people who still think that this can be turned around,” and that Biden was indeed saying the same things on the call as his public positions.
MacCallum, however, simply read back the selected quotes from the Reuters article and reasserted that the call “is problematic for” Biden, thus sticking with the network’s series of talking points.
Then on The Five, Fox News anchor Shannon Bream invoked a comparison between Biden’s phone call about shoring up the Afghan government’s position and Trump’s call about having the Ukrainian government investigate his own political opponent. In an odd turn, Biden was defended by Fox News correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera — famous for his own colorful (and even threatening) language against the unnamed whistleblower two years ago.
But Rivera did not question the misleading comparison in his defense. He simply argued that both calls were equally good.
On Special Report with Bret Baier, Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway made the connection explicit: “Yeah, we impeached a president for a phone call, and now we have this leak of a phone call that President Biden had where he asked someone to lie in exchange for military support. It sounds like something that last year would have caused major problems for the previous president.”
And on Thursday morning, Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy claimed that Biden had “threatened to withhold military aid” fromAfghanistan, adding: “If that sounds kind of familiar — a president threatening to withhold aid on a call with a foreign leader — it's because that’s pretty much the same exact thing that Democrats chose to impeach President Trump over when he phoned Ukraine a couple years back.”
“Great point, Peter,” responded his father, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy.
On Thursday’s edition of The Faulkner Focus, guest anchor Julie Banderas promoted the latest opinion column from one of Fox’s corporate cousins, Miranda Devine at the New York Post. Devine asserted that Biden’s phone call with Ghani was an impeachable offense. Devine’s column also referred to “a reporter” having asked Psaki a question about the call — leaving out the fact that the reporter in question was Fox’s Jacqui Heinrich, and thus one of Devine’s colleagues.
“Was the president in any way pushing a false narrative in that call?” a reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki Wednesday after the Reuters story broke.
“I am not going to go into the details of a private conversation,” she replied.
Hah! That sure wasn’t the Democrats’ standard when they impeached Donald Trump last year over a leaked phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. That was when Trump was accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate credible allegations that Biden had pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor investigating a company that had paid Joe’s son Hunter $4 million.
Given Devine’s repetition of an accusation against Biden, it is also worth remembering that reporters from The Wall Street Journal, one of Fox’s other corporate relatives, debunked these claims back in September 2019. Those reports noted that the Ukrainian prosecutor in question was no longer investigating the company at the time of his firing — indeed, one of the complaints against him was that he had sabotaged the investigation. Nonetheless, the claims were continuously repeated by the Journal’s opinion pages and other Murdoch outlets. (On a variety of topics, in fact, the Journal’s news pages are routinely ignored and contradicted by both the paper’s opinion section as well as Fox’s own “straight news” coverage.)
Fox’s “news” and “opinion” sides are indistinguishable
And for a final demonstration of the network’s commitment to this talking point, by Thursday afternoon former Trump staffer McEnany claimed: “President Biden said he needed a plan from the Afghan president about how to change the perception, and he went on to it seems leverage military aid over this plan, saying, quote, ‘We will continue to provide close air support if we know what the plan is and what we are doing.’ That seems like a quid pro quo. And this transcript, to me — it’s the first time I've said it during this presidency — it seems like an impeachable offense.”
Then in the next hour, Fox’s purported “straight news” anchor John Roberts rhetorically asked: “You have a U.S. president asking a foreign president for something — possibly even to lie — with the condition of American military support on the line. And I'm wondering, where are the Democrats, and why are they not lining up to impeach him?”
The real question: If a person didn’t already know which quote was which, could they even tell McEnany and Roberts apart?