The nonsense “unmasking” saga is a perfect case study for how the right's propaganda machine operates

Hatched by a former Fox correspondent with help from the network’s current Washington editor, the story got lots of attention on Fox. The network then ignored its collapse

Image of Richard Grenell, Bill Barr, and Kerri Kupec

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

In early 2020, Fox News heavily touted the purportedly sinister “unmaskings” of former Donald Trump adviser Michael Flynn during Trump’s presidential transition, presenting those acts as implicating President Barack Obama and his administration in “the biggest abuse of power scandal in American history.” But the network still has not updated its viewers with Tuesday’s revelation that then-Attorney General William Barr received a report in September 2020 concluding that those “unmaskings” had been routine and that no criminal probe was justified. 

The “unmasking” pseudoscandal was a Fox production that demonstrates both the network’s unprecedented intertwining with the Trump administration and how the right-wing’s propaganda machine functions. Former Fox contributor Richard Grenell launched the saga from his post in the Trump administration, and it got an assist from Trump administration official Kerri Kupec, who later joined the network. It received hours of frothy Fox coverage from hosts who described it in the most inflammatory terms possible. And once it was debunked, the network moved on to new attacks without bothering to update their viewers, because its primary purpose is supporting the Republican Party.  

Grenell, a former Fox contributor then serving as acting director of national intelligence due to his personal loyalty to Trump, introduced this iteration of the story in May 2020. He produced a list of senior Obama administration officials who had received Flynn’s name after asking the National Security Agency to reveal through the standard process of “unmasking” the identity of an individual generically referenced in an NSA report. The document, which seemed designed to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign by providing just enough information to attract attention from friendly or insufficiently skeptical media outlets, did not establish that the actions were inappropriate.

But that was enough for Fox, which gave the story wall-to-wall coverage and presented it as a major scandal that undermined special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The network’s demagoguery got a boost from Kupec, who in her role as DOJ spokesperson confirmed during an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox program that Barr had appointed then-U.S. Attorney John Bash to review the case.

The story fell apart in October 2020, when The Washington Post reported that Bash had concluded his probe and would not bring charges — facts that Fox all but ignored at the time. And on Tuesday, Buzzfeed put the nail in the coffin by publishing Bash’s report to Barr, which it obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. In it, Bash wrote that senior Obama officials had not unmasked Flynn “for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons.” Indeed, Bash concluded that contrary to the furious Fox denunciations generated by Grenell’s document, "all but one of the requests that listed a senior official as an authorized recipient of General Flynn’s identity were made by an intelligence professional to prepare for a briefing of the official, not at the direction of the official.”

Why would Barr — through Kupec — publicly announce the “unmasking” probe on the propagandistic Fox show hosted by one of Trump’s closest advisers, but decline to release Bash’s report exonerating Obama officials or publicly clear them? Perhaps because Barr’s self-described primary goal of helping Trump politically by undermining the Russia investigation aligned precisely with Fox’s aims. 

Kupec helped Barr do it as his director of public affairs and counselor to the attorney general — and after Trump left office, she joined Fox. Barr described her in an interview for a December 2020 profile as his “right hand” and “the best public affairs person” he had “ever worked with.” In practice, that meant that she played a key role in Barr’s efforts to use the Justice Department to bolster Trump’s political standing. And just a few months after publishing that glossy profile, Fox announced that it had hired Kupec as its Washington editor. She has no apparent journalism experience, but according to the network’s press release, “will participate in story selection.” 

Her job is apparently still to help push pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the Russia probe, just from a different office. In her old position as a DOJ spokesperson, Kupec helped direct the attention of Fox’s viewers to the “unmasking” allegations; in her new role as Fox's Washington editor, she is shielding them from the story’s collapse.

Barr, meanwhile, has become a fixture on Fox, with 11 weekday appearances on the network since March (he has been interviewed once on CNN and has made no appearance on MSNBC over that period). Notably, he appeared on Jesse Watters’ program on Wednesday night, where he dishonestly spun special counsel John Durham’s failed prosecution of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann as a victory.  

Barr was not asked about the “unmasking” report revealed the previous night, which blew apart Fox’s narrative. On the network his former employee now helps to run, he probably never will be.