Revisiting the Fox “straight news” side’s big whistleblower “exclusive”

Hannity and Henry

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Newsrooms have been feasting since The Washington Post first reported last Monday on the existence of a whistleblower complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general which we now know alleges that President Donald Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times are among the litany of news outlets publishing major scoops that advanced the story, which revolves around Trump abusing his power by asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July phone call to investigate Trump’s political opponent former Vice President Joe Biden.

One newsroom is conspicuously absent: Fox News. Its much-ballyhooed “straight news” division, frequently held up by the Fox brass as evidence the network is more than a pro-Trump propaganda machine, has produced little reporting that substantively advanced the story since it first broke, and what it has generated has diverged little from the official White House line. 

The network’s biggest “exclusive” on the story is a lengthy piece of stenography that was splashed across the homepage of Fox’s website after midnight Wednesday. The flimsy report, featuring a triple byline that includes chief White House correspondent John Roberts and chief national correspondent Ed Henry, credulously advances the spin from a single anonymous “senior Trump administration official” about the pending release of a document detailing the call between Trump and Zelensky. This is journalistically questionable in general, given how frequently the administration officials lie to protect the president. And the story has aged quite poorly, as the actual call memorandum and subsequent reporting unraveled the talking points Fox passed along unchallenged.

Henry detailed the story the night before its release on Fox host Sean Hannity’s prime-time show, after an opening monologue in which the host argued that the launch of an impeachment inquiry in response to the whistleblower's complaint showed that “psychotic anti-Trump hysteria” has “completely overtaken the entire Democratic Party” -- a move that gave the story a wide audience but undermined its credibility. Hannity is a sometime presidential adviser who reportedly speaks with Trump on a near-nightly basis and has been termed the “shadow” chief of staff by White House aides. His program is enmeshed with administration operations and is ground zero for the president’s spin, and on Tuesday, that’s what Henry was providing to the host.

Video file

Citation From the September 24 edition of Fox News' Hannity

Henry reported that the “key information,” according to the single anonymous administration official, was that the intelligence community inspector general “found that the whistleblower had, quote-unquote, ‘political bias’ in favor of a rival candidate of President Trump in 2020.” He went on to say that this contradicted the impression that the whistleblower is “just sort of down the middle and just trying to lay out the facts as they see them about President Trump.” He concluded, “I can guarantee you, based what I'm hearing tonight from this official, that we are going to be hearing a lot more about this tomorrow.” Hannity’s take was that Henry’s report was “huge news.”

It wasn’t. Contrary to Henry’s effort to undermine the whistleblower’s reliability, the intelligence community’s inspector general and top lawyers at the CIA and in the White House had all found his complaint credible.  

Henry was teasing the administration’s pending release of a memorandum for the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence about why the director was not required by statute to transmit the whistleblower’s complaint. But the actual document did little to undermine the whistleblower’s credibility. It stated (emphasis added): “Although the ICIG’s preliminary review found ‘some indicia of an arguable political bias on the part of the Complainant in favor of a rival political candidate, the ICIG concluded that the complaint’s allegations nonetheless appeared credible.” Fox’s administration source had passed along the contention of the whistleblower’s “political bias,” while concealing the conclusion that his “allegations nonetheless appeared credible,” and Henry ran with that tidbit without challenge. 

The New York Times subsequently reported that the whistleblower, a CIA officer who had been detailed to the White House at the time of the call, had also submitted an anonymous complaint to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood. In investigating the complaint, the Times reported, Elwood “learned that multiple people had raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s call,” and she contacted deputy White House counsel John A. Eisenberg. Together they determined that “the accusations had a reasonable basis.”

Henry went on to report on Hannity that his source had reviewed the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky and told him that while there were “a few words in the transcript that are going to raise eyebrows and that are going to cause political headaches for the White House,” “there's absolutely no smoking gun in there that's going to prove anything incriminating or, of course, damaging.” Hannity agreed, saying, “My sources are saying absolutely no quid pro quo. It's like about three lines they were talking about corruption.”

That spin did not survive contact with the release of the incredibly damning call memorandum Wednesday morning, which “shows a commander in chief consumed by conspiracy theories, strong-arming a foreign government to help him politically, and marshaling the federal government in his schemes,” as The Atlantic’s David Graham put it.

Henry and Hannity went on to smear Joe Biden, with little distinction between the representatives of the purported “news” and “opinion” sides.

“I would like to demand that Joe Biden now release all of his conversations that he had when he was vice president with Ukraine, especially now in light of what we learned about Joe Biden bragging on tape about how he leveraged a billion U.S. dollars,” Hannity said. “Why would a vice president of the United States ever want a prosecutor in Ukraine fired?”

“Right,” Henry replied, later adding, “There are a lot of people raising questions about what did Vice President Joe Biden when he was in office, particularly because after he left the office, as you've known, you've played the clip, he boasted about getting that prosecutor fired at a time when the Obama administration, not the Trump administration, was holding aid and loans over the head of the Ukrainian government at that time.”

This attack on Biden has bubbled up from the president’s allies and media propagandists in recent months -- particularly on Hannity’s show -- but it’s been debunked time and again.

The White House got what it wanted from this story. By providing spin to the right-wing network ahead of time, the source ensured that Fox would blanket its airwaves with a message to the president’s base that he had done nothing wrong and the scandal had been overblown. But it’s hard to argue that Henry’s report has been vindicated as a piece of journalism.

And that “exclusive” aside, Fox’s newsroom has largely covered events as they happen rather than advancing the story in new directions. And its commentary has hewed to the White House’s talking points; Trump on Wednesday even tweeted out anchor Bret Baier’s conclusion that the call included no “direct quid pro quo.” Fox’s website -- overseen by Hannity’s former executive producer -- has meanwhile kept its focus on aspects of the story that buttress the president.

That’s how Fox operates. The “news” side is there to provide grist for the “opinion” side to rail against. And with impeachment proceedings underway, both of the network’s divisions are pivoting to preserve the president.