More than any other news outlet in the country, Fox News had a responsibility to cover the Justice Department’s declaration that there is no evidence to justify President Donald Trump’s March lie that President Barack Obama had illegally wiretapped his communications during the 2016 presidential election. But after the network’s hosts and contributors spent weeks trying to defend the president’s baseless charge -- to the point that their reporting triggered an international incident -- the network has given only 30 seconds of airtime to DOJ’s revelation last Friday that the claim was bunk.
On the morning of Saturday, March 4, Trump tweeted that Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” shortly before the 2016 election, which the president deemed “McCarthyism” and “A NEW LOW!” Trump provided no evidence for his charge, which seems to have been based on a right-wing radio rumor that had been highlighted by Breitbart.com. Over the next few weeks, the president’s claim was denied by Obama’s spokesperson, his director of national intelligence, the directors of the National Security Agency and FBI, and the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. And then this past Friday, Trump’s Justice Department stated in a court filing that there was no evidence to support his claim.
The Justice Department’s disclosure should be a big deal. “Make no mistake, this information is embarrassing. It's embarrassing because the president said something that wasn't true at all and the federal government knew it wasn't true back in March when [then-FBI director James] Comey testified, and your taxpayer dollars keep being used to investigate this fiction,” CNN’s Jake Tapper explained on Tuesday. “The Trump administration has made any number of attempts to try to force the claim into somewhere near the possibility of a neighborhood of maybe true. ... But the bottom line is and always has been there is no evidence that Donald Trump was wiretapped by Barack Obama. It was and continues to be a lie, and no holiday weekend Friday night document dump is going to cover that up.”
Many mainstream news outlets covered the DOJ’s declaration, though it did not receive the level of full-spectrum attention one might expect from a federal agency effectively acknowledging that the president made up an attack on his predecessor. As Tapper suggests, the disclosure on a Friday evening before a holiday weekend likely played a role in the coverage; other breaking stories, such as continuing coverage of Hurricane Harvey, also probably had an impact.
But while both CNN and MSNBC found time to cover the wiretapping story over the weekend and into this week, Fox has been entirely uninterested in examining the president’s embarrassment.* The network’s coverage of the Justice Department’s disclosure came in a single 30-second Saturday night news brief:
Trump’s charge was always an easily identifiable lie. But the pro-Trump pundits at Fox -- who are always eager to push an attack on Obama, no matter how far-fetched -- rallied around the president in the days after he issued the claim, desperately searching for ways to justify his claim.
Sean Hannity led the charge, tweeting, “What did OBAMA know and when did he know it??” in response to Trump’s initial tweet, and devoting time in every broadcast the following week to defending Trump’s lie. Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news show, also played a key role, seeking to support Trump by mainstreaming conspiracy theories from the dregs of the internet.
The network’s effort to bend over backward to defend the president’s lie culminated when senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano reported that Obama had enlisted a British intelligence service to spy on Trump. Napolitano’s claim, which appeared to have originated with the state-sponsored Russian news network RT, was subsequently cited by then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to defend Trump; was publicly denied by the British intelligence service; led to a “diplomatic row” between the two countries; was cited by Trump himself as evidence he had been right; and was repudiated by Fox, with anchor Shep Smith saying the network could not confirm Napolitano’s reporting. The senior judicial analyst received a brief suspension -- when he returned to the Fox airwaves roughly two weeks later, Napolitano said he still stood by his claims.
After doing its best to back up Trump’s baseless claim that Obama wiretapped him, Fox had a responsibility to tell its viewers the truth. Instead, the network is mostly hiding the federal government’s own repudiation of the charge.
* Coverage was assessed by searching all three networks’ transcripts via the Nexis and SnapStream databases.