It was a conspiracy that Fox News portrayed as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — political scandals in American history.
Tucker Carlson called it a “domestic spying operation” that was “hidden under the pretext of national security.” Laura Ingraham characterized top Obama administration officials as having been “exposed.” And Sean Hannity flatly declared it to be the “biggest abuse of power, corruption scandal” the country had ever seen.
That was back in May. This week, however, the conspiracy theory collapsed when The Washington Post reported that a Justice Department investigation into the supposed scandal quietly ended with no charges.
The narrative pushed by Fox News was centered on the routine intelligence practice of “unmasking.” A document declassified in May by then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, who has been criticized by Democrats and career intelligence officials as the most overtly political person to serve in the position, revealed that several Obama administration officials had “unmasked” a US citizen mentioned in intelligence reports.
Information about Americans is anonymized in US intelligence reports for privacy reasons. But there are instances when US officials who read these reports need to see the full picture. To make that happen, they need to provide a justification to the intelligence agency that produced the report. If the agency grants that request, the information is “unmasked,” and the name is revealed.
The person in the intelligence reports ended up being Michael Flynn, who served as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor before being fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia. The Obama officials who requested the “unmasking” of the US citizen, however, wouldn’t have known Flynn’s identity until after he had been “unmasked.”
During the transition, Flynn’s name would’ve appeared in intelligence reports because of his highly irregular contacts with foreign officials, including phone calls with the Russian ambassador and a meeting with a delegation from the United Arab Emirates. Obama-era national security officials have said they “unmasked” Flynn while trying to decipher these unorthodox diplomatic dealings.
While the procedure of “unmasking” is commonplace in national security matters, happening thousands of times each year, right-wing media portrayed the act as nefarious. The essence of the narrative they pushed was that President Barack Obama and members of his administration, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, participated in a “deep state” plot to improperly use the levers of government to win the 2016 election. The supposed scandal was colloquially referred to by its proponents as “OBAMAGATE.”
Attorney General William Barr eventually commissioned a federal prosecutor to look into the matter. The Post reported on Tuesday that the inquiry ended without finding substantive wrongdoing and that the probe’s findings would likely disappoint conservatives who believed “unmasking” was tied to a political conspiracy against Trump.
News that Trump’s Justice Department had concluded without charges being filed landed with a thud on Fox News. Martha MacCallum covered it on her Tuesday night show, but a search of transcripts did not turn up any other instances in which Fox covered it on air. The story was briefly featured on Fox News’ homepage before being removed Wednesday afternoon. Even when it was featured on the network’s website, it was not given the same play as the initial unmasking stories were in May.
The episode marks yet another instance in which Fox News and its hosts have dishonestly hyped an innocuous national security procedure into a supposed scandal, only to later watch it quietly fall apart before moving on to feed something else to their audience.
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
It’s difficult to overstate how much Fox News promoted the unmasking story in May, never mind promoting it as an insidious plot against Trump.
As the coronavirus death toll neared 100,000 people in the US, Fox News practically dumped coverage of the disease to focus on “OBAMAGATE.” After Grenell declassified the related documents in May, mentions of key words related to the supposed scandal spiked on the conservative network as mentions of words related to the coronavirus dropped.
And it wasn’t just pro-Trump propagandists on Fox News, such as Hannity and Ingraham, who went all in on the story. Fox News anchors such as Bret Baier, who the network promotes as covering the news in a no-nonsense “straight news” way, also elevated the story on their programs.
Baier, for instance, hosted the right-wing commentator Mollie Hemingway to discuss the supposed scandal without challenging her assertions, despite them being out of lockstep with what the national security community was saying.
The topic was featured in countless other news segments on the network in which pundits would chew over the declassified documents.