How Fox News manufactured a Hillary Clinton spying scandal
With the walls tightening in on Trump, desperate times call for desperate segments.
It’s been a bad month for Trump. He’s under mounting legal pressure thanks to progressing criminal investigations in Georgia and New York, his longtime accounting firm just dropped him in a highly suspicious manner, and he’s been in the news for mishandling classified information so egregiously that the DOJ might have to get involved.
But he still has something very important going for him — Fox News.
Instead of covering Trump’s scandals — which they succeed in ignoring almost completely — Fox News/Business is desperately trying to turn reality on its head by manufacturing a scandal about Hillary Clinton spying on the Trump campaign and White House.
If you think that sounds too absurd to take seriously, you are correct. But the right-wing network isn’t about to let facts get in the way of its preferred narrative. And they’re accusing other outlets who aren’t going along with them of being part of a coverup.
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Let’s start with a quick look at the relevant facts. A new court filing from John Durham, the special counsel appointed by then-AG Bill Barr to investigate Trump’s investigators, alleges that “a tech executive [Rodney Joffe] ‘exploited’ his access to computer data at the Trump White House to find ‘derogatory information’ about President Donald Trump” and his connections with Russia, as NBC puts it. Joffe then passed that information along to a client, an attorney associated with the Clinton campaign named Michael Sussmann. Sussmann then passed it along to the CIA in February 2017 without disclosing his connection with Joffe.
The “derogatory information” in question did not involve hacking or any other sort of possible criminal activity. It was the product of Joffe’s lawful access to domain name system (DNS) data. So, ultimately, this is not a big deal. You can argue that Sussmann, who’s one of only two people to face charges in connection with the Durham probe, should’ve been more transparent. But nothing going on rises anywhere near the level of “SPYING” or being “far worse than Watergate.”
But in its never-quenched thirst for Clinton scandals, and doubtless wanting to deflect from the all the bad news floating around Trump, that sort of hyperbole is exactly what Fox News is going with. After Trump released a statement on Saturday reacting to the Durham filing by suggesting that unnamed people associated with the Clinton campaign should be put to death (“in a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death”), Fox News sprang into action.
They did so by sexing up the story in a remarkably dishonest way. The headline of Fox News’s big online writeup of the Durham revelation claims “Clinton campaign paid to 'infiltrate' Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” But in reality the word “infiltrate” appears nowhere in Durham’s court filing, so characterizing it as a “finding” of his is misleading to put it charitably.
You have to read all the way to the bottom of the Fox News article to learn that the “infiltrate” line actually comes from former Trump administration official Kash Patel, who told Fox News in an interview that the filing “definitively shows that the Hillary Clinton campaign directly funded and ordered its lawyers at Perkins Coie to orchestrate a criminal enterprise to fabricate a connection between President Trump and Russia” — an explosive allegation that in no way is backed up by the document in question. But Fox News referenced it in the headline to misrepresent the story as worse for Clinton than it really is.
The coverage has only gotten more dishonest from there. On Monday night, both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity told a fairy tale about the Clinton campaign hacking the Trump campaign and White House, with Hannity describing the Durham revelation as “the biggest election and presidential spying scandal in the history of this great country.”
Meanwhile, Republican elected officials like Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson gave exclusive interviews to the network in order to support the same lies pushed by hosts, further legitimizing the story within the channel’s propaganda echo chamber and the huge right-wing media ecosphere that takes its lead.
Over a 24-hour period beginning Monday morning, “infiltrate” was mentioned at least 47 times on Fox News and Fox Business programming. Meanwhile, hosts repeatedly criticized other cable networks for not covering the fake scandal. That talking point made it all the way to a notoriously dishonest RNC Twitter account (and for what it’s worth both CNN and MSNBC did actually cover the filing).
Given the complexities involved, it’s relatively easy for Fox News to lie to viewers about the Durham stuff and trust those viewers not to try to get to the bottom of it themselves. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’d be nice if mainstream outlets were willing to call them out on it.
Let’s dispel once and for all with the myth that Fox News is doing journalism
Fox News’s handling of the Durham filing is textbook bad faith. Its anchors and producers took a kernel from a court filing, lied about it, and exaggerated it until it was completely distinct from reality.
And yet mainstream outlets continue to pull punches when it comes to describing Fox News for what it is — propaganda.
Consider Charlie Savage’s piece in the New York Times about Fox’s coverage of the Durham filing. The piece uses a breathtaking range of euphemisms to avoid just coming out and saying that Fox News is lying. “[T]heir narrative is off track,” they’re “mostly wrong,” they gave “a misleading presentation,” they “inaccurately declared,” and they are “skewed.”
“The latest alarmist claims about spying on Trump appeared to be flawed, but the explanation is byzantine — underlining the challenge for journalists in deciding what merits coverage,” reads the piece’s sub-headline, as if Fox News is actually engaged in journalism.
To be clear, once you get past the euphemisms, Savage’s piece is actually quite good. He explains, for instance, that the White House data in question actually predated Trump and was collected during the Obama era (recall that Russians hacked White House systems in 2015 and ‘16, so there were legitimate concerns about Russia infiltrating White House computer systems) — a timeline undercutting the idea that Trump was a target. Savage also notes that the filing doesn’t indicate Joffe’s company was being paid by the Clinton campaign, meaning chyrons like the one below are more than one kind of lie.
Why does it matter that the Times won’t call a lie a lie? Because while Times readers may not be as immersed in it as I am, an average of 1.3 million people are plugged in to an alternate Fox News universe where Trump is a victim, Hillary Clinton is a criminal, the Russia investigation was a hoax, and a fake spying scandal is not only bigger than Watergate but validates all of Trump’s lies about being surveilled by Obama and other Democrats. This is the top-rated “news” channel in the country, and Democrats don’t have access to anything like it. (I should note that while it has a much smaller audience than Fox, Newsmax’s Durham coverage has been just as bad.)
These aren’t journalists grappling with complex questions about how best to do their crafts — these are propagandists pulling out all the stops to protect Trump, facts be damned. We should be way past the point of giving them the benefit of the doubt.