Media

Over a Three-Week Span, Fox Spent 12 Hours on a Phony Scandal

Trump propagandist Sean Hannity led the way with almost three and a half hours of Uranium One coverage.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his program on the night of October 17 by promising “explosive new evidence on what is becoming the biggest scandal -- or at least one of them -- in American history.” Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russia has captured the attention of the mainstream press. But Hannity, a fervent fan and sometime adviser to the president, focused his audience on what he termed a “big bombshell” from The Hill on the “real Russia collusion story.” Hillary Clinton, Hannity claimed, had “sold out America to the Russians” by approving the Russian nuclear energy agency’s 2010 acquisition of Uranium One, a company with licenses to extract U.S. uranium. According to the Fox host, Clinton had benefited from Russian government bribes and then the Obama administration had covered it all up. The story was so damning, Hannity said, that Mueller and Congress should shut down their Trump probes immediately and instead focus on the allegations against Clinton.

Hannity’s segment was the first in what became a network obsession. Over the past three weeks, Fox has spent nearly 12 hours discussing Uranium One. Trump himself seized on the story, at first directly responding to the network’s coverage. And Hannity’s demand that Congress “do its job” was answered within days when House Republicans launched an investigation into the deal.

The problem, of course, is that the Uranium One story is a bogus conspiracy theory, a sloppy mishmash of shoddy reporting, fabrications, and motivated reasoning whose central premise -- that Clinton played a role in the deal -- has been debunked. The president and his allies in Congress and in the conservative press -- particularly at Fox News -- have created a phony scandal to divert attention away from Trump’s Russia ties, focus criticism instead on their longtime foe Clinton, and justify calls to remove Mueller from his post.

In this report:

  • In the three weeks from October 17 through November 6, Fox News devoted about 11 hours and 49 minutes to the Uranium One story (all times in this write-up were rounded to the minute). Ten hours and 47 minutes of the coverage came in the first two weeks of that period.
  • Hannity spent three hours and 27 minutes on the story, which was 29 percent of the network’s total coverage. The program covered Uranium One in 14 of 15 possible broadcasts over the term of the study.
  • Other programs devoting the most time to the story were Fox & FriendsAmerica’s Newsroom, and Tucker Carlson Tonight, each with roughly an hour of coverage, and Justice with Judge Jeanine, a once-a-week program that nonetheless totaled 52 minutes.
  • Fox host Shep Smith did not mention the story on his weekday afternoon news program.
  • Over the first week, the network combined for three hours and 46 minutes of Uranium One coverage, led by their pro-Trump opinion hosts.
  • Fox aired six hours and 54 minutes of coverage during the second week as the network’s “news” shows reported on GOP congressional actions that likely came in response to the network’s “opinion” shows. The higest single-day total was on October 26, the day the Justice Department announced a key witness could testify to Congress, when 11 programs combined to give Uranium One more than two hours of coverage
  • The network's coverage receded to one hour and nine minutes in the third week.

Conservative author and Breitbart.com writer Peter Schweizer and his boss Steve Bannon launched the Uranium One tale in Schweizer’s 2015 bookClinton Cash. Schweizer alleged that Hillary Clinton played a "central role" in approving the Russian atomic nuclear agency’s purchase of the mining company. He suggested that Clinton did so because Russians and people linked to the deal had given money to the Clinton Foundation and to Bill Clinton. A panoply of conservative media figures pushed Schweizer’s allegation; Trump himself parroted it on the campaign trail. But the conspiracy theory fell apart when examined by reporters, not least because there was no evidence Hillary Clinton had actually intervened.

Following Trump’s election, the story became dormant, mentioned only by pro-Trump propagandists like Hannity, who would use it to deflect attention from the mounting evidence that Trump’s associates had colluded with Russia during the campaign, claiming that the Uranium One deal proved Clinton guilty of the “real collusion.”

The story re-emerged thanks to John Solomon, the executive vice president of The Hill, whose reporting is frequently cited by Trump’s media allies because it feeds their paranoia about a “deep state” conspiracy targeting the president. In an October 17 story, he cited anonymous sources to suggest that Clinton had approved the Uranium One deal because of Russian bribes that had been investigated by the FBI but covered up by the Obama administration. These claims quickly collapsed under scrutiny, with Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noting that the “fatal flaw in this allegation is Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, did not participate in any discussions regarding the Uranium One sale.”

This did not deter the feedback loop between Fox News, Trump, and congressional Republicans. Over the following weeks, overwrought coverage from the network’s pro-Trump hosts would trigger responses from the president and the House GOP, which in turn led the network’s “news” team to give the story substantial attention. While the coverage has since subsided, an ongoing congressional witch hunt could provide the network with fodder for years to come.

C-Span’s Steve Scully asked Clinton about the allegations by Hannity and Trump during an interview about her book last month. Clinton responded by calling the claims “baloney” and noting that they have been “debunked repeatedly and will continue to be debunked.” “But here’s what they’re doing,” she added. “Trump and his allies, including Fox News, are really experts at distraction and diversion. So the closer the investigation about real Russian ties between Trump associates and real Russians [gets], … the more they want to just throw mud on the wall, and I’m their favorite target.”

She’s right.

Who covered Uranium One at Fox

Fox gave Uranium One nearly 12 hours of coverage over three weeks

Thirty Fox programs covered the story for a total of 11 hours and 49 minutes in the three weeks from October 17 through November 6. In the first two weeks of that period, the network devoted 10 hours and 47 minutes to Uranium One.

Hannity led the charge with more than three hours of coverage

Sean Hannity’s program devoted three hours and 27 minutes to the story. That total is more than two hours over that of Fox & Friends, which had the second highest amount. Even that comparison grossly underestimates Hannity’s obsession, as he accomplished the feat in a third of the time -- the Fox morning show runs for three hours each day, not a single hour like Hannity. Hannity’s coverage amounts to 29 percent of the network’s total coverage of Uranium One.

Hannity covered the deal in 14 of his 15 episodes during the period studied. The sole exception came on October 20, when he instead aired a special tribute to the Las Vegas mass shooting victims featuring musical performances and interviews with victims and first responders. Hannity hosted Solomon eight times during that period. Victoria Toensing, a right-wing lawyer who is representing a former FBI informant related to the case, appeared on the program five times.

The pro-Trump propagandist’s Uranium One coverage should be viewed as part of his dark and authoritarian push to end criminal investigations into the activities of Trump and his associates and instead pursue charges against the president’s foes. Night after night, he’s castigated the media for not pursuing the story and explicitly stated that wants congressional hearings into the deal and a federal criminal investigation into Clinton. He’s also repeatedly used the story to push for Mueller’s resignation as special counsel because Mueller was FBI director at the time the deal occurred. As the Fox host put in on October 24, “There's no way the American people can trust Robert Mueller to investigate anything Russian-related; to be fair and impartial, it's impossible, because of his past role in this. He should resign immediately, tonight.”

Trump himself would later adopt Hannity’s talking points, calling Uranium One “the biggest story that Fake Media doesn't want to follow” and “Watergate, modern-age.”

Trump’s allies at Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson, and Jeanine Pirro all heavily covered the story 

Fox & Friends covered Uranium One during 10 of its 15 episodes during the period of the study, for a total of one hour and nine minutes. This constituted 10 percent of Fox’s total Uranium One coverage during the period. 

Tucker Carlson Tonight covered the story during eight of its 15 episodes, for a total of an hour, or 8 percent of the network’s total coverage. 

Justice with Jeanine Pirro is a weekly program that aired only three times during the course of the study but nonetheless accumulated 52 minutes of coverage, the fifth-highest total at the network and 7 percent of Fox’s total Uranium One coverage during the period.

The hosts of each of these programs are among the president’s staunchest defenders on cable news. In particular, the president regularly watches Fox & Friends and praises its coverage. 

America’s Newsroom provided the most coverage among the network’s “news” programs 

Among the programs Fox presents as “news” rather than “opinion” programming, the two-hour weekday morning show America’s Newsroom was the clear leader in Uranium One coverage, with one hour and four minutes across eight editions. The one-hour weekday shows Special Report with Bret Baier and Happening Now provided significantly less coverage, with 19 minutes over four broadcasts and 11 minutes across three broadcasts, respectively. 

Shep Smith has not touched the story 

Fox anchor Shep Smith, whose work stands out at Fox for its commitment to accuracy and who at times has directly or indirectly criticized other Fox personalities for pushing falsehoods in support of Trump, notably did not mention the Uranium One story at all during the period of the study. The story was discussed on his Shepard Smith Reporting show for two minutes on October 27, when Trace Gallagher guest-hosted the program. 

When Fox covered Uranium One

Week one (Oct. 17 - Oct. 23): Story surfaces with Fox’s pro-Trump hosts 

In the first week after The Hill’s story broke, the Uranium One fever spread from Hannity to several of the network’s other pro-Trump hosts, with only occasional mentions on Fox’s daytime “news” hours. Hannity showed how excited he was about the story immediately after its October 17 publication:

That night, Hannity devoted his opening monologue to the story. He also discussed the allegations with Solomon, in an interview with Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich, and in another segment featuring Schweizer and network legal analyst Greg Jarrett. His was the only Fox program to discuss the story that day.

But on October 18, the story not only was featured by Hannity, but it also spread to Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Story with Martha MacCallum. Both shows adopted Hannity’s line that the story proved that it was the Obama administration, not the Trump administration, that colluded with Russia.

On the 19th, Fox & Friends devoted several segments to the story. Trump was apparently watching the program and gleefully tweeted along with it in response, giving the story an added boost. America’s Newsroom also did its first segment on the story that day, interviewing Toensing. Hannity and Carlson added additional coverage that night.

That Friday, Fox & Friends, the panel show The Five, and Carlson all devoted time to Uranium One. Over the weekend, the story received heavy coverage on Justice but little on the network’s other offerings.

On Monday, October 23, C-Span aired the interview in which Clinton was asked about Hannity’s Uranium One allegations and responded by calling them “baloney” and saying that Fox was trying to distract from the “real Russian ties between Trump associates and real Russians.”

That day, Fox devoted more than an hour of coverage to Uranium One across eight programs, the most of any day up until that point. This included the first Uranium One discussion on Special Report since The Hill’s story broke, with the show using Clinton’s comments to introduce its report.

Overall, the network devoted three hours and 47 minutes to Uranium One that week. Hannity was responsible for one hour and 25 minutes of the total.

Week two (Oct. 24 - Oct 30): As Congress responds, Fox moves to all-out obsession

Thanks in no small part to the constant agitation from Hannity and the other pro-Trump hosts at Fox, the second week of the story would bring action from congressional Republicans, Trump, and his administration.

On October 24, Republicans on the House oversight and intelligence committees announced a joint investigation into Uranium One. On the same day, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called for a special counsel to review the deal. Trump termed Uranium One “Watergate, modern age” the next day, while October 26 brought the Justice Department’s announcement that Toensing’s former FBI informant client could testify to Congress about the deal.

These actions provided fresh news hooks that would lead to heavy coverage across the spectrum of Fox’s offerings.

The network provided more than an hour and a half of coverage on October 24, roughly an hour on October 25, more than two hours on October 26, and roughly 50 minutes each on October 27 and 28. Each day featured reporting and commentary on Uranium One during nearly every hour of the network’s programming.

But by Monday, October 30, with an absence of fresh news hooks to keep the chatter going, the story had receded back to the network’s pro-Trump opinion shows.

Overall, the network devoted six hours and 54 minutes of coverage to Uranium One the second week. Hannity led the way with one hour and 37 minutes, but America’s Newsroom was in second place with 49 minutes, beating out Fox & Friends’ 35 minutes.

Week three (Oct. 31 - Nov. 6): Uranium One on the backburner

Without substantial news hooks to drive the story, Fox’s Uranium One coverage largely dissipated over the past week. Outside of diehards Hannity and Pirro, who devoted 28 minutes and 17 minutes, respectively, to the story, it was largely reduced to stray segments and passing mentions. The network gave Uranium One a comparatively mere one hour and nine minutes from October 31 to November 6.

But the story isn’t over. Fox maintained steady coverage of the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, for years, increasing the tempo whenever events provided the news hooks to do so.

The joint investigation by two congressional committees will provide Republican partisans with plenty of opportunities to stir up bogus charges against Clinton and the Obama administration. Congressional Republicans have started following in Hannity’s footsteps by using the Uranium One sideshow to call on Mueller to resign. And most of Fox’s on-air talent have already showed they are more than willing to be spun on the president’s behalf.

Methodology

Media Matters searched for the term “Uranium One” in Fox News Channel transcripts from the SnapStream database for all programming excluding reruns from October 17 through November 6, 2017.

We timed segments in their entirety if Uranium One was the stated topic of discussion at the start of the segment. This included host monologues, news reports, interviews, and panel discussions.

We also timed the relevant portions of segments where we found “significant discussion” of Uranium One during a segment about another topic or during a multitopic segment.

We defined “significant discussion” as discussion about Uranium One between two or more speakers in a single exchange.

We did not include passing mentions of Uranium One or teasers of upcoming segments about Uranium One.

Graphics by Sarah Wasko.

Rob Savillo and Shelby Jamerson contributed research

Matt Gertz is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America.

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