Fox News is spoon-fed a scandal -- and blows it

Fox is still too busy focusing on fake scandals to cover the real one

Published June 6, 2013 5:44PM (EDT)

Just when scandal-mania seemed to be dying down comes troubling news, via former Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, that a secret FISA court made Verizon turn over records of every call made on its service in the U.S. to the National Security Agency. This is a big deal, but as Alex Pareene noted, it will only become a real scandal if Republicans make it so -- just as Democrats did when NSA abuses were uncovered under Bush.

They already failed that test once when they put up little to no opposition to the reauthorization of the controversial FISA Amendment Act in December. And while Democrats wanted to attach to that bill some modest safeguards against government overreach, Senate Republicans pushed for approving the bill with no debate and no changes.

So what's the reaction been like so far today? Outside of Rand Paul, mostly silence and a major brushoff. "This is nothing new," said Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking member on the committee (Democratic Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said something similar). Others have defended it.

"I am glad that NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to overseas and inside the country," Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters. "I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States."

On Fox News, which tends to be a leading indicator of what Republican politicians will care about, the reaction has been unusually restrained. Since the story broke yesterday evening, Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned the FISA controversy three times, according to a review using TVEyes data. Two were quick straight news segments while the third was a little riff from the "Fox and Friends" crew, in which host Steve Doocy offered that it "is probably an abuse of section 215 of the Patriot Act." (For what it's worth, CNN and MSNBC have given the FISA news roughly the same attention, though MSNBC's panels have spent a bit more time, per TVEyes.)

That "Fox and Friends" segment, however, was literally sandwiched between one segment on the IRS scandal and another on Benghazi. In fact, since the FISA news broke, Fox and Fox Business have mentioned the nine-month-old Libya scandal more than 25 times, mostly in relation to the elevation of Susan Rice as national security advisor.

Lindsey Graham, Rudy Giuliani, Allen West and a former Navy SEAL all came on Fox's air to discuss the government's wrongdoing in Benghazi -- none were asked about FISA. Meanwhile Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, "The Five" crew and the hosts of "Fox and Friends" all devoted significant time editorializing about the Benghazi controversy. Hannity made Rice's promotion the center of his prime-time show, spending several blocks on the news.

On the hard news side, Benghazi was the No. 2 story on Bret Baier's "Special Report," with White House correspondent Ed Henry reporting that Obama's "second term charm offensive with Republicans took a detour in the Rose Garden today. Bipartisan outreach giving way to defiance and Tom Donilon resigned and replaced by Susan Rice."

This is why conservative scandal-mongers can't have anything nice. When they're handed a real scandal that should confirm all of their worst suspicions about government overreach, they fail to take the bait and fall back on a stale non-scandal that cable news has chewed over for months already. They know Benghazi is safe territory for them and that their viewers like it, but it's too bad the most popular cable news network isn't  doing a better job of informing its viewers about legitimate Obama administration problems.

This afternoon, World Net Daily, the birther news website, blasted out an email to readers: "Mother of all scandals: Obama's war on Christians."

"This should be a litmus test for Republicans: either take action against this program, or never invoke liberty or limited government again," Conor Friedersdorf tweeted, regarding the NSA story. Just as soon as they spend a few more months talking about Benghazi.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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