The story about former Obama administration official Susan Rice and purported Russia surveillance leaks that came to briefly dominate the national conversation last week had its genesis in, of all places, the suburbs of Orange County. The first tidbit emerged from the primordial media soup thanks to a lifestyle blogger and conservative social media personality named Mike Cernovich.
“Nobody in media and journalism knows more about ‘deep state’ than I do,” Cernovich, who has almost 250,000 Twitter followers, gloated in a livestream broadcast last Sunday night, appearing at home in a hoodie and downing a glass of red wine.
Cernovich’s big exclusive? He said Rice, Obama’s former national security advisor, had requested “unmasking” the names of Trump associates who were caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreign officials. Cernovich — and other conservatives who quickly took the ball and ran — saw it as a partial validation of President Trump’s incendiary claim on Twitter a month ago that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” before the election.
“Way to break the story mike!” wrote a viewer, one of many quickly commenting in approval of Cernovich’s broadcast. “Huge story Mike!” another added. One commenter typed out and sent a question, which popped up on the broadcast and then quickly disappeared: “What’s unmasking and why is it wrong?”
That’s a question any news consumer might ask of any story: What is this, and is it bad? Yet when it came to Rice, Americans were about to see conservative and mainstream news outlets come up with two very different answers to that question — a symptom of the increasing extent to which Americans often seem to live in one nation but inhabit two widely divergent realities.
One version these days typically comes from Fox News and other outlets that echo the Trump White House line. A much different one can often be found on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media.
So it was with the Rice “story,” which for nearly two days the mainstream media largely ignored, and when it couldn’t any longer, dismissed as irrelevant.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Tom Hollinan, a professor of political communication at the USC Annenberg School. “One of the things that a healthy democracy and a deliberating public need is the ability to participate in a common conversation. They should be able to share news and understand facts in a way that helps them make sense of the world around them and make good decisions.”
The story seriously got rolling Monday morning, after Trump tweeted about Fox News’ “amazing reporting” on a “crooked scheme” by an unknown Obama official to spy on him by “unmasking” his associates. Cernovich’s scoop was mostly overlooked, until Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake published a story identifying the Obama official as Rice. (He later said he was unaware of Cernovich’s report.)
Lake, a respected reporter on national security issues based in Washington, delivered a relatively straight-ahead report: He said Rice had requested the names of Americans involved in certain monitored conversations, which were “primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials.” The names of Americans are typically redacted from U.S. intelligence reports on surveillance of foreigners, and “unmasking” them is permitted only under certain circumstances.
The question of who in the Trump transition team was talking to Russian officials was of major political significance: Both houses of Congress had launched investigations of Russian political activities in the U.S., and Trump’s initial national security advisor, Mike Flynn, had been fired for dissembling about his contacts with Russia’s U.S. ambassador.
Lake, when he published his story, wasn’t taking Cernovich’s line. He noted that the new details about Rice “do not vindicate” Trump’s claims about wiretapping, and he wrote that the evidence suggested “Rice's unmasking requests were likely within the law” — since revealing names in a classified surveillance report to the country’s national security advisor isn’t necessarily the same as disclosing them to the public.
Yet the story surged through conservative media, whose pundits were concerned that the unmasking was done for political purposes, not national security.
“BOMBSHELL REPORT,” wrote conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who concluded that “the only scandal here is the apparent targeting and leaking of names from the Trump team in order to smear them by high-ranking Obama officials.” (Rice later said, "I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have.”)
Radio host Rush Limbaugh, breaking the news to his massive daily audience, attacked Rice as untrustworthy due to inaccurate comments about the 2012 attack at a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
But then Limbaugh also went after another familiar target, accusing the New York Times of sitting on the Rice story — he noted Cernovich’s claim that the mainstream media was engaging in a cover-up of the story in order to protect Obama.
The day after his report, on Monday, Cernovich was basking in his scoop, gloating and insulting other conservative outlets on social media, accusing them of plagiarizing him for not crediting him with getting the story first. (He also publicly wondered if the government was going to assassinate him.) By then, he was ready to reveal, sort of, how he had been handed the story.
“I didn't get it from the intelligence community,” Cernovich said in a video. “That’s the big joke about this. Everybody's trying to figure out where I got it from. I got it from somebody who works in one of those media companies ... who said, 'Cernovich, they're sitting on this story, they're not going to run it. You can run it.’”
Cernovich added: “It was maybe an intern, an IT guy – all I’m gonna say is … if you’re in the fake news, I’m reading your emails.”
Perhaps that’s how Cernovich had correctly predicted, on the day he broke the story, that Bloomberg was working on a similar story about Rice.
But Cernovich also accused New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman of having the story and sitting on it for political reasons. (“Cernovich's claim regarding Maggie Haberman is 100% false,” said a Times spokeswoman.)
Nonetheless, many conservatives believed the Rice story was a smoking gun pointing to partisan bias in the mainstream media. They began scrutinizing the mainstream media for its coverage — which, on Monday, mostly didn’t exist.
“Susan Rice's husband works at ABC News — so, of course, they don't cover the story at all,” tweeted radio personality Mark Simone the next morning, earning almost 3,000 retweets. (Rice’s husband left ABC News in 2010, and ABC News published its first story on Rice later that day.)
Early mainstream media stories that did report on Rice often described the “unmasking” as “normal” and “justified,” as the New York Times did when it published a story on Monday. CNN’s chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto tweeted that the story was “overblown.”
Other members of the mainstream media, in turn, believed the Rice controversy was a very different story — about partisan bias in the conservative media. A critical piece by Washington Post blogger Paul Waldman, posted shortly after Rice was identified as the official who had asked for the unmasking of some of the names in the surveillance reports, called it a “fake scandal, ginned up by right-wing media and Trump.” Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker wrote a story calling the scandal “bogus.” CNN host Don Lemon was equally blunt.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that the Trump team … was spied on illegally,” Lemon said Monday night. “There is no evidence that backs up the president’s original claim. And on this program tonight, we will not insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise, nor will we aid and abet the people who are trying to misinform you, the American people, by creating a diversion. Not gonna do it.”
Lemon’s statement left Fox News analyst Brit Hume aghast. “This is just amazing,” Hume tweeted. “The story is clearly news and refusing to report it is not the behavior of a news organization.” White House spokesman Sean Spicer jumped in Tuesday, adding that he was “somewhat intrigued by the lack of interest” by mainstream media.
The outcome, by midweek: Millions of viewers of CNN might assume there was no Susan Rice scandal. Millions of viewers of Fox were led to believe that Susan Rice might be proof of Obama administration spying on Trump transition operatives for political ends.
And any semblance of a bipartisan conversation about what the laws of surveillance ought to be, what should be the scope of public officials’ dealings with foreign governments, what is the appropriate exchange of information between the White House, Congress and the security agencies — none of that was likely.
Because no one could agree on the facts.
Conservative media writers were convinced they had caught Rice in a lie, pointing to an interview Rice had done with PBS in March saying “I know nothing” when she was asked about Trump associates being caught up in surveillance. (Politifact, evaluating the remarks in context, said “it’s not 100% clear that Rice made an intentionally false statement,” and Rice defended herself on Twitter.)
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., happy with the turn of events, tweeted: “Congrats to @Cernovich for breaking the #SusanRice story. In a long gone time of unbiased journalism he'd win the Pulitzer, but not today!”
After ignoring the initial story, mainstream outlets began to talk about it, but with a tone of skepticism.
The New York Times on Tuesday took a bird’s-eye political look at the controversy, not buying the “scoop” factor. “Republicans see a partisan who mined intelligence reports to spy on Mr. Trump’s team. Democrats see a scapegoat tarred for doing her job and used as a distraction from an F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Trump’s associates,” the paper noted.
The Washington Post wrote the same day about Rice denying that she compiled or leaked any names from Trump’s transition team.
The Los Angeles Times didn’t publish a full staff story until Wednesday — three days after Cernovich’s report from the newspaper’s own back yard — an explainer on the controversy about unmasking.
It was published the day Trump invited two New York Times reporters into the Oval Office to talk about the issue.
“I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story,” Trump said, according to a transcript published by the newspaper. “I think it’s a massive, massive story. All over the world, I mean other than The New York Times.”
“We’ve written about it twice,” replied Haberman, one of the reporters.
“Huh?” Trump said.
“We’ve written about it twice,” Haberman said.
Trump then said he thought Rice had committed a crime.
It was a stunning statement: a sitting president accusing a former public servant of being a criminal. As a result, Trump succeeded in getting another Rice story into the New York Times.
The headline? The paper told its readers that he’d called Rice a criminal.
Except the paper also said the president hadn’t given any evidence. And that was the truth.