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Sean Hannity and right-wing media claimed the ‘Biden crime family’ took millions in bribes. Their narrative just fell apart

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN

New York (CNN) — Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

“The Biden crime family.”

It has been one of the most dominant narratives in right-wing media and the GOP, used endlessly to demonize President Joe Biden — but on Thursday, it imploded in spectacular fashion.

For some time now, Fox News and the broader right-wing media machine have accused Biden and his son Hunter of engaging in an illicit $10 million bribery scheme to enrich themselves and sell out America. The tale, as it goes, claimed that an executive at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid for access to then-Vice President Biden to improperly wield his influence and help squash an investigation led by a Ukrainian prosecutor into the company.

Evidence of the bribery scheme has always been thin, at best, with most authoritative news outlets treating the claims with incredulity. But MAGA Media personalities like Sean Hannity quickly shifted into hyperdrive last year when a supposedly “highly credible” FBI informant claimed to have smoking gun evidence of the conspiracy.

The emergence of a confidential FBI informant coursed through right-wing media, where talking heads and outlets spotlighted the claims as damning evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It spawned scores of articles. Hundreds of Fox News segments. Republican lawmakers like James Comer and Jim Jordan, eager to bathe in the media spotlight, appeared on radio and television programs to stoke the conspiracy flames and demand investigations.

Hannity’s program served as the primary vehicle for driving the narrative to the GOP base. On his Fox News program alone, the claims formed the basis for a staggering 85 segments in 2023 alone, according to data from the progressive watchdog Media Matters. Hannity indicated to his millions of nightly viewers that Biden had been “compromised,” using the informant claims to declare the president was “very credibly accused of public corruption on a scale this country has never seen before.”

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Comer, who chairs the powerful House Oversight Committee, used the claims being extolled in right-wing media to accuse the FBI of engaging in a coverup and attempted to construct a corruption case against Biden. Those actions were then celebrated in right-wing media. And on and on the feedback loop went.

The problem? The informant, Alexander Smirnov, made the whole story up, federal authorities said Thursday, arresting the 43-year-old at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas.

Special counsel David Weiss, who served as a Donald Trump -appointed U.S. attorney before assuming his current role, charged Smirnov with lying to the FBI and falsifying records. Smirnov, an indictment said, provided “false derogatory information” about Biden to the law enforcement agency. His “story to the FBI was a fabrication, an amalgam of otherwise unremarkable business meetings,” it said.

“In short, the Defendant transformed his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma in 2017 and later into bribery allegations against [Joe Biden], the presumptive nominee of one of the two major political parties for President, after expressing bias against [Joe Biden] and his candidacy,” the indictment continued.

The charges dealt a blow to the narrative Fox News had championed on its air and Republicans had pressed in Congress. But the same network that had hyped Smirnov’s claims against “the big guy,” suggesting they formed the basis of a monumental scandal that would overshadow Watergate in the history books, suddenly showed little interest in the story.

In the hours after the Weiss indictment, there was scant coverage of the development on Fox News. Most notably, Hannity didn’t bother to mention to his loyal audience that the narrative he had been tirelessly peddling to them had fallen apart. Instead, like the rest of the right-wing network’s dishonest stable of prime time talk hosts, he ignored the story.

The stunning demise of the claim is just the latest in a larger pattern from Fox News and the broader right-wing media ecosystem in which it operates.
Time and time again, MAGA Media figures have hyped dishonest narratives and conspiracy theories to their sizable audiences, only to look away when they later collapse. Just last year, Fox News paid a record $787.5 million for its promotion of election lies. It never ran a retraction on its air and executives have maintained that they are proud of the network’s 2020 coverage.

It’s a record that plays on repeat. By the time the truth can catch up to the bogus claims spreading in right-wing media, the narrative has already been set and the outlets have moved on to the next supposed scandal.

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