Sean Hannity: Deceptive Provocateur

The revelation that Michael Cohen’s mystery client was Sean Hannity led many to ask: Is the Fox News and daily syndicated radio show host a journalist? With all due respect to Hannity and the pundits who have weighed in on the question, the answer is irrelevant. Hannity is not a journalist by any of the standards of journalistic ethics recognized by the profession, but it does not matter. He commands a powerful platform that he uses — as a provocateur — to shape (mis-shape?) public opinion. Thus, he is obligated to reveal any connections he has to the people and stories he discusses. 

(Full disclosure: I worked for CNN for almost 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s. I do not, however, have any connection with Michael Cohen. He is not a friend of mine nor has he ever done any legal work, paid or not, for me.)

The question of Hannity’s journalistic bona fides probably is irrelevant to his loyal fans. The three million viewers of his nightly Fox show and the millions more who hear him daily on his radio program tune in for his reliably strident defense of President Donald Trump and virulent attacks on the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller. Most of Hannity’s viewers and listeners do not care that he failed to disclose his relationship to Trump’s personal fixer when he used his media platforms to lash into the FBI for raiding Cohen’s office.

Michael Cohen appearing on Sean Hannity’s show.

Journalists are bound to recuse themselves from covering a story in which they have personal involvement, or, at the very least, disclose any relationship with a person or organization they are covering. Even Fox, which declared its “full support” for Hannity, admitted it was “unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen, and was surprised by the announcement in court.” The interesting question is what Fox would have done had Hannity disclosed to network executives his connection to Cohen. 

Hannity is coy on how he views his role. “I never claimed to be a journalist,” he told The New York Times in 2016 in reply to a question about his association with Trump. In a tweet that same year, Hannity declared, “I’m not a journalist jackass. I’m a talk host.” But, a year later, he told The Times, “I’m a journalist. But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.” And, just last month, in response to criticism from Fox colleague Shepard Smith, Hannity tweeted, “While Shep is a friend with political views I do not share, and great at breaking news, he is clueless about what we do every day. Hannity breaks news daily-Warrant on a Trump assoc, the unmasking scandal, leaking intel, Fisa abuse, HRC lawbreaking, dossier and more REAL NEWS!” (Apparently, Trump’s penchant for capital letters is spreading to his sycophants.)

Fox tries to distinguish between its news side — the area in which journalists like Smith work — and its opinion side — occupied by Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham. Fox prefers not to call the opinion purveyors “journalists.” A spokesperson for the cable channel referred to Hannity as “an opinion talk-show host.”

The network’s distinction may be lost on many viewers. When Hannity propounded the Seth Rich conspiracy story, did his viewers see it as a news story presented by a journalist or opinion offered by a talk-show host? Hannity and others on Fox implied that Rich’s murder was payback by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for the allegation that the young political aide was the source of leaks of thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails. Fox retracted the story, but not before conspiracy buffs — Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Alex Jones, and Hannity — had done their damage.

Hannity offers “news” (not always factually, as the Seth Rich story indicates), conducts interviews, and has talking heads on his show like many TV journalists. He many not meet the standards of traditional journalism, but he is a broadcaster who has an obligation to inform his viewers of any potential conflicts of interest. “He has an audience and he is bound as a broadcaster to be transparent with them,” says Susan King, dean of the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, King and I were colleagues at CNN.) 

Legally, Hannity is a journalist (which may prove relevant to the Rich family’s lawsuit against Fox). As Tom Rosenstiel, head of the American Press Institute, observes, “He doesn’t actually get to decide” if he is a journalist. “You can say you’re a kumquat, and the courts will decide if you walk or talk like a journalist, you will legally be a journalist. You’re talking about someone who conducts interviews, does exposes, breaks news and [is involved in] all the nomenclature of news,” Rosenstiel adds.

Hannity is an extreme example of the problems of journalism in the age of 24-hour cable networks and the internet. So much time and space to fill encourages talk and opinion in place of hard news. Many journalists hobnob with sources in the rush to get interviews or scoops. Just this week, Fox anchor Bret Baier — who thinks he is on the network’s news side — played golf with Trump to lobby the president for an interview. Hannity is so cozy with the president that some Trump aides have dubbed the broadcaster the unofficial chief of staff. “He basically has a desk” in the White House, said one presidential adviser. Hannity and Trump reportedly speak several times a week, discussing ideas for Hannity’s show and subject matter for presidential tweets. It should be no surprise the two men share an attorney.

What they also share is a lack of transparency. In Trump’s case, it is his frequent and uncontrollable lying. In Hannity’s, it is his dishonesty as a broadcaster. As a major media figure, provocateur, and presidential cheerleader who has the power and platform to shape public opinion, Hannity is obligated to be more forthcoming about his connections to the events and people he covers.

Posted April 20, 2018

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