Hannity Insanity: FOX News’s Journalistic Integrity Conundrum
Sean Hannity likes to claim he is not a “journalist” when confronted with potential conflicts of interest surrounding the content he provides as a commentator on his show on FOX News. Yet he also likes to argue that his program breaks “real news” and conducts interviews the way a legitimate journalist would. In a manner of speaking, Hannity is trying to have his cake and eat it too, and as far as many of his viewers are concerned, they probably don’t care. They should care, however, as should FOX News and anyone concerned with journalistic integrity.
Hannity has been thrust into the spotlight recently because of the revelation that he is a client of Michael Cohen, the same Michael Cohen who is an attorney and spokesperson for one Donald Trump, who had his home and office raided by federal investigators in relation to payments made to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels, and whose own legal team only last week revealed their connection during a court hearing. Hannity’s entanglements with Cohen are particularly salient considering he has used his platform as a means of decrying any investigations into the affairs of Cohen and Trump, but never disclosed this relationship to his viewers, and reportedly, even FOX News executives were blindsided by the disclosure.
Despite Sean Hannity’s downplaying of the situation, it’s not as if the reason for soliciting Cohen’s legal counsel is immaterial. According to a report by Jon Swaine and referencing public documents obtained by The Guardian, Hannity is linked to some 20 “shell” companies formed in Georgia devoted to the purchase of real estate including foreclosed properties and, in some cases, properties from below-median income/above-average poverty areas. The mere existence of these companies is not an indication of illegality, but it does make his railing against the Obama administration for the high rate of foreclosures when he has benefited from it disingenuous, if not patently ironic.
Similar failures to disclose key relationships seem of more than just passing interest. Two of Hannity’s most lucrative properties (apartment complexes) are financed by loans through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current head of which, Ben Carson, has appeared on Hannity to the host’s praise. Along these lines, Hannity has featured Bill Lako, a principal at the firm Henssler Financial, as an expert. This same firm just happens to have registered Hannity’s various shell companies. Once again, that Hannity is a client isn’t something about which to be so cavalier, particularly when his relationship with this featured personality may impact the viewer’s opinions and judgment on financial matters.
This is where the issue of whether or not Sean Hannity is a “journalist” becomes most relevant, and why, to many, his self-serving faux surprise at being of supposed persecutory interest to the mainstream media rings hollow. Hannity and his defenders would aver that he is a commentator who renders his opinions, and as such, is not bound by the same journalistic standards as, say, a reporter. Conversely, some observers would insist that if Hannity walks, swims, and quacks like a reporter, he may well be considered one, despite how he identifies himself.
As such, it explains why there is tension not only between conservatives like Sean Hannity and the rest of the news media community but even among FOX News’s talking heads. There are those on-air personalities like Shepard Smith who fashion themselves as journalists and see what Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson do as entertainment more so than news. Which, predictably, prompted Hannity and Ingraham to fire back on Twitter that they do “real reporting” and aren’t just purveyors of theater.
This creates a kind of conundrum alluded to in the opening, particularly for Hannity. On one hand, he wants to be treated seriously as a leading voice in conservative thought and a dominant presence in cable news. Even though the controversy over Hannity’s persistence in covering the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich as some sort of hit job related to his supposed identity as a source for WikiLeaks that saw his show lose sponsors, the FOX News veteran has remained a priority of the network’s as a ratings draw, especially with Bill O’Reilly no longer in the mix, and thus, he at least has the second half of the proverbial equation satisfied.
On the other hand, however, Sean Hannity doesn’t want the same standards of accountability to apply to his delivery of what he calls “REAL NEWS.” (His emphasis, not mine. Evidently, when you put things in all caps, THEY MAGICALLY BECOME MORE BELIEVABLE.) So, like his boy Donald Trump, his answers—in his case, as to whether he is a journalist—are malleable, changing to fit his purpose or perhaps his mood. As Paul Farhi, media reporter for The Washington Post details, Hannity has “flipped” repeatedly on his ownership of the term journalist, or has otherwise striven to qualify the use of the word, labeling himself an advocacy journalist or opinion journalist.
As experts on the American press and television journalism quoted for Farhi’s column insist, meanwhile, this may be all but semantics. Either way, the lack of transparency risks a loss of trust from Hannity’s viewers, an idea which would lead other news personalities to disclose any potential conflicts of interest out of a sense of duty to their profession. But Hannity claims (when it suits him) that he is not a journalist. Thus, he lacks any such consideration of ethical quandaries, and surprisingly enough, a significant portion of his viewership and of the broader news community doesn’t seem to be too bothered by his lack of disclosure.
That FOX News is apparently giving Sean Hannity a free pass on these matters is telling for a number of reasons. For one, it underscores how important Hannity is in the bid to best CNN and MSNBC in the primetime cable news wars. More than this, though, it signifies how the network’s own journalistic standards have eroded over the years—and it’s not like they were all that highly regarded before the era of Trump. Only a few years ago, FOX News brass were preventing Hannity from appearing at a Tea Party rally in Ohio.
Now, he’s not only advising President Trump and sharing legal representation with him, but he’s serving as a major mouthpiece of FOX’s pro-Trump propaganda machine, a reality that helps further put him at odds with Shep Smith and other anchors at the network. For a media outlet that billed itself as “fair and balanced” during the George W. Bush years—a slogan which strained the bounds of credulity even then—its present stance seems to be to drop all pretense of objectivity. FOX News now touts what it offers as “real news, real honest opinion.” Pardon me if all this talk about what’s “real” and “honest” doesn’t quite have me convinced.
Callum Borchers, writing for The Washington Post, penned an analysis in response to the revelations about Sean Hannity, opining that his fans will still support him in spite of the notion he is a hypocritical “welfare queen” because he provides his audience with a highly entertaining escapist defense of a president in Trump that frames “attacks” on #45 as unfair, unpatriotic, and vicious. The “welfare queen” line, in it of itself a reference to Reagan-era use of the term, was recently invoked by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens during a discussion about Hannity’s property holdings on MSNBC:
I think it’s funny Sean Hannity turns out to be a welfare queen for HUD, having taken advantage of guarantees that were put forward by none other than the Obama administration. Look, you know, Hannity, he’s said over and over again—that he is not a journalist. He proves it every single day. The question for Fox News is whether they want to consider themselves a journalistic institution and continue to employ as an anchor a guy who clearly is better at real estate than he is at reporting.
For Stephens and other independent observers, the issue with Hannity is not that he has made use of federal monies to accomplish his real estate investment goals; from my understanding, this is fairly commonplace, and he shouldn’t be faulted for it any more than we would fault Trump for his use of bankruptcy in his business dealings. Rather, it is with his unspoken reliance on the HUD program while decrying other people’s taking advantage of government “handouts” that eats at his professed credibility. As Stephens goes on to say, it’s not even as if Hannity, while a particularly bad example given his high profile, is the lone bad actor in this regard:
The currency of our political moment is hypocrisy. It is the most valuable currency of our political moment, right? So I can trade on—I can say anything. I can do anything. I can be in conflict, right, as long as I’m pursuing my own self-interest and being narcissistic and whatever. As long as I’m doing that, I don’t have to worry about the consequences. So norms are being cast aside from the top all the way down to the bottom and people who claim to be the moral arbiters of our politics turn out to be the biggest violators.
There is no shortage of figures to which to ascribe these comments on both sides of the aisle, but for Stephens, a conservative who has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, the implicit reference to him and Hannity as unprincipled sorts who weaken the conservative brand is clear. Even if Stephens’ derision is more narrowly focused, though, his point is well taken given the American people’s eroding confidence in the nation’s political institutions, most notably with respect to Congress and the Democratic and Republican Parties but with the media and the office of POTUS not dramatically better either. Do as I say, not as I do. It is no wonder so much of the electorate has reacted like children rebelling against their parents—act inconsistently as a public servant, and that’s the risk you run.
As Borchers explains, though, Sean Hannity’s viewers are willing to look past his “transgressions” because he gives credence to their feelings and beliefs, much in the way evangelicals and other Christians will look past Trump’s infidelity and his attacks on minority groups because he reinforces expression of anti-abortion views and “religious liberty” at the expense of others’ civil rights. At the heart of their appeal is acceptance of their supporters’ worldview in the face of a rapidly-changing world that increasingly rejects this worldview’s long-held assumptions and prejudices. As much as we might chide Hannity and Trump as blockheads and gasbags, we can acknowledge they do possess a talent for communicating a sense of shared experience to a large audience.
In rendering my opinions across the blogosphere, I am part of the ever-growing global community designed to facilitate a discussion through political commentary. My opinions, of course, are my own, and you, the reader, are certainly free to agree or disagree, or even summarily dismiss them as incomplete. At the very least, however, I strive to do my homework by consulting other viewpoints on a given topic and citing appropriate information when relevant. Not to be grandiose about these things, but I do this because I think it’s right to do.
This is exactly why FOX News’s lack of journalistic standards and refusal to admonish Sean Hannity is disturbing, even for an amateur commentator and non-FOX-viewer like myself. Until there is an apparent rejection of the network’s methods which eschew facts and fuel the right-wing Trump propaganda machine, there is every worry that upward trends with respect to hasty, inaccurate reporting as well as the promulgation of fake news will continue. It was striking to see a little over a year ago, during an exchange between Hannity and CBS News special commentator Ted Koppel, the latter coolly answer in the affirmative when asked point blank by the former whether he is “bad for America.” Hannity insisted Koppel was selling the American people short, but a year after the fact, perhaps Koppel’s “cynicism” was justified.