How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sean Hannity?
Fox News still has Sean Hannity’s back—for now. On Tuesday, execs at the conservative media empire that Rupert Murdoch built signaled their support following Monday’s big reveal that Hannity was the mysterious famous third client of President Trump’s embattled personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
Or so Cohen’s own legal team claims, anyway. For his part, Hannity begs to differ with that characterization. The trio of lawyers working to get Cohen out of the kind of trouble that brings federal agents crashing uninvited into office and living spaces may have had to out Hannity to a U.S. district judge, not to mention to the entire nation, but the Fox News personality is playing down his link to Cohen while the network continues to prop him up.
As Politico reported Tuesday, a Fox News spokesperson followed Hannity’s lead in a statement Tuesday by casting the Hannity-Cohen connection as an “informal relationship”:
Officially, Fox News is standing behind Hannity. A Fox News spokesperson said Tuesday that the network was previously “unaware” of the ties between Hannity and Cohen, but that the host “continues to have our full support.”
“While FOX News was unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
But who ultimately gets to decide how such a relationship is best described? Presumably that job would fall to U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, the designated authority presiding over the criminal investigation into Cohen.
Meanwhile, Fox News’ willingness to echo a star anchor’s talking points illustrates the slippery ethical issues that arise when celebrity media figures get to choose their own job descriptions. Take, for example, Hannity’s repeated contention that he is not a journalist, as he argues in this 2016 tweet to another, very different Michael Cohen who had counted him as an industry colleague:
I’m not a journalist jackass. I’m a talk host. https://t.co/fj1ZCsAEL4
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) October 26, 2016
Yet at other times, Hannity has been willing to claim the label—on his own terms. He is an “opinion journalist,” see, or an “advocacy journalist.”
As the entertainer Rush Limbaugh has done for decades on his own radio show, and as the president is doing from the Oval Office when he denies he is a politician, Hannity’s opt-out strategy gives him license to sidestep any number of those pesky standards to which his peers are held. The main act of “The Sean Hannity Show,” also the main breadwinner in Fox’s lineup, can let fly with personal opinions on the air and openly stump for politicians. He may even neglect to inform his viewers about possible conflicts of interest, as he might have done in his reporting (or whatever he would call discussing news stories on the air) about the FBI’s April 9 raid on Cohen’s office and residences.
But who ultimately decides who qualifies, or doesn’t, as a journalist? Several commentators taking a journalism-is-as-journalism-does tack have used Hannity’s current quandary as an opportunity to restate ethical boundaries and to take Fox News to task. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall told Politico that “[i]f Cohen is telling the truth and Hannity is a bona fide client of his, then Hannity’s oversight, not mentioning, is completely inexcusable and under any normal organization would be a firing offense.”
Another expert, quoted by MSNBC was of a similar mind:
Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism specializing in media ethics, said Hannity’s omission was “clearly an ethical violation.”
“It’s so blatant, it’s not even a hard call,” Freedman said, adding that he thinks Fox should cut ties with Hannity over the potential conflict of interest.
“I don’t think they’ll do it, but I think they should fire him,” Freedman said. “This is a major breach.”
Fox News’ strategic contrarian Shep Smith on Monday called the breaking news of Hannity’s alleged status as Michael Cohen’s third client the “elephant in the room” at their shared workplace. But their bosses will evidently refer to it on Hannity terms, as long as he’s their star. Besides, only “conflicted, incestuous Washington hypocrites” would dare call it a conflict of interest—just take it from Rush Limbaugh.
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