Sean Hannity—the Coors Light-loving minor league conspiracy theorist with a direct line to President Donald Trump—finds himself in a rare defensive crouch. It was revealed on Monday that the Fox News host was the client of Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer-cum-fixer who paid Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged affair with the president. Hannity never shared this information with his audience while railing against the FBI raids of Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room.
The shrill humming you’ve been hearing in the nearly 24 hours since then is the sound of part-time media ethicists crying foul. Hannity has a primetime show with an audience of millions! He appears on Fox News! To dust off an old proverb: This is not normal.
Such ethical “compromises erode Fox’s ability to function independently of the Trump White House,” The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote Monday night.
CNN’s Alyson Camerota added on New Day Tuesday morning: “[Hannity] has never disclosed to his viewers that they have this relationship, where he seeks legal advice from [Cohen]...But Hannity gets to play with the facts, in terms of whether he’s a journalist or not, and he’s said both. Does it matter if he’s not a journalist?”
There is an explanatory aspect to this for viewers at home. No journalist at CNN, the New York Times, or any other self-respecting news outlet would be allowed to comment on Cohen’s assortment of interwoven legal battles after retaining him for legal representation—or even, as Hannity described it, turning to him as a friend for legal advice. Hannity’s involvement with Cohen is yet another conflict of interest for a mega-popular TV and radio host who hides behind the hazily defined banner of “opinion journalism” from whichever angle suits him at a particular moment.
But the other, less understandable element of such reactions is incredulity. And NBC’s Chuck Todd neatly captured it in a single tweet on Tuesday:
This frame of analysis makes sense if you buy the notion that the center of gravity within Fox lies between its propagandistic primetime opinion programming and its “real” journalists like Bret Baier (who was spotted golfing with Trump over the weekend) and Shepard Smith. It conforms more comfortably with the both-sides sensibilities of the mainstream press, of which Fox’s own “We Report, You Decide” ethos so cunningly takes advantage. Is Fox a serious news organization? Time will tell.
The past 20 years or more have already answered Todd’s question, from the racist birther lie Fox peddled continuously to delegitimize Barack Obama, to its more recent shilling for Trump. Fox News re-signed Bill O’Reilly to a $25 million contract after at least six sexual harassment-related settlements made on his behalf. It continues to cast Hillary Clinton as a menace of American politics despite her political career being snuffed out 18 months ago. The hopsts of Fox & Friends are perhaps Trump’s most trusted advisers. And Hannity—our Gallahad—has neither apologized nor faced disciplinary action for amplifying the conspiracy that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered for sharing information with WikiLeaks.
Honestly evaluating that track record will lead to the conclusion that the battle for the soul of Fox, waged between its journalists and propagandists, is in fact PR cover for the latter group to rake in cash and wield political power. That doesn’t fit within other media outlets’ conceptualizations of how media should work. But Fox exists on another plane entirely; ethical lapses like Hannity’s are normal.