By Steven P. Grossman
For those of you who doubt every “fair and balanced” word that comes from Fox News – perhaps especially those that come from that paragon of balance, Sean Hannity – I offer the following exception to your belief. Mr. Hannity has stated often, both on the air and elsewhere, that he is not a journalist, such as in his October, 2016 tweet: “I’m not a journalist jackass. I’m a talk host.” It is hard to imagine a statement more accurate than that.
But, as is the case with the president he defends and frighteningly appears to guide at times, Mr. Hannity is something less than a beacon of consistency. For, despite his many statements denying he is a journalist, Mr. Hannity now claims, in yet another tweet, that his show “breaks news daily” and if the reader was wondering as to what kind of news, that tweet concluded with “REAL NEWS!”; surely with those last words all in caps followed by an exclamation point, the reader can have little doubt as to their validity.
So is it real news or “talk host” news that Mr. Hannity provides to his listener? Relax, because Mr. Hannity has clarified this for us. While acknowledging he is not a regular journalist, Mr. Hannity has often referred to himself as an “opinion journalist” or an “advocacy journalist.” To most of us, this would mean he is free to express his opinion on pretty much everything, in contrast to a reporter of the news. To Mr. Hannity apparently this means – again like the president he defends – he is unburdened by facts. For example, check out how he made his show available to perpetuate the Obama birther stupidity, even offering President Barack Obama “a plane ticket to Canada, Indonesia or Kenya” in 2016, long after everyone else had moved on from that particular delusion.
Recent events have made clear that Mr. Hannity has lost the right to declare himself any kind of journalist, and even Fox News should be embarrassed to put him on the air. During his show of April 9, in referring to the search-warrant-authorized raid of the home and business offices of Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Mr. Hannity told his audience to “keep in mind that Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign” and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch-hunt investigation is now a runaway train that is clearly careening off the tracks.” Much like President Trump, who declared the raid on Mr. Cohen to be an “attack on our nation,” Mr. Hannity does not suffer from a tendency to understate. What Mr. Hannity neglected to do (until the information later came out in court) was to reveal that he was also a client of Mr. Cohen’s and that communications between the two of them may be included in the material obtained through the Cohen search.
Now Mr. Hannity is of course free to express his opinion just as I am free to observe that federal prosecutors and federal judges are especially cautious in seeking and signing warrants that may uncover information infringing on the lawyer-client relationship, so the probable cause of criminal activity in this case must have been especially clear. However, in reading my opinion defending Mr. Mueller or the New York federal prosecutors who obtained the warrant, wouldn’t you want to know if I had a connection to either? I don’t by the way.
While I am free to state my opinion, no responsible media outlet would permit me to do so without revealing my connection to the subject of my opinion. It is far from unusual for those expressing their opinions on air, in print or in cyberspace to have a relationship with those about whom they are opining. But in revealing this relationship, the speaker allows the listener to place in perspective the words spoken or written in defense of – opposition to – a person or event.
So whether Sean Hannity is an “opinion journalist” a “talk show host” or some combination thereof, Fox News owes it to its listeners to inform them of his direct connection to the Cohen search and to Mr. Cohen himself. Any credible news or opinion media outlet would do at least that much.
Steven P. Grossman is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.