Notes from the Spin Cycle

Hannity may mock journalism; that doesn't mean he's above it

Say what you will about Charlie Gibson’s interview of Sarah Palin last week (we certainly did). At least it was journalism. Last night’s exchange between Palin and Sean Hannity—the second interview granted by the would-Veep to a television news network and, as a BREAKING NEWS chyron repeatedly reminded its viewers, HER FIRST INTERVIEW ON CABLE TV—was something else entirely. A chat between pals? Mutual back-slapping? Proto-propaganda? Some combination thereof? I’m really not sure.

Palin, for her part, did well. Though she answered Hannity’s questions with a frustrating lack of specificity, she also did so with a great deal more assuredness and fluency than she’d exhibited in the Gibson interview. She discussed her stances on drilling in ANWR and on energy independence with authority. As Karl Rove put it, commenting on Hannity & Colmes after the interview aired, “I thought that really was a compelling and very credible performance.” In many ways, it was. After last week’s showing, it was a relief to see Palin looking both confident and, more importantly, competent.

But, then again, she was in her element. Hannity wasn’t just a friendly adversary in the interview; he was a full-on cheerleader. While he asked the vice presidential nominee substantial-if-fairly-predictable questions about the economy and energy—never following up on her well-presented but generally vague talking points—he spent just as much time asking Palin about the campaign itself. And about, for that matter, why Obama and Biden are so wrong about so many things…and why McCain and Palin are, in so many ways, so right.

Wait, you missed the interview last night? And you think I might be overstating the case? Well, this being about Fox News, and all: We report. You decide. Below, a selection of the questions Hannity asked of Palin last night:

HANNITY: Explain when you were governor and, as governor of Alaska, how you took on your own party. There’s this — you know, you still have a very high approval rating, but there are people that still weren’t happy about it. How did you take on your own party, specifically? And do you think you’d be able to do that, as well, in Washington?

HANNITY: Senator Obama on the campaign trail — and Senator Biden as well — they often criticize John McCain, that, well his plan is — he’s going to continue the policies of tax cuts for the wealthy. For those that maybe buy into that class warfare agreement or think, why shouldn’t the rich pay more? My question to you is the converse: why does everyone benefit if the rich pay less or if everybody pays less in taxes? Why is that good for the economy?

HANNITY: Is Senator Obama … using what happened on Wall Street this week — is he using it for political gain? Is there a danger of a presidential candidate is saying to the world that America’s situation of economic crisis is the worst that we’ve seen in decades — which was words that he was using yesterday — is there a danger in terms of the world hearing that?

HANNITY: Things have gotten pretty heated on the campaign trail and especially in the last two days. There were two weeks where I think you were the focus of the attack. Now it seems that the focus of the attack is Senator McCain.

Do you think these attacks, ratcheting up these attacks by Barack Obama — I don’t know if you had a chance to see the speech yesterday — and by Senator Biden, do you think these attacks will be effective?

HANNITY: Well, let me ask you, Americans have heard, for example, a lot of information, false information, misinformation or incorrect information on ANWR. Some have said the drilling there is going to hurt the animals, it’s going to ruin the environment, it’s going to hurt the environment and hurt the landscape. You know, it’s clear I’ve heard you talk passionately about your love for your state of Alaska. You know, why then why then would you support drilling in Alaska? Why would that be a good thing?

My read on all this: With few exceptions, last night’s interview was essentially a push poll with visuals. (Governor, why is your ticket’s economic plan good for the economy? Governor, why are Obama and Biden so mean to you? Governor, why are you so awesome?) Which isn’t surprising, I realize. Hannity was granted the interview precisely because of the loudly prophetic nature of his partisanship: He sings the good news every night, and the McCain campaign calculated that Hannity, above all, shares in its conviction that the good news is, indeed, named Sarah Palin. As the Los Angeles Times put it, Hannity, “a conservative commentator, underscores her appeal to the party’s base, which has been energized by her selection.”

Still—call me naive—I actually expected more from Hannity. Not a lot, but certainly more than he gave us. I thought that the pundit might use the “Palin exclusive!” to show viewers both loyal and new that Fox News can be better than its common caricature as a partisan spin machine. That it is, fundamentally, a news organization, capable of real journalism (as the network shows itself to be, again and again, in its straight reporting segments). I expected that Hannity himself would take advantage of the opportunity to transcend his own ideology.

Instead, he wallowed in it. Hannity’s demeanor last night often seemed—as had Gibson’s, but for an entirely different reason—smug. “I’m Sean Hannity,” he announced by way of introducing the Palin interview. “We get right to our top story tonight: She is the politician who has taken America by storm and who has changed the very dynamic of the presidential race. Governor Sarah Palin has been the target of left-wing smears and conservative adoration as she was introduced as Senator McCain’s running mate nearly three weeks ago.”

Sheesh. Compare that tone of dogmatic, defensive devotion to what we saw in Keith Olbermann’s recent interview with Obama. Yes, Olbermann’s interview was softer than it could have been—but at least its tone was sober. At least Olbermann occasionally challenged the senator on his answers; at least he asked follow-up questions; at least the goal of his interview seemed to be, you know, the extraction of information from the candidate.

But Hannity wasn’t, in the end, seeking information. He was seeking spin. He wasn’t lobbing journalistic softballs at Palin; he was forfeiting the whole game.

There has been precious little reaction to the Hannity interview in the mainstream media today. Which is partially because the Palin Novelty is wearing off, but partially because the interview was conducted by Sean Hannity. Many critics and commentators tend to dismiss pundits like Hannity and Olbermann and their ilk as journalistic Crisco: flabby, bloviating blobs too slippery to adhere to rigid journalistic standards. I see the pragmatism of their assumptions (square pegs, round holes, all that), but I’d argue that it is precisely that mindset of defeatism that people who care about journalism must try to defeat.

The simpering smugness Hannity demonstrated last night is both a specimen and a symptom of the above-the-law mentality we see so often in politicians and, increasingly, the press—one that, at its worst, treats the truth as inconsequential. It’s the same mindset that leads members of the McCain campaign to keep repeating the “thanks but no thanks” line when discussing the Bridge to Nowhere—despite the fact that, as has been documented again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again, that line is a lie.

We’re giving those partisan pundits a free pass when we allow them to abdicate journalistic responsibility. And we’re also tacitly approving their spin-uber-alles mentality—that cynical and destructive mindset that has hijacked so much of our discourse. Though we might think we’re upholding journalistic tradition by ignoring those who so clearly thwart that tradition, we’re not. On the contrary, we critics enable these figures expressly by withholding our criticism of them. We’re defining the standards of journalism so narrowly as to exclude even highly influential outliers—and, in doing so, we’re providing them with a journalistic frontier in which they can conduct their gun fights and bar brawls and the like with whimsical abandon. And with an audience, often, of millions.

“Now Thursday night, by the way,” Hannity noted as he closed last night’s segment,

I’m going to bring you part two of Governor Palin and our interview here. Now, well, we’ll find out if she thinks the media is trying to elect Barack Obama, her strategy for repairing our relationships abroad and her thoughts on the mini army that’s been sent to Alaska to look into her personal life.

In other words: a valid—and urgent—topic of inquiry, sandwiched between a piece of spin and another of distortion. If Gibson had said something like that in his interview, he’d be a laughingstock. But who’s holding Hannity accountable? We can say that applying journalistic standards to people who clearly aren’t interested in being journalists is worth neither the breath nor the ink required in the effort. But we’d be wrong. It’s the people who fancy themselves above the law who create the need for laws in the first place. And it’s the people who care about journalism’s standards who should be stepping up to enforce them.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.