Sean Hannity in the spotlight

Coverage of the Trump presidency has continuously focused on palace intrigue and controversies surrounding aides and cabinet members, turning people in positions that don’t traditionally draw much attention into household names. But the past week has seen the lens turn to a Trump advisor outside the White House who needs no introduction.

Sean Hannity, already facing scrutiny for his public cheerleading and private consultations with President Trump, was revealed in court last week as a client of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer. Criticized for a lack of transparency, the Fox News host defended his public support for Cohen by arguing that he had merely asked Cohen’s advice on real estate matters. The Guardian’s Jon Swaine investigated Hannity’s real estate holdings, finding records that “link Hannity to a group of shell companies that spent at least $90m on more than 870 homes in seven states over the past decade.” Swaine also found that Hannity “amassed part of his property collection with support from the US Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a fact he did not disclose when praising Ben Carson, the Hud secretary, on his television show last year.”

Update: After publication of this newsletter, Fox News PR emailed a statement from Sean Hannity: “It is ironic that I am being attacked for investing my personal money in communities that badly need such investment and in which, I am sure, those attacking me have not invested their money. The fact is, these are investments that I do not individually select, control, or know the details about; except that obviously I believe in putting my money to work in communities that otherwise struggle to receive such support.

“I have never discussed with anybody at HUD the original loans that were obtained in the Obama years, nor the subsequent refinance of such loans, as they are a private matter. I had no role in, or responsibility for, any HUD involvement in any of these investments. I can say that every rigorous process and strict standard of improvement requirements were followed; all were met, fulfilled and inspected.”

RELATED: Lawyer behind Hannity revelation at Cohen hearing speaks

The intensifying spotlight on Hannity places Fox News in the difficult position of backing a host with ties to a man at the center of a probe stretching from law offices in New York all the way to the West Wing. Cohen, of course, saw his office and hotel room raided by federal agents earlier this month after receiving a referral from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller. Hannity’s bellicose criticism of that action takes on a new dimension with the revelation of his ties to Cohen.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

At one point on Sunday morning, CNN and Fox were running simultaneous chyrons on Hannity’s problems. “Should Hannity be worried about seized Cohen docs?” read the script under Brian Stelter’s interview with Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. On Fox, Howard Kurtz spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Shelby Holiday above a banner proclaiming “Hannity vs Mainstream Media.” Avenatti told Stelter that “the relationship [with Cohen] is going to be far more extensive than Mr. Hannity has led people to believe.”

RELATED: Hannity, Cohen, and the battle for Fox’s soul

Hannity’s value to Fox News is hard to overstate. In the wake of Bill O’Reilly’s exit last year, he has become the face of the network’s evening opinion programming, and has emerged as Donald Trump’s chief television defender. Long criticized by journalists for his conspiracy-mongering and open cheerleading, he has built a huge following that includes his daily radio show. Last week, Fox said that Hannity had the network’s full support, but as the case against Cohen unfolds, Hannity’s relationship with Trump and his embattled fixer are sure to remain a focus on media interest.

Below, more on Hannity’s deepening problems.

  • A lack of transparency: New York’s Margaret Hartmann focuses on the role that HUD played in helping Hannity build his real estate empire, arguing that the host’s lack of transparency deserves more scrutiny, but that Fox probably won’t provide it.
  • From Fox host’s lips to Trump’s ears: CNN producer Lee Alexander put together a compilation of President Trump echoing arguments presented by Fox hosts. There’s plenty of Hannity in the clip.
  • Hannity and Cohen: The New York Times’s Michael Gold looked at Hannity’s public defense of Cohen before their ties were revealed. Copious use of Trump’s favorite phrase, “witch hunt,” highlights those remarks. Meanwhile, Gold’s colleagues Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin reported on Fox’s backing of the host, which they write signifies “the new realities at Trump-era Fox News.
  • Focus on Fox: Even before The Guardian revealed the extent of Hannity’s real estate holdings, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argued that Fox News should be facing more pressure to investigate its host. “As important as Hannity’s explanations may be, the word of his employer matters far more,” Wemple writes.
  • Too big to fail?: The Guardian’s Swaine and Dominic Rushe write that Hannity’s omission concerning his relationship to Cohen “just doesn’t matter to Fox.”  Earlier this month, I looked at Fox’s continued ratings dominance even as controversy continues to dog some of the network’s personalities. Fox executives downplayed the tension between opinionators like Hannity and the hard news side of the company, but recent news surely won’t help mend that divide.

Remembering Joan Konner

Friends and family gathered on Friday to celebrate the life of Joan Konner, an essential friend and supporter of CJR. Konner was a former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, as well as a former publisher of CJR, where she remained on the Board of Overseers. She arrived at Columbia after a storied career in broadcasting. She is the winner of 13 Emmy awards and was executive producer of Bill Moyers Journal. Speaking at the memorial service, Moyers remembered Konner as both a pioneer—she was the first woman documentary producer at NBC News—and as a defender of core journalistic values. “Good journalists look for the right questions,” Moyers said, in describing her view of the craft. “People respond overwhelmingly when what we cover illuminates their lives.” Konner is the author of three books, including The Book of I: An Illustrious Collection of Self Reflections, and is survived by her husband, Al Perlmutter and her daughter, Rosemary Steinbaum.

Other notable stories

ICYMI: An election in Hungary sounds a death knell for the free press

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.