The Media Today

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

April 17, 2018

Update, 2:30 p.m.: A Fox News Channel spokesperson said in a statement to CJR: “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 outing of Fox host Sean Hannity as an anonymous client of long-serving Trump fixer Michael Cohen was a made-for-TV moment. Unfortunately, it happened in a New York courtroom—so no cameras were on hand when a judge ordered yesterday that Hannity be named in the spiraling dispute over last week’s FBI raid on Cohen’s property, and the criminal investigation into the lawyer’s alleged silencing of sexual stories about the president. Thirsty news consumers instead relied on reporters who were at court to describe the Hannity bombshell for them. “There was a gasp in the room. It was truly shocking,” said NPR’s Miles Parks. “All the air got sucked out of the room.”

While the money shot wasn’t captured on tape, cable news quickly bore down on the story. Even though it’s not yet clear why Hannity engaged Cohen, many hosts and pundits excoriated Hannity for a clear conflict of interest—he’s led a vocal and persistent charge against the Cohen raid in the past week, calling it an abuse of attorney-client privilege and an overreach of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, without once flagging his legal ties. “Not disclosing a business or legal relationship with someone you report on….doesn’t sound either fair or balanced,” said Anderson Cooper on CNN. “The President pushes [Hannity’s] TV program, [Hannity] pushes the President, and Michael Cohen seems to whisper in both their ears.”

ICYMI: Here are 5 things interns should NOT be used for in journalism

At 9pm Eastern, Hannity got in front of a camera himself for his regular show on Fox. He’d already (repeatedly) denied that he was a client of Cohen’s on Twitter as the story unfolded, saying he had merely asked his advice on a real estate matter. On Fox, Hannity reiterated that denial and lambasted the “apoplectic” reaction of the mainstream media, then quickly pivoted to what he called “more important news”—praising the precision of US airstrikes in Syria, and tearing into James Comey’s Sunday night interview with “Clinton sycophant” George Stephanopoulos on ABC.

Guest Alan Dershowitz—whose own supposed legal advice to Trump has been in the news in recent days—did veer off-topic to scold Hannity, at least mildly, for not disclosing his Cohen ties. “I think it would have been much, much better had you disclosed that relationship,” he said.

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On the whole, however, Fox was slow to react to the Hannity story. As media reporters asked whether Hannity would face consequences for his undisclosed conflict of interest, PR flacks stayed mum. And speaking on-air as the story broke, Shep Smith—who won plaudits for marking the difference between Fox’s news and opinion offerings in a recent Time profile—could only put on a brave face and chuckle about what he acknowledged was an “elephant in the room” for the network.

ICYMI: A pretty bad typo in the LA Times

In a recent piece for CJR, my colleague Pete Vernon described how news reporters like Smith, Martha MacCallum, and Chris Wallace have grounded Fox’s continued cable dominance. Those reporters have, in recent years, battled to preserve at least a measure of credibility in the face of newsroom sexual assault and conspiracy crises, and the controversies whipped up on air by shouty opinionators like Hannity. With yesterday’s revelation in a New York courtroom, the line between real and synthetic scandal has—at least to the glancing eye—blurred, opening a complicated new front in the battle for Fox’s soul.

Below, more on the Hannity–Cohen story:

  • “Fox is not a normal newsroom”: CNN’s Brian Stelter returned to the old question of whether or not Hannity is a journalist, highlighting Hannity’s own contradictory stances on the matter. “Hannity operates at Fox News with few rules,” Stelter writes. “He seemingly says and does whatever he wants, even when it embarrasses his own colleagues.”
  • It’s not Deadspin’s Sinclair video, but: Mother Jones, Newsweek, and others had a crack at compiling all the times Hannity defended Cohen without disclosing their legal relationship. Spoiler: There are a lot.
  • Ad hominem attack: Vanity Fair Fox-watcher Gabriel Sherman reported after the story broke that Hannity hired Cohen to help defend him against left-wing groups, like Media Matters, that aimed to broker an advertiser boycott of his show. (Hannity denies that charge.)
  • An “embarrassing” “invasion of privacy”? You can read the transcript of the moment Cohen’s lawyer unveiled Hannity’s name here.


Other notable stories:

  • From the ridiculous to the sublime, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday. Unsurprisingly, The New York Times and The New Yorker were both honored for their reporting on Harvey Weinstein, splitting the public service prize. The 102nd edition of the awards saw legacy publications dominate—but local news got a big shout-out, too, and Kendrick Lamar won path-breaking recognition. You can read CJR’s takeaways here.
  • One notable awardee was photographer Ryan Kelly, who was honored for his instantly iconic image of the car attack at last summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. After he got that picture, Kelly gave an intimate, behind-the-lens account to CJR’s Justin Ray.
  • The LA Times’s Meg James and Andrea Chang profiled incoming owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper from troubled tronc in February. In one of his first moves as owner, Soon-Shiong will move the Times from its historic downtown offices to new headquarters in El Segundo.
  • The New York Times has an update on the Report for America program, which aims to put 1,000 journalists in understaffed US newsrooms by 2022, and has already landed three reporters in Appalachia. “People are applying for the same reason people want to go into the Peace Corps: There’s an idealistic desire to help communities, and there’s a sense of adventure,” one of the project’s founders told the Times. “They want to try and save democracy.”
  • New York’s largest police union last week urged the NYPD to take legal action to stop BuzzFeed publishing a disciplinary records database, citing “our members’ safety.” The data was made public Monday.
  • And in the UK, the BBC came under fire at the weekend for its radio reenactment of an infamous anti-immigration speech first delivered 50 years ago by controversial politician Enoch Powell. The broadcaster interwove the speech with expert analysis, but that wasn’t enough for some critics. “The BBC should absolutely be considering the historical context of Powell’s speech, its contemporary impact, and its relevance today. But does that require a theatrical rendition of the whole speech, even if it’s broken up? Or does this imbue what was effectively a racist rant, albeit a historically significant one, the status of an intellectual endeavour deserving close textual analysis?” asked The Observer’s Sonia Sodha.


Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.