Sean Hannity would likely be toast at any reputable news organizations.
The Fox News pundit was outed Monday in federal court as the third client of President Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. In normal times, a court hearing regarding an FBI raid on the president's personal fixer would be the story of the day, especially one including hush money payments to porn stars.
But normal times these are not. And now, Fox News brass faces an ethical firestorm where their network's biggest name — and Trump's most stalwart defender — has an unquestionable conflict of interest regarding an issue on which he opines almost daily.
Trust in the media is falling, in no small part due to Trump's campaign to discredit anyone who questions his many untruths. And Hannity is a key figure in the campaign to undermine the president's so-called enemies.
But Hannity is, perhaps, the largest purveyor of the slant and yellow journalism against which he so often rails. And, at the same time, he's built a career fomenting doubt among his loyal viewers about the rest of the U.S. media by falsely accusing journalists of mounting the types of attacks on truth with which he's built his brand. Hannity's is a strategy to intellectually silo his audience and, in so doing, isolate it from perspectives that don't fit his narrative.
And yet, Hannity is the one flouting basic ethical precepts.
Hannity's enormous conflict of interest regarding the probes into Trump's web of business, political and legal dealings isn't debatable now. The key here, though, is how Fox News responds. It's unclear what Hannity's bosses knew about his relationship with Cohen. What is known is that he failed to disclose to millions of viewers his clear personal stake in Trump's dealings, particularly this month's raid on Cohen's office and hotel room.
Such an egregious ethical failing is a violation of the public trust. It suggests that buried within Hannity's nightly rants was a deep desire for self-preservation. And it's a fireable offense at any reputable news organization, this one included. But, unsurprisingly, Fox News kicked out a statement Tuesday expressing "full support" of its cash cow.
Ethics still matter — be it in law enforcement, the courts, government or the press.
For example, journalists typically avoid joining organizations, even local ones, for the express purpose of avoiding conflicts. One never knows when an organization might get duped by a sketchy executive director looking to line his or her own pockets. Op-eds appearing on the Quad-City Times Opinion pages always include a tagline at the bottom detailing the author's relationship to the topic. These are basic steps journalists take every day to maintain trust and credibility, without which, they're not worth the paper on which their work is printed.
In this way, Hannity's ethical morass is a reminder to all journalists that one's credibility is only as good as their commitment to intellectual honesty above all else. But it's also a warning to consumers of news, one that's all too important in an era of Russian trolls and partisan news sites posing as legitimate sources. It's topics such as this that we hope to discuss at noon on Friday during our Quad-Cities Big Table event here at the Times in Davenport.
Hannity's defense, among others, is that he's not a "reporter," per se. He's a commentator, a pundit or an entertainer. Yet, Fox News' top-billed talking head has for years blurred the line between straight journalism and punditry. He presents opinions as fact. He intentionally works his audiences' minds in an attempt to maintain loyalty and foster mistrust in his competition.
At the end of the day, Sean Hannity had a vested personal stake in the outcome of Monday's court hearing. From that hearing, legitimate questions arise about Hannity's relationships with those within the president's inner circle. There's simply no reason to believe that Hannity's hot take of the day comes from any place other than his own self-interest.