After Fox News personality Sean Hannity was named as a client of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer—whom he had strenuously defended on air without disclosing the relationship—some observers wondered if Fox News might fire Hannity (as if that were an actual possibility).
Instead, his network announced yesterday (April 17) that it was putting its “full support” behind the popular right-wing host. That statement set off a variety of head-scratching reactions. One prominent columnist asked whether the network deserved to be called a news organization. Another journalist said he was “stunned” that Fox wouldn’t punish Hannity for the blatant violation of journalistic standards.
Really? Stunned? Let’s be clear: Fox News is not, and never has been, a news organization. And while Hannity is an influential person on television—and one many listen to—he is not a journalist. That some media observers saw Fox’s non-response to the Hannity debacle as anything other than a sad inevitability shows that we still have a ways to go to normalize those two facts.
Hannity’s failure to disclose his relationship with Trump fixer Michael Cohen actually seems almost minor, compared to the fact that Hannity is already friends with, and gives advice to, Trump himself. The Washington Post reported today (paywall) that Hannity is so intertwined in Trump’s circles that some White House staff have called him the “unofficial chief of staff” and joked that he “basically has a desk in the place.” Of course Fox News is going to stand behind Hannity in the Cohen fiasco. He’s an extension of the president of the United States.
This Hannity debacle is not a particularly low point for the network, either. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox can—and if history is any indication, it will—sink even lower than this. After Fox News founding CEO Roger Ailes died last year, the network had a rare opportunity to be better than it had been for the preceding 20 years. It took option B: double down on its cozying up to Republicans in power.
Other news networks, while neither immune to political bias nor the occasional embarrassing ethics scandal, at bare minimum follow certain journalistic procedures. “Don’t actively argue on behalf of your own lawyer on television,” would be a good start, or at least “If you do, tell viewers he’s your lawyer.” Fox News should not be exempt from those rudimentary standards, but its track record should convince Americans to never be surprised when the network fails to do the right thing.
This is the same company, and journalist, that relentlessly pushed conspiracy theories about the murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer, despite the pleas of his family for them to stop. This is the same company that gives Hannity millions of dollars to champion dangerous, debunked theories about former US president Barack Obama’s birthplace, and bogus claims of “voter fraud.” This is the same network that has literally manipulated photos and videos for political purposes, and recently was exposed for fostering a culture of rampant sexual harassment that went all the way to the top.
Fox News has only gotten more powerful since Trump was elected. The president is known to watch the network every day and form many of his opinions around what its cast of talking heads think about political issues. Fox News, for its part, will cater its coverage specifically for the president, knowing he’s watching.
This is the news network we expected to reprimand Hannity for his journalistic misdeeds? Fox News will always be what it is, a propagandistic media monolith, and a stain on American democracy. Don’t expect anything different.
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