Never one to pipe down, Fox News host Sean Hannity has spoken at some length about Monday’s blockbuster revelation that he was identified in a court proceeding as the mysterious “third client” of Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen. Though a lawyer for Cohen strove to keep a lid on Hannity’s connection with Cohen, it didn’t work: U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood, presiding over a battle over how to treat materials culled from raids against Cohen last week, demanded the reveal.
And just like that, a huge story sitting astride media, politics and journalistic ethics broke into view.
On his program Monday night, Hannity received a scolding from famed attorney Alan Dershowitz. “I do want to say that I really think that you should have disclosed your relationship with Cohen when you talked about him on this show,” said Dershowitz, speaking an obvious-but-necessary-for-Hannity truth. The host, after all, has ranted about matters relating to Cohen — and welcomed him as a guest — without saying a word about this legal relationship. And then, later in the program, Hannity addressed things head-on:
“Michael Cohen never represented me in any legal matter,” he said. “I never retained his services, I never received an invoice, I never paid Michael Cohen for legal fees. I did have occasional brief conversations with Michael Cohen — he’s a great attorney — about legal questions I had. Or I was looking for input and perspective. My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions, and to be absolutely clear, they never involved any matter, any — sorry to disappoint so many — matter between me, a third party, a third group — at all. And my questions exclusively almost focused on real estate. I have said many times on air, I hate the stock market — I prefer real estate. Michael knows real estate. So in response to all the wild speculation, I want to set the record straight here tonight.”
The record is actually a bit curvy. On his radio show on Monday, Hannity said this: “I might have handed him 10 bucks [and said,] ‘I definitely want your attorney-client privilege on this.’ Something like that.” So, did Hannity pay a nominal fee or nothing at all?
Hannity’s attempts at minimization actually have some backing from prosecutors in the case. They insist that Cohen has little or nothing in the way of clients outside of the president — an argument that bears on the application of attorney-client privilege to the raids against Cohen. Too bad that even an informal relationship compromises “Hannity,” though it’s hard to see how the host could be any more beholden to Trump.
As important as Hannity’s explanations may be, the word of his employer matters far more. Fox News, after all, is supposed to be supervising Hannity. Though there are few apparent standards governing an opinion host on Fox News, there have to be at least one or two, right? In the past, Hannity’s obeisance to Trump and his cronies has embarrassed the network, like the time that he appeared in a promotional video for Trump-the-presidential-candidate. That bit of line-crossing surprised the Fox News brass: “We had no knowledge that Sean Hannity was participating in this, and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election,” said a Fox News spokesperson at the time.
So: Did this tight legal relationship with the president’s personal attorney surprise Fox News? Did Hannity apprise his bosses of things? Does Fox News believe there’s an issue here? Is it concerned about Hannity’s independence? Has the brass at Fox News discussed this matter with Hannity since the news broke? We’ve placed those questions before Fox News and are awaiting a reply.
At some point soon — and we’re willing to be patient — Fox News needs to speak up. Does this behavior accord with standards, or would it be okay for Laura Ingraham, Steve Doocy, Bret Baier, Shepard Smith and Harris Faulkner to dial up Cohen for advice? And we’ll endeavor right here to head off a likely argument before it pops up: No — conflict-of-interest requirements for opinion-side hosts shouldn’t be any less stringent than they are for straight-news personnel. Whether you’re offering opinions or just the facts, it’s best not to have entanglements and private loyalties to newsmakers.
This particular Hannity scandal will bump along for a few days. It’s safe to say he will stay defiant, lashing out at critics and questioning their political motivations — essentially the formula that has made him a multimillionaire. Fox News may or may not maintain its silence.
But it needs to do its own internal probe of Sean Hannity. With what other Trump figures does he have formal or informal relationships? Has he given money to any charities or causes associated with Trump and his friends? Has he pulled a George Stephanopoulos? What else should viewers know?
Fox News wouldn’t likely share the results of any such investigation, though the Erik Wemple Blog would welcome any leaks. But how many times must Hannity embarrass his employer before it shows some spine? After he stirred a scandal by hyping the Seth Rich conspiracy theory — a line of hokum designed to safeguard President Trump from the Russia investigation — Hannity told media reporter Michael Calderone, “Nobody tells me what to say on my show. They never have and frankly they never will. I’m not that type of person you can say, ‘Go on air and say this.’ That’s been the beauty of Fox News all these years. They leave me alone.” It’s time for an end to Hannity-oriented laissez-faire. Investigate this man.
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