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Opinion Sean Hannity cannot tweet his way out of journalistic corruption

Opinion writers Molly Roberts, Erik Wemple, Jennifer Rubin and Jonathan Capehart excoriate Fox News host Sean Hannity for his ties to President Trump's lawyer. (Video: The Washington Post)
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As The Post’s Paul Farhi noted, Fox News host Sean Hannity has had trouble settling on a description for what he does each night at the network. When he’s perhaps feeling a bit self-righteous, he says, “I’m a journalist. But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.” When his ethics come under fire, as they have this week, he also tries a less demanding title:

Hey, who cares how Hannity defines his job? We here at the Erik Wemple Blog do not. All that matters is the area circled in the image below:

Fox News. Whatever Hannity or a Fox News representative may say, the network’s viewers are being trained to believe that they’re getting news during Hannity’s always-frothing hour of chatter. News is delivered by journalists. If the host and his bosses wish to exempt Hannity from the attendant requirements, they should change the logo in the bottom left of the screen. “Fox Talk” might work, or perhaps “Trump Time with Sean.”

The backdrop for this whole discussion, of course, is the news Monday that Hannity was the mysterious “third client” of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and personal attorney. In the past week alone, Hannity has expressed outrage over FBI raids of Cohen’s addresses and has had chummy discussions with him on air. Though Hannity has indeed disclosed a friendship, he never told viewers, nor his Fox News bosses, about any legal relationship with Cohen.

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So clueless is Hannity about conflicts that he exacerbated matters when he attempted to explain his way out of the jam. “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.”

On his radio show, he said, “I might have handed him 10 bucks [and said,] ‘I definitely want your attorney-client privilege on this.’ Something like that.” (Fox News has said it was unaware of Hannity’s “informal” relationship with Cohen and after a discussion with the host, declared its “full support” for him.)

Drop Hannity’s cumulative comments in the wash, and the result is this: He received advice from Cohen — killer advice, by his own admission — and paid next to nothing for it. Which is to say, Cohen has done him a favor or two — and that compromises Hannity more than a conventional relationship in which he pays market rate for the counsel. “Free legal work encourages a sense of obligation in the client,” notes Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at NYU School of Law and author of the forthcoming “The Press under Fire: Protecting the Future of Investigative Reporting.”

More momentum in the same, compromised direction spilled from a Post article outlining the extent of Hannity’s contacts with the president himself. “He basically has a desk in the place,” says a source in the piece. They talk all the time, presumably off the record. With each conversation, Hannity learns more and more about the president, and presumably the president learns more and more about Hannity. Those contacts long ago extinguished any hope of independence from Hannity vis-a-vis Trump.

Think of what binds Hannity to sycophancy: Trump has turned on his own attorney general, Trump has turned on the intelligence community, Trump has turned on any number of intimates. What would stop him from turning on Sean Hannity?

Fox News could quite easily shave off a sliver of its billion-dollars-plus in annual profits to fund an internal investigation of Hannity’s dealings with Cohen, not to mention other possible conflicts. Its “full support” statement suggests that it’ll take a less controversial approach to the rogue barely-a-journalist Hannity.

In the meantime, more digging — and perhaps more disclosures from court proceedings associated with the FBI raids — will be required to determine precisely what Hannity and Cohen were talking about. On Monday, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman — easily the dean of Fox News investigative reporting — tweeted:

In an appearance on “MSNBC Live with Ali Velshi,” Sherman said, “You know, this is a fast-moving story, so I am going to be doing a lot more reporting, but what I have heard so far is that at some point last year, Sean Hannity hired Michael Cohen to help defend him against left-wing groups” — Media Matters, for instance — “that were calling for boycotts in the wake of Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News under pressure from advertisers and left-wing groups.”

Media Matters tells the Erik Wemple that it has no evidence that Hannity deployed Cohen to fight the boycott, launched last year in response to Hannity’s propagandistic Seth Rich conspiracy theorizing. Hannity himself called into MSNBC to deny such a deal. Sherman tweeted the denial:

When Sherman wrote up his piece in Vanity Fair, he exposed the flimsiness of his sourcing: “Another staffer speculated Hannity hired Cohen to help him fight left-wing groups that were orchestrating an advertiser boycott after Hannity fanned the Seth Rich conspiracy last year. ‘Hannity was paranoid and hiring lawyers,’ the staffer said.”

Anyone can speculate. We asked Sherman if, perhaps, a correction was in order. He responded, “I described what people inside Fox were saying in real time, and qualified what I was by hearing by making it clear it’s a fast moving story that could evolve. Hannity still has yet to provide a detailed explanation of his relationship with Cohen. I do think it’s a possibility the claim could be true. In any event, there’s nothing we need to correct here.”

“Real time,” huh? Who needs “real time” reporting about Sean Hannity? As Fox News has made clear with its statement of “full support,” this fellow will be around for awhile. No need to rush the news.

Read more from Erik Wemple:

‘Full support’: Fox News is cool with the Sean Hannity-Michael Cohen connection

Time for Fox News to investigate Sean Hannity

Now we know what Sean Hannity was omitting

The entirely legal collusion of Sean Hannity