Fox News Channel said it was blindsided by the revelation of host Sean Hannity’s business relationship with President Trump’s embattled lawyer Michael Cohen but expressed its “full support” on Tuesday for its most popular star.
Fox declined to answer questions about the matter as criticism mounted over Hannity’s failure to disclose until Monday that he had privately sought Cohen’s legal advice while supporting him on the air — a classic conflict of interest.
The issue of Hannity’s undisclosed conflicts loomed even larger on Tuesday after the Atlantic reported that the fiery conservative host had previously hired two other lawyers with close connections to the president.
The magazine said Hannity was represented in a dispute with a Tulsa radio station by Jay Sekulow and a law firm co-owned by Joseph diGenova. Sekulow is defending Trump in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia during the 2016 election; diGenova was briefly part of Trump’s defense team and is a frequent Fox guest who appeared on Hannity’s program as recently as Monday. Fox did not respond to a request for comment on the latest conflict questions.
Earlier, though, a network spokeswoman issued a statement dismissing the Cohen controversy: “While Fox News was unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court [Monday], we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support.”
The statement was in keeping with Fox’s loyalty to its biggest stars as they’ve become mired in controversy. Fox brass, including executive chairman Rupert Murdoch, initially stood by network co-founder Roger Ailes and host Bill O’Reilly when they were first beset by sexual harassment allegations. Murdoch and his sons, Lachlan and James, eventually dumped both men after paying off some of their accusers.
Fox supported prime-time host Laura Ingraham this month after advertisers began to abandon her show following her criticism of a young gun-control activist who survived the Parkland shooting massacre. Ingraham eventually apologized for her comments, but advertisers have kept away.
Many news organizations have ethics rules that prohibit their employees from having business relationships with the people or organizations they cover, lest their reporting or commentary be perceived as favoritism toward a vested interest. At minimum, most organizations require disclosure of such relationships, either privately or publicly; The Washington Post, for example, regularly spells out to readers that it is owned by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos whenever it covers issues involving the company.
Fox News itself recognized this principle in 2015 when it criticized ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former strategist for Bill Clinton, for failing to disclose that he made $75,000 in donations to the Clinton Global Foundation. During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” network anchor Chris Wallace called Stephanopoulos’s donations “foolish,” adding: “Obviously he worked for the Clintons, and it looks like he still has ties to the Clintons. . . . I think the bigger mistake, which hasn’t been addressed here, is the failure to disclose.” (Wallace did not respond to a request for comment.)
Stephanopoulos apologized on the air for failing to mention his donations, calling it “a mistake.”
Hannity, in contrast, dismissed criticism of his nondisclosure, which emerged Monday when lawyers for Cohen — while in court seeking to exclude some items seized in a federal raid of his office and home — were ordered by a federal judge to disclose his client list. Cohen’s lawyers named Hannity, drawing surprised gasps in the courtroom.
Hannity quickly denied he was Cohen’s client, saying on his program Monday night that he had “occasional brief conversations” with Cohen “where I was looking for input and perspective,” mostly about real estate transactions.
“My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions,” Hannity said. He added that their discussions “never involved any matter . . . between me [and] a third party, a third group.” It was a cryptic statement that seemed to allude to Cohen’s now well-known role brokering payoffs to women who said they had sexual relationships with President Trump and Elliott Broidy, a former deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee.
Hannity’s lack of remorse — and Fox’s apparent lack of concern about the matter — has upset rank-and-file employees at the network’s newsrooms in New York and Washington.
“Quite a few Fox folks are troubled [and] angered at the special standard that applies to Sean Hannity,” said one journalist, who asked not to be named to preserve his job. “Any one of us would be fired [or] suspended in a New York minute for a similar transgression.”
Hannity nodded to transparency concerns last May when Sekulow appeared on his show, introducing him as someone “who’s done legal work for me in the past.” But Sekulow had not yet joined the Trump team then. And in Sekulow’s several appearances on Hannity’s show since becoming a Trump attorney, Hannity did not acknowledge their business relationship.
Hannity has long been Trump’s most prominent media defender — routinely attacking Mueller’s investigation on his show — and his newly revealed connection to Cohen draws him even closer to the White House. Trump, who recently dined with Hannity, has in turn promoted Hannity’s show on Twitter and repeated Hannity’s attacks on Trump’s critics.
Hannity began his syndicated radio program Tuesday by criticizing the news media for its coverage of his relationship with Cohen. He noted that other media figures have had close connections to Democratic officials, such as ABC News journalist Claire Shipman (married to former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney), CBS News President David Rhodes (brother of former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes) and former Time editor Richard Stengel, who went on to serve in the Obama State Department. “The media ignores all of it,” Hannity said.
In fact, each of those relationships has been disclosed and discussed. News organizations are obligated to disclose such connections to let the public assess the reporting or commentary they see, said Tim Franklin, a senior associate dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “It’s about trust,” he said. “And building trust between a news organization and an audience is about transparency.”
Hannity may be a pundit instead of a journalist, Franklin said, but “his failure to be transparent still has a direct impact on the trust between Fox and its audience. . . . I think Fox owes its audience an explanation of what it knows” and should take disciplinary action against Hannity if he violated its policy obligating disclosure.