The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Sean Hannity a journalist or not? Here’s why it matters.

Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives on stage to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Sean Hannity is one of America’s most famous TV personalities, a conservative opinion-slinger who regularly attracts more than 3 million viewers to his nightly prime-time Fox News show while also hosting a daily syndicated radio program.

But lately a kind of Talmudic question has swirled around Hannity: Is he a journalist? And if not, what is he?

The question is probably irrelevant to Hannity’s loyal fans, who tune in for his reliably fierce defense of President Trump. But its importance rose anew on Monday when attorneys for Michael Cohen, the president’s beleaguered lawyer, revealed that Hannity was also one of Cohen’s clients, a fact Hannity never mentioned to his audience while denouncing a federal investigation into Cohen. (Hannity says he merely consulted Cohen and was never a client.)

This news caused the old journalist-or-not? question to resurface because of the implications for Hannity’s ethical obligations. Journalists are bound to recuse themselves from a story in which they have a personal stake, or at least to disclose their relationship with a person they’re covering or commenting about. Even Fox acknowledged it was blindsided by Hannity’s Cohen connection.

Does putting "10 bucks" in someone's pocket automatically grant you attorney-client privilege? Sean Hannity and a fictional "Breaking Bad" lawyer think so. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

The ethical obligations of a talk-show host, however, are considerably less fixed.

Sean Hannity had a lot to say about Michael Cohen lately. But he left a few things out.

Fox News often says there is a clear line between its news side — the province of journalists such as Shepard Smith and Bret Baier — and its opinion side, represented by Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro. Its representatives bristle when the distinction isn’t made clear.

But Fox isn’t keen on declaring the latter group to be “journalists.” Asked repeatedly on Wednesday whether Fox considered Hannity a journalist, a network spokesman declined to answer directly. She would only allow that Hannity is “an opinion talk-show host.”

The reluctance reflects, in part, the internal debate — one insider describes it as “a war” — between Fox’s opinion and news sides. The friction spilled into public view last month when Smith told Time magazine that “some of our opinion programming is there strictly to be entertaining.” Hannity took exception, tweeting in response that Smith “is clueless about what we do every day” and that his show “breaks news daily.” (Ingraham similarly objected, saying her team “does real reporting.”)

But Hannity has played both sides of this game, as the occasion suits.

“I never claimed to be a journalist,” he told the New York Times in 2016 when asked about his close association and friendship with Trump. But in another interview with the Times last year, he said, “I’m a journalist. But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.”

When a Boston Globe columnist named Michael Cohen (a different Michael Cohen) criticized him in 2016, he was back on the other side. “I’m not a journalist,” he tweeted. “I’m a talk host.”

In his shot at Smith last month, Hannity flipped again. “Hannity breaks news daily,” he tweeted. “Warrant on a Trump assoc, the unmasking scandal, leaking intel, Fisa abuse, HRC lawbreaking, dossier and more REAL NEWS!”

In fact, Hannity conducts interviews with newsmakers and convenes panels of talking heads just like many TV journalists. He frequently criticizes the mainstream news media, saying his own “reporting” is a more accurate account of events. One of his guests, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, praised his commentary by comparing him to CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow.

As such, journalists at the network said they were angry and disappointed by Fox’s decision not to discipline Hannity this week over the Cohen controversy. They said another employee would very likely have been suspended or fired for not disclosing such a relationship with someone they’ve reported on.

Hannity’s rising role in Trump’s world: ‘He basically has a desk in the place’

Whether he’s a journalist or not, experts agree Hannity had an obligation, if only as a broadcaster, to disclose his involvement with Cohen.

“He has an audience, and he is bound as a broadcaster to be transparent with them,” said Susan King, a veteran TV journalist who is now dean of the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. “He owes it to his audience to let them know when he is talking about something that impacts him directly.

King declines to apply the J-word to Hannity. She calls him “a provocateur whose medium happens to be radio and TV.”

But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said Hannity would very likely meet the legal definition of a journalist. “He doesn’t actually get to decide that,” said Rosenstiel, the co-author of the book “Elements of Journalism.” “You can say you’re a kumquat, and the courts will decide if you walk or talk like a journalist, you will legally be a journalist. You’re talking about someone who conducts interviews, does exposes, breaks news and [is involved in] all the nomenclature of news.”

Ultimately, he said, Fox and Hannity depend on keeping their audience’s trust, and so it doesn’t matter what Hannity is called. “It’s not in Fox’s interest to have someone keeping things from its audience. If you’re hiding something, you’re no longer putting your audience first.”