The president and his favorite prime-time pundit are both New Yorkers of significant means who talk like they grew up in the tough part of town. One drenches his well-done steaks in ketchup and the other favors Coors on ice. Both have long traveled by private jet, yet both feel somehow spurned by the elites.
Donald Trump and Sean Hannity champion the little guy, the forgotten men and women, the audience that has cheered Hannity on as he emerged in the past nine months as perhaps the most dependable pro-Trump voice in the mainstream media, as well as a friend and adviser to the president.
In the process, Fox News’s top-rated host has regained ratings supremacy, pushed back against an organized boycott of his advertisers and quieted rumors of his impending departure from the network.
Hannity, long a movement conservative, nonetheless embraced Trump, who is largely allergic to ideology. Like the president, who has been a Republican, a Democrat and an independent through the years, Hannity isn’t necessarily what he appears to be.
He denies being a journalist, but has said, “I think a lot of the reporting we do is better than the mainstream media.” He covets being in a position of authority, leading a movement, yet he repeatedly embraces storylines that prove to be inaccurate. He’s not a politician, but he takes positions, which have, as he puts it, a way of “evolving.” He was, for example, against amnesty for illegal immigrants, and then he was for creating “a pathway to citizenship,” and then he was against that idea.
What Hannity has stood for — at least for the past couple of years — is Trump. Rival TV host Joe Scarborough calls him Trump’s lap dog. Hannity, a still-rambunctious 55, insists he’s not; he’s pushed back against the president on tax reform and health care, for example.
But the president instinctively understands that his people are Hannity’s people and vice versa. At an August rally, when Trump bashed the media as “the source of division” in the nation, he made a single exception: “How good is Hannity?” he said to rising cheers. “How good is Hannity? And he’s a great guy and an honest guy.”
When the president was still opening casinos in Atlantic City, Hannity was systematically building a following, identifying the issues that could stir up listeners (homosexuality, he declared in his first radio gig, is “disgusting”) and portraying himself as a brash truth-teller whose plain talk was too blunt for the entrenched and the powerful.
April 1989: The voice on the answering machine at the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had a distinctive New York sound. The young man seeking help had just been thrown off his show on the radio station at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was being discriminated against because he’s a conservative, the voice said. Could the ACLU help Sean Hannity get his show back?
Stewart Holden, a local lawyer who volunteered for the ACLU, was intrigued. He asked his local board to take the case, even if Hannity’s show, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” had already achieved some notoriety. People had heard about the rookie host’s inflammatory style, how he railed against “liberal fascists” and hung up on callers he didn’t like.
Every Tuesday at 9 a.m., Hannity, then 27, spent an hour figuring out how to build an audience, how to connect with the bedrock conservative Americans he knew were out there, even in a solidly liberal college town like Santa Barbara.
“It’s my hope to make radio a career at some point,” Hannity wrote in his application for a no-pay position at KCSB in 1989. He wrote that he had “developed alot of dicipline and good-working habits.”
Hannity had come to Santa Barbara in part because his sister lived there. He supported himself as a house painter, wallpaper hanger and contractor, all the time listening to talk radio. He told people that he was “a serious intellectual” who was studying political science. In fact, Hannity attended three colleges — Adelphi, New York University and UC-Santa Barbara — but never graduated.
In his first months on the air, Hannity developed themes that would sustain him for decades — blasting the news media, lending credence to fringy theories, speaking up for the little guys who felt overrun by the elites. “America’s lost its virtue,” he said.
That April, Hannity shared his theories about AIDS, as a tape of the show reveals: “What is the coverup all about that the media is hiding from the general public? Contrary to what we hear in the general media, you can get AIDS from saliva, from tears. . . . They won’t let you say it’s a gay disease.”
More listeners called to complain about Hannity than about all of KCSB’s other shows combined, according to former managers. But the calls really spiked after Hannity’s show about AIDS. He said he wouldn’t want a gay teacher telling his child that homosexuality “is an alternative lifestyle.” He egged on a guest who claimed that AIDS was spreading among gay men because they consumed each other’s feces.
Jody May-Chang, who also had a show, “Gay and Lesbian Perspectives,” on KCSB, heard Hannity’s AIDS episode and felt compelled to call.
“I have a son, okay?” she said on the show. “I just gave birth to him about eight weeks ago and I certainly hope he doesn’t grow up to be like you.”
“Artificial insemination,” Hannity replied. “Aren’t you married to a woman, by the way?”
When May-Chang confirmed that she was, Hannity and his guest, Gene Antonio, an anti-gay activist, bantered about how her son came to be.
“Turkey baster babies,” Antonio said.
“Yeah, isn’t that beautiful?” Hannity said. “I feel sorry for your child.”
Later in the hour, Hannity added that “anyone listening to this show that believes homosexuality is just a normal lifestyle has been brainwashed. . . . These disgusting people.”
May-Chang asked the station to silence Hannity. “For me, the goal was ‘Get this guy off the air, he’s fomenting hatred,’ ” she said. “In retrospect, the higher thing was the First Amendment, but at the time, what he was saying was just abhorrent.”
The station’s student manager told Hannity he was being taken off the air. The young host did not take the news well. “He was extremely upset,” recalled the manager, who declined to have his name published. “I thought he was going to hit me.”
Even though some of its leaders found Hannity’s message reprehensible, the ACLU took his case and informed the university it would sue, alleging discrimination against Hannity’s conservative views. Hannity was called before a university board that governed the station.
“The station did not like my opinions,” Hannity argued, according to a transcript of the board hearing. “I stood for conservative, traditional, loving family values.”
Under pressure from the ACLU, the university counsel “just wanted us to do whatever Sean wanted,” said Elizabeth Robinson, the KCSB manager. “They didn’t want to be on the wrong side of a First Amendment case.” The board concluded that Hannity had been improperly removed and offered to put him back on the air. But Hannity demanded a public apology and double his old airtime. The station stuck with its initial offer, which Hannity rejected.
“We were gleeful,” May-Chang said. “We thought that was the end of him.”
Finished with Santa Barbara, Hannity put an ad in the trade magazine Radio & Records, promoting himself as “the most talked-about college radio host in America.”
From then on, Hannity, who declined to be interviewed for this article, would portray the KCSB chapter as a symbol of liberal intolerance. The ACLU’s role was written out of the story, unmentioned in his own account.
Years later, Hannity accused his liberal foil on their Fox News show, Alan Colmes, of being “a card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Colmes said he was proud to be a member, “because they defend all free speech.”
“No, they don’t, actually,” Hannity replied.
Robinson lost track of Hannity. Seven years later, when she saw him for the first time on Fox News, she said she saw “nothing surprising. The older we get, the more we become who we were.”
In 1990, Bill Dunnavent was trying to bring a relatively new concept to northern Alabama — highly opinionated political talk radio. Three years earlier, the Federal Communications Commission had repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which for nearly four decades had required broadcasters to provide equal time to people who disagreed with views expressed on the air. The rules kept political talk on the airwaves within civil bounds, some people said. Others said it unfairly limited debate, keeping it dull and centrist.
Dunnavent advertised for show hosts, got more than 50 tapes from eager young talkers, and narrowed the field to two candidates. One had a distinctive New York accent, a Joe Sixpack affect, and a collection of headlines from California that proved he could win attention.
“I hired Sean because he had enough guts to stand up for his convictions and because he sounded different from everybody else in our area,” said Dunnavent, who put Hannity on WVNN in the afternoons and paid him $19,000 a year.
The station owner told his new hire he had only two rules: “We don’t talk about religion, and we don’t talk about abortion.”
One day soon after Hannity had started work in Huntsville, Dunnavent flipped on his car radio to hear the kid interviewing a madam from the Mustang Ranch brothel in Nevada.
“I found a pay phone and told him, ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ ” the owner recalled. “He was doing what he does, pushing the envelope. Sean understood that the job is to say something that evokes someone’s emotions.”
Hannity started out “very raw,” Dunnavent said, but improved dramatically over a couple of years, becoming the area’s top-rated host. His official station biography said that he “made a proud name for himself by insulting lesbians.” (“Over the years, I have evolved into more of a libertarian when it comes to people’s personal lives,” Hannity said in 2013.)
Hannity met his future wife, Jill Rhodes, in Huntsville, where she was a newspaper columnist. At a prenuptial meeting, Hannity lit into their minister, arguing that the church had become too liberal. The pastor suggested that Jill was “crazy to be marrying this guy” and she left the session in tears, Hannity later said.
In 1992, a salesman who’d been driving through northern Alabama called up Eric Seidel, the station manager at WGST in Atlanta, and told him about a great guy on the radio in Huntsville.
Seidel happened to have a cassette Hannity had sent him. The manager popped it into his tape deck and heard an eager talent with strong conservative views and a knack for landing big-name guests, including the voluble local congressman, Newt Gingrich. Seidel hired the kid just as right-wing radio voices were becoming an alternative to traditional news media, a battalion arrayed against Bill Clinton, his wife, and their liberal, multicultural vision.
Hannity’s show had a lot of rough edges at first. He would get angry at callers and hang up on them. His righteousness, blue-collar Long Island diction, and plain-spoken rhetoric struck his Georgia audience as refreshingly authentic, Seidel said: “Sean’s not somebody who’s going to make you laugh a lot. He’s not like Rush. There was a blue-collar nature to his family.”
Hannity was also extremely competitive. In Atlanta, he’d listen to promos for his main competitor, Neal Boortz at WSB, and counterprogram his own show. When Boortz booked Robert Shapiro, O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, for a 10 a.m. interview, Hannity called the lawyer’s PR rep and begged for a 9 a.m. slot with Shapiro. He not only beat the competition by an hour, but Hannity kept extending the interview, making Shapiro late to the Boortz show.
Boortz and Hannity competed for the same audience — conservative men — but their approaches were radically different. “I would tell Sean, ‘I am here to attract a large audience so the station can play commercials for them,’ ” Boortz said. “Sean is truly, truly there to save the country. . . . His whole appeal is two words: Earnest and honest. I have never heard Sean say anything off the air that was different from what he’s said on air.”
Few listeners feel a connection to the personal lives of Rush Limbaugh, with his stories about his Palm Beach, Fla. estate and private jets, or Glenn Beck, with his armored cars and guard dogs. But when Hannity talks about his martial arts practice or his beer drinking or his afternoons spent hauling his kids to sports practice, he makes a regular-guy connection that sticks.
“He’s easy to listen to,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group that has tracked Hannity for decades. “There aren’t a lot of complicated narratives like Beck or Limbaugh. He doesn’t claim to be the expert on anything. He’s just kind of a guy.”
Hannity proudly says he never backs away from a battle, but he leavens his aggressive side with the occasional you-got-me shrug. In September, Hannity asked a guest, a radio psychologist, to diagnose Hillary Clinton’s mental health.
“You can’t do that,” interrupted another guest. “You don’t like it when people say Trump is insane.”
“Okay,” Hannity said — flashing his impish smile — and dropped the topic.
Though he’s fixed in the public mind as a TV talker, Hannity is the nation’s second-highest-rated radio host, behind only Limbaugh. He’s No. 1 in the key 25-54 audience among cable news shows. He makes $36 million a year, according to Forbes, which ranked him No. 77 among the world’s top-paid celebrities. (Two other radio hosts, Howard Stern and Limbaugh, made the top 100, both way above Hannity’s pay grade.)
But like the president, Hannity retains enough blue-collar cred to position himself as a scrappy fighter for the regular guy. “My overpaid friends in the media, well, they have their chauffeur-driven limousines, they like their fine steakhouses and expensive-wine lifestyles,” he told viewers last fall. “The people you’re watching on TV” do not feel your pain. “And therein lies the contempt.”
Hannity grew up on Long Island, son of a probation officer and a homemaker. Something of a troublemaker as a kid, he and his pals would go “skitching,” grabbing onto the bumpers of passing cars to hitch a ride.
He was a news junkie, delivering the New York Daily News and Long Island Press, listening deep into the night to the pioneers of raucous talk radio. His heroes were rabble-rousers such as Bob Grant, famous for shouting “Get off my phone!” and dumping callers who annoyed him. As a teenager, Hannity would call in to the shows, testing his conservative arguments.
Gingrich, who got to know Hannity in 1990 and has remained a frequent guest, said the connection Hannity forged with Trump “is the New York thing. They talk the same language. I can’t possibly interact with the president in that same way that Sean can.”
Hannity’s big move up came courtesy of a fellow talk-radio fan, Roger Ailes, who created Fox News for owner Rupert Murdoch in 1996 and essentially translated conservative radio to a TV format. Ailes hired Hannity to host a debate show that the new network initially referred to internally as “Hannity and LTBD” — “liberal to be determined.” That turned out to be Alan Colmes, who shared the 9 p.m. hour with Hannity until 2009, when Hannity went solo.
Hannity has done one hour of TV and three of radio every day for 21 years. Through the George W. Bush years, he loyally supported the president’s policies. Then, during the Obama presidency, Hannity’s tone shifted. He leaned more heavily on stories he believed were being given short shrift by the “liberal media” — stories about where Obama was born, and who deserved blame for the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.
It wasn’t winning over a new audience. By 2013, Hannity’s audience was shrinking; it was the year after a presidential election, when cable news numbers typically droop, but Fox News, still under Ailes’s iron leadership, was talking about changing the channel’s approach.
“We are beginning to dramatically change the way news is presented to the public,” Ailes wrote in a memo announcing that Hannity would move from 9 p.m., the heart of prime time, to 10 p.m., losing the cherished time slot to Megyn Kelly, who, Fox hoped, might lure a younger audience. Kelly’s numbers soared. Hannity’s fell by a quarter between 2009 and 2014.
Four years later, Kelly is gone, moved to NBC; Ailes is dead, having spent his final months denying sexual harassment allegations, which also felled former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Hannity is the only remaining original prime-time talk show host from Fox’s launch.
Last month, he returned to his 9 p.m. home, making way for Laura Ingraham to take over the 10 p.m. slot. His numbers are back, and a drive last spring to get his advertisers to dump him seems now to have been a bump in the road.
Hannity’s comeback coincided with his early, eager embrace of his fellow New Yorker. As early as the fall of 2015, Hannity wore a Trump-brand necktie to interview the upstart candidate at the CPAC convention in Maryland. As some conservative talk hosts pronounced themselves Never Trumpers or came to his side late and halfheartedly, Hannity went all in.
Hannity had come to see conservatives as not just a political movement, but a cultural tribe. In 2008, he launched Hannidate, an online dating service “where people of like conservative minds can come together to meet.” It didn’t last long, but Hannity’s sense of his audience as vanguard of a crusade to restore a fading culture only strengthened. Hannity made his name as a movement conservative, but he was loyal to the first rule of talk shows: As radio host Mark Levin put it, “In this business, you don’t get out ahead of your audience.”
When Hannity “hitched his wagon to Trump,” Carusone said, “he got access and access brought ratings.” Trump insiders used Hannity’s show as their safe space. When things got hot, Donald Trump Jr., Sebastian Gorka and the candidate himself went on Hannity.
Trump attacked the Gold Star father, and Hannity stood by him. Trump went after a federal judge of Mexican descent, and Hannity backed him. Even after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged of Trump boasting about grabbing women, Hannity defended his guy: “King David had 500 concubines, for crying out loud.”
After the inauguration, the first interview the new president gave to a cable news channel went to Hannity.
Hannity’s “advocacy journalism” sometimes entails passing along stories that never quite check out. He used his TV show last year to promote the false rumor that Hillary Clinton was hiding a severe health crisis. He let Trump push the baseless idea that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination. “I saw that somewhere on the Internet,” Hannity said.
After the election, Hannity doubled down on his loyalty. He defended the administration’s false contention that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever.
And Hannity spent many hours hawking a discredited theory whereby a murdered Democratic National Committee employee, Seth Rich, was said to have been killed by Democratic operatives because he supposedly had leaked emails that were embarrassing to Hillary Clinton. Fox News retracted its report that had lent credence to the theory, and police affirmed that the scenario had no validity; the murder was the result of a robbery gone bad.
Through much of the spring, Hannity kept at the story, backing off only after Media Matters urged his advertisers to pull their ads. Several did, though one, USAA insurance, returned to his show because “we heard from our members, and . . . the lines between news and commentary are increasingly blurred,” a company statement said.
In late May, Hannity, facing pressure from Rich’s parents, dropped the story. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” Hannity said on TV. Fox News and Hannity declined to comment on the Rich coverage.
The Rich debacle led some people who know Hannity to believe that his time at Fox was nearing an end, that the next generation of the Murdoch family was looking to tone down the sensationalism. But Hannity has told friends he would never cave to those who want to take him down.
“I’ve told you for years what’s going on here,” Hannity said on the radio in May. “I’ve told you that every single conservative host on radio that you like and you listen to is being recorded every second of every day by these losers in their bathrobes or in their underwear . . . being paid to do it in the hope that we conservatives say one word, one sentence, one phrase that they don’t like and that they can then use to attack our advertisers in the hopes that our advertisers will bail out, the show becomes financially unfeasible and that the host gets fired.
“This is a kill shot. . . . This is to silence me.”
When Ted Koppel interviewed him in March, Hannity asked the CBS newsman, “You think I’m bad for America?”
“Yeah,” Koppel replied, “because you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”
Like Hannity, Chip Franklin, a radio host at KGO in San Francisco, started out in the business as a conservative, but Franklin switched sides and now runs a liberal show. “I know Hannity knows that Koppel was right,” Franklin said.
“I’ve seen what happens to people like Hannity because I was seduced in the ’80s and ’90s when I was yelling about what Clinton did to Monica Lewinsky and things like that. I know Hannity knew that Obama was born in the United States. I know Hannity has the same facts we all do about the crowd size at the inauguration or the Russian connection. I know that because I knew him in New York and he was always a conservative, but not like this.
“And then he got in this boat and didn’t realize how strong the current was, and he couldn’t get off. Because people adore him now. Nobody around him wants him to change. So he doubles down. He can’t go against his audience because he’ll lose millions of dollars.”
“Donald Trump and Sean Hannity are both disrupters of the status quo,” said Kellyanne Conway, counsel to the president and an architect of the administration’s communications approach. “Disrupters project a strength and moxie that fascinates some people and causes envy in others.”
Trump watches and values Hannity’s show, she said: “Hannity’s monologues have caught our attention. There’s a deeper, investigative component, and in this predictably vanilla and mediocre media environment, somebody like Hannity can break through with a steady stream of undercovered stories.”
The administration uses Hannity’s show because that’s where Trump’s base is. “Sean gets programming and the president gets a platform for his message,” said a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid. “But between the two men, it’s not a transactional relationship. They’re genuinely friends.”
Last spring, Fox News’s Howard Kurtz asked Hannity if there was “anything so far in the Trump presidency that’s disappointed you?”