Sean Hannity threaded the needle Tuesday night, telling his Fox News viewers that he would stop talking about a conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — but only because Rich's family asked him to.
And Hannity once again sought to tamp down speculation that he might leave the network, something he has now had to do at least three times since the fall.
Hannity is in a precarious position. His musings about Rich's murder are catnip for his audience, yet Fox News suddenly seems unwilling to abide them. Hannity has entertained the unsubstantiated notion that Rich was not killed in a robbery gone bad, as D.C. police claim, but rather was assassinated because he, not Russian operatives, provided DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
The news division of Fox News lent credence to the theory in a report on its website last week, but the network retracted the story on Tuesday afternoon, saying that “the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
That put Hannity at odds with his employer, and he sounded ready for conflict on his radio program shortly after the retraction.
“I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com,” he said on the air. “I retracted nothing.”
On his prime-time TV show, however, Hannity was no longer defiant. But he insisted that he was not giving in to pressure or altering his approach.
“I want to say this to you, my loyal audience, which is very important: Please do not interpret what I'm saying tonight to mean anything,” Hannity said. “Don't read into this. I promise you I am not doing — going to stop doing my job to the extent of my ability.”
Hannity said he had spoken by phone with Rich's brother earlier in the day and that “out of respect for the family's wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
Got that, everyone? Fox News did not censor Hannity. Hannity cannot be censored! Hannity is merely honoring the request of a grieving family.
“I serve at the pleasure of the Fox News Channel,” he added. “And I am here to do my job every night. I'm under contract, as long as they seem to want me.”
Speculation that Hannity might leave Fox News is not new. The host served as an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, leading to inevitable questions about whether a job in the White House could be in his future.
Hannity ultimately answered with an unequivocal “never” when a Twitter user inquired in October.
Last month, in the wake of Bill O'Reilly's ouster, Hannity indicated that recent turmoil at Fox News might be reaching a critical mass, in his view. When New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported that network co-president Bill Shine had asked for a vote of confidence from his bosses — and been rebuffed — Hannity sounded an alarm on Twitter.
Sure enough, Shine resigned four days later. He had been with Fox News since its inception, first as producer of Hannity's show, and represented a link to the era of Roger Ailes, the longtime Fox News chairman who was forced out amid sexual harassment allegations last year. Ailes died last week.
On the day Shine was pushed out, Hannity tweeted a link to an Independent Journal Review story that reported he would remain at Fox News, despite the leadership change.
According to Politico, Hannity also assured his staff over pizza the next day that he was not looking for an exit.
So, Hannity is not going anywhere right now. But his relationship with the network that has been his platform for two decades is visibly fraying.