If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
That seems to be the approach of a new conservative group that, in an effort to defend embattled Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, is employing a tactic that even Hannity has long sought to avoid: putting pressure on advertisers.
On Tuesday, a group called Media Equality Project announced that it was beginning a campaign to “push back against the attempt to silence those who dare to ask tough questions and pursue the truth.”
The group's co-founders said they are taking particular aim at Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group that has in the past targeted a string of Fox News stars, including Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and, most recently, Hannity. Often, those campaigns have included calls for advertisers to boycott Fox News shows.
“We've got to stop Media Matters for America from engaging in this kind of activity,” Media Equality Project co-founder Melanie Morgan told The Washington Post. “It's wrong, it's un-American and we're just going to hit them until they surrender.”
To do so, Morgan said they plan to adopt Media Matters' methods. Its first target? Liberal MSNBC star Rachel Maddow. Along with its Tuesday announcement, the new group posted a list of companies — along with their contact information — that advertise on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” labeling the host “an outright liar, and someone who deceives the public and defames conservatives on a daily basis.”
“We have to draw a line,” Morgan said. “We have been under attack in the media and from the media and we're not going to take it anymore.”
However, the group's organizers insisted they were not promoting a “boycott” of the show.
“What we are doing is just wording it the same way Media Matters did,” Brian Maloney, the group's co-founder, told CNN. “We are just saying, two can play this game.”
Over the last few days, Hannity has relentlessly promoted the group, retweeting more than two dozen posts about the group and the new campaign — using the hashtags #StopTheScalpings and #StandWithSean — and inviting the group on his show Tuesday night.
— StopTheScalpings (@SScalpings) May 30, 2017
On his radio show Tuesday, Hannity said he was reluctantly supporting the group's efforts but blamed “the left” for leaving him with no other choice.
“I don't see any other option but to fight fire with fire and that is why I support them,” Hannity said, according to CNN. “I want to be clear. It's not a boycott. They are just relaying information like [Media Matters]."
It's a significant shift in position for Hannity, who for years has declared that he does not support boycotts of any kind, even if they are against people with whom he disagrees.
As recently as a month ago, Hannity tweeted that he was against a proposed advertising boycott of late-night comedian Stephen Colbert, who had been heavily criticized at the time for a vulgar joke involving President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I will NOT support #FireColbert. I am vs ALL BOYCOTTS. He is a horrible human being, but if u don't like him change the channel.
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 3, 2017
However, in recent weeks, Hannity has been under fire for pushing unsubstantiated theories about the killing of Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee staff member. The backlash reached a pitch last week, after Rich's family threatened to sue a private investigator they said had been peddling conspiracy theories about their son's death.
Last Tuesday, the family pleaded publicly for people to stop politicizing Rich's death. That same day, Media Matters for America posted a list of companies — without contact information — that were advertising on Hannity's show, insisting it was merely another tool ad buyers could use to make an informed choice.
The move prompted Hannity to lash out against Media Matters on Twitter, accusing it of “liberal fascism” and trying to get him fired.
To all my friends. TODAY, George Soros, & Hillary Clinton supported Mediamatters is targeting all of my advertisers to try and get me fired
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 24, 2017
Spoke to many advertisers. They are being inundated with Emails to stop advertising on my show. This is Soros/Clinton/Brock liberal fascism https://t.co/WRCzfWVs9N
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 24, 2017
Mediamatters is hoping advertisers will give into the pressure and they will silence freedom of speech. Liberals, do you support this effort https://t.co/TtknEQnvTa
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 24, 2017
After Media Matters posted its list, a handful of companies did pull their advertisements from Hannity's show — though nowhere near the number that dropped Bill O'Reilly's show in April amid the former Fox News host's sexual harassment scandal.
On May 23, FoxNews.com retracted its Seth Rich story, stating its coverage of the murder investigation “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
As The Post's Callum Borchers reported, the network's retraction put Hannity “at odds” with his longtime employer. Amid rumors that he might leave Fox News, Hannity said that he would stop talking about the conspiracy theories on air.
[Hannity] 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.
Since the outcry, at least one advertiser, financial services company USAA, has decided to return to Hannity's show.
A Fox News spokeswoman declined Wednesday to comment further and referred all questions about Hannity's position on the anti-Maddow campaign to the Tuesday night episode of his television show. An NBC spokeswoman representing Maddow's show said they had no comment.
Media Matters for America president Angelo Carusone said Wednesday that publishing a list of Hannity's advertisers — as the Fox News host was embroiled in controversy over the Seth Rich murder — was hardly the most severe approach the group could have taken.
“It is pressure. I'm not denying that. of course it is,” Carusone told The Post, characterizing the move as “a 1.5 to 2" on a scale of 10 of how aggressively they could have campaigned against Hannity. “I think it's a good thing that we did that for the buyers, only for their awareness. I'm not trying to be cute about it.”
But Carusone charged that the Media Equality Project — and Hannity's support of the new group and its efforts to put pressure on Maddow advertisers — smacked of “revenge” rather than a genuine, grass-roots movement.
“I think the reason he's doing it is spite and revenge and I think he's also trying to hurt Media Matters in the process,” Carusone said. “Their entire rationale is we'll stop if they'll stop. Stop what? I haven't contacted anyone yet. When I contact advertisers, they know it. Advertisers leave.”
Morgan, the co-founder of Media Equality Project, disagreed, telling The Post that its list of supporters on Facebook had grown from 6,000 to nearly 25,000 in a day. She insisted that Hannity was not financially supporting the group in any way and that the Fox News host hadn't known about the efforts until organizers unveiled the group to him recently.
Morgan added that she and Maloney were both longtime friends with Hannity.
“When contacted me to express his gratitude for what we'd done, we both talked about how neither one of us have been supportive of the idea of boycotts,” said Morgan, who formerly hosted a conservative radio show in San Francisco. “But then again, I lived through a boycott. ... And that's the only way to handle this. You have to fight them back. You have to fight the left wing back.”
Both Carusone and Morgan said they had no professional relationship with one another, nor did either of their groups intend to back down.
“Everybody always claims they want the conversation to be more civil,” Morgan said. “Our response is: You first.”