A tidy synopsis of the Sean Hannity conundrum can be found in a single tweet by the chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, Andrew M. Seaman.
As Hannity tries to weather the latest round of criticism from his media colleagues — and the Fox News star probably will weather it — he benefits from the phenomenally low expectations he has established for himself.
This is, after all, the TV host who appeared in a Donald Trump campaign ad, flew Newt Gingrich on a private jet to interview for the role of Trump's running mate and continues to serve as an informal adviser to the president. Monday's revelation that Hannity has been crying foul about Trump, Cohen and attorney-client privilege without telling viewers that he, too, is a Cohen client seems consistent with behavior that Fox News and its viewers are willing to tolerate.
Fox News did not comment on Hannity's lack of disclosure for a full day. A network spokeswoman initially referred The Fix to the explanation Hannity offered on his show Monday night: “My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions.”
“The fact that Fox News has said nothing about this is outrageous,” said Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “They have among the most aggressive PR shops in television. If you write something, they are there in minutes. They are calling you and saying, 'You've got to change this.' They are omnipresent, and they are aggressive. And all of a sudden, now, they are like crickets.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the network finally issued a statement: “While Fox News was unaware of Sean Hannity's informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean, and he continues to have our full support.”
In the past, Hannity and Fox News have attempted to insulate him from ethical questions by calling him a talk-show host.
“I never claimed to be a journalist,” Hannity told the New York Times in 2016.
In another interview with the Times last year, however, Hannity said: “I'm a journalist. But I'm an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.”
I wrote at the time of Hannity's latter remarks that if he calls himself a journalist, he ought to be judged as such. But Seaman told me Tuesday that “we can't apply traditional journalistic standards to Sean Hannity. He may call himself some type of journalist, but I think a reasonable viewer knows he's not an impartial observer.”
Still, Seaman said, “It's just common communication decency to let people know when you have proverbial skin in the game. I don't think anyone likes to find out at a later date that the person who first told them a bit of news was actually involved with the event.”
Aly Colón, a former director of standards and practices at NBC News, added this: “Sean Hannity's role as a television show host may not require the ethical standards of a journalist. But it does behoove him to abide by ethical standards of openness and accuracy. His credibility depends on it.”
The 3.2 million viewers who tune in to Hannity's prime-time show every night might measure credibility differently, however. Part of Hannity's appeal is his access to the president and other key players on Trump's team.
“Some people may see this as no problem whatsoever,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
On the air last week, Hannity decried FBI raids on Cohen's office, home and hotel room but neglected to mention that his own communications with Cohen were among the documents seized by federal agents.
Culver said that “as he was making claims that this was some sort of government overreach that jeopardized attorney-client privilege, it could have been persuasive for him to say: 'And I am one of those clients. I have had confidential conversations with Michael Cohen, and that is exactly why I am an expert.' Members of his audience might have thought: 'He's exactly right. He has a unique perspective.' ”
The problem, according to Culver, is that Hannity denied his viewers the right to make such a judgment for themselves. He made the call for them.
“That's not a decision Sean Hannity gets to make,” Culver said. “That decision rests with the audience.”