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Opinion Hannity must go

Fox News host Sean Hannity in 2019. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
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Recent personnel actions at Fox just happen to have fallen when people turn away from their phones and laptops. On Friday, March 13, news emerged that the Fox Business show of Trish Regan had gone on hiatus — along with another show — as part of the network’s resource shift toward the coronavirus. Days earlier, Regan had issued a fact- and reason-defying riff on air about the politics of the coronavirus. “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam,” read the on-screen graphic as Regan denounced the common villains of Fox programming: “Many in the liberal media using, and I mean using, coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president,” she said, triggering a momentous backlash pointing out that the coronavirus was a real public-health crisis.

Then, on Friday afternoon of last week, Fox disclosed that the network had “parted ways” with Regan. There was no good explanation. “[W]e thank her for her contributions to the network over the years and wish her continued success in her future endeavors.”

Those hollow words come in lieu of any Fox reckoning with some of the coronavirus programming that has come from its opinion hosts. In particular, franchise prime-timer Sean Hannity.

The fossil record shows that Regan’s troubles began when she made irresponsible statements just like the irresponsible statements of Hannity, who on Feb. 27 said this, “Tonight, I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent, and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours and it’s all President Trump’s fault,” said Hannity, in typically benighted and dangerous commentary. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think. They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump.”

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We pointed out the parallel after Regan’s show went on hiatus. We asked: Why no hiatus for Hannity?

Take a look, again, at the side-by-side view:

Hannity, Feb. 27: “They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump.”

Regan, March 9: “Many in the liberal media using, and I mean using, coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president.”

Where is the fairness? We have posed that question to Fox News and will update with any response.

The Fox News personality's coverage has been so irresponsible that he should be off the air, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: Erik Wemple/The Washington Post)

There could be an argument that Regan made her despicable comments more than a week after Hannity’s, a period when public awareness of the coronavirus threat advanced. But by the time that Hannity made his “weaponizing” comments, the dangers were unfolding in China, in Italy, in Iran and elsewhere around the world. In late January, in fact, Hannity interviewed Anthony S. Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and contemplated the possibility of a public crisis. “What if it is worse?” asked the host. Weeks later, that cautious, curious posture was gone. In late February, Hannity’s rhetoric amped up as the coronavirus started to gobble up more and more national mindshare. For context, consider this sequence of events:

  • Feb. 21: News surfaces that President Trump was furious with aides for how they handled 14 Americans in Japan who had tested positive for coronavirus.
  • Feb. 23: “Fewer than 500 people from 43 states had been or are being tested for the virus,” according to Reuters.
  • Feb. 25: Vox rounded up the Trump administration’s failures in responding to coronavirus. “Trump says coronavirus is ‘under control.’ It’s not.”
  • Feb. 26: Trump named Vice President Pence to head the White House task force on coronavirus. “The president’s announcement, at a White House news conference, followed mounting bipartisan criticism that the administration’s response had been sluggish and came after two days of contradictory messages about the virus, which has infected more than 81,000 people globally, killing nearly 3,000,” reported the New York Times.
  • Feb. 27: Stat News noted that U.S. testing inadequacies had frustrated health-care workers and political leaders.

It was right in the midst of this bad-news plume that Hannity offered his ill-informed takes on the virus — just as the president was coming under attack and needed someone on cable news to defend him. On Feb. 26, Hannity blasted Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for using “coronavirus to bludgeon President Trump, not telling the truth as usual — shameless politicizing of health and the well-being of Americans.” The next night, he kept it up. Only after a backlash managed to place him within roaming distance of reality did he begin to change his tone.

By mid-March, Hannity was sounding the alarm on the virus. “Make no mistake, the coronavirus — every virus, as we have been telling you, you must take it seriously. It has been and it is being taken seriously,” said the host on his March 12 program. And then last week, Hannity took the side of Trump in his dispute with New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the federal response to the virus. “Thank Donald Trump. Maybe once in a while just say ‘thank you Mr. President.’ Thank you to the American people,” said Hannity.

You might say that Hannity has “evolved” on the coronavirus.

Regan, meanwhile, evolved into a former Fox Business host. So what else could have led to Regan’s dismissal? For Friday night’s edition of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter, Brian Stelter provided this reporting on how Fox handles personnel changes:

What caused Fox to part ways with Regan? It wasn’t a single incident. For my forthcoming book about Fox in the Trump age, I’ve been interviewing scores of sources at the network. Last year a network veteran said to me, “No one at Fox ever gets in trouble for what they say, they get in trouble for insubordination.”

They do, huh? Well, then, let’s look at Hannity’s insubordination record. As reported in this blog, he once earned a public rebuke from the network for participating in a video promotion for Trump’s 2016 campaign. He earned another public rebuke when he appeared onstage with Trump at a 2018 rally, at which he called assembled media “fake news” even though staffers from his own network were in attendance. He attacked his own network’s polling, even though that unit at Fox News is widely respected. He has cited bogus polling in defiance of news-side standards. He has used the same lawyer — Michael Cohen, now serving a federal prison sentence — as Trump. And who could forget the Seth Rich episode?

Those are just the examples that come immediately to mind.

In explaining why Regan has “parted ways” with Fox, Stelter cited another factor: “It was also about her weak ratings performance — she was in a very tough time slot, 8pm ET, but she was losing half of her Lou Dobbs lead-in despite her daily attempts to mimic Dobbs.” In its write-up, the New York Times noted that Regan’s program “attracts a fraction of Mr. Hannity’s audience.”

In a rightside-up kind of world, the ratings factor would grind harder against Hannity than Regan. Regan spouts harmful nonsense to a relatively small audience; she then “parts ways” with the network. Hannity spouts harmful nonsense to a relatively huge audience; he’s an employee in apparently good standing.

In a column last week, Ben Smith of the New York Times placed the responsibility for this mess precisely where it belongs — in the inboxes of Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. Opinionators like Hannity, argued Smith, respond to cues from the boss in the White House, not to their “nominal bosses” in the company. That those “nominal bosses” moved to “part ways” with Trish Regan while leaving Hannity unscathed only fortifies Smith’s argument.

It’s time. Hannity must go.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: How about a hiatus for Sean Hannity?

Erik Wemple: Would the media skew coronavirus coverage to damage Trump? Sure, say CPAC attendees.

Erik Wemple: Tucker Carlson issues a dire coronavirus warning. His audience expects nothing less.