No one controls Sean Hannity, as he himself will tell you. “Nobody tells me what to say on my show,” said the Fox News host in 2017. He will use bogus polling scorned by his own employer, if he wants to. He will appear onstage with President Trump in defiance of Fox News wishes, if he wants to. He will promote the bogus Seth Rich conspiracy theory, if he wants to. He will participate in a video ad for candidate Trump, if he wants to.

Perhaps espying these episodes, New York Times opinion writer Kara Swisher addressed her March 31 column directly to Hannity, taunting him for his dismissive coverage of coronavirus: “You can relax, Sean Hannity, I’m not going to sue you,” wrote Swisher. “Some people are suggesting that there might be grounds for legal action against the cable network that you pretty much rule — Fox News — because you and your colleagues dished out dangerous misinformation about the virus in the early days of the crisis in the United States.”

Bolding added to highlight a formulation that apparently irked Hannity, to judge from the 12-page threat letter that his lawyer, Charles Harder, sent to the New York Times requesting a retraction and apology of the paper’s recent coverage of Hannity. The above-cited passage from Swisher’s column features prominently in the list of Hannity grievances cited by Harder (bolding in original): “[Y]ou falsely state and imply that Mr. Hannity is responsible for determining all of Fox News’ coverage of the coronavirus, regardless of program or host, and you again falsely state and imply that Mr. Hannity has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and given the public ‘misinformation’ about the pandemic,” writes Harder, whose initial fame stemmed from taking out Gawker Media with a privacy suit and whose subsequent fame stems from risible threat letters and lawsuits representing the Trump campaign.

What we have here is a package deal, one in which Harder and Hannity claim false and damaging material not just from Swisher’s work, but also from a media column by Ben Smith — titled “Rupert Murdoch Put His Son in Charge of Fox. It Was a Dangerous Mistake” — and a “Big City” column by Ginia Bellafante — headlined (in print) “ ‘Fake News’ and a Possibly Ill-Fated Trip.” The three pieces dealt in different ways with how Fox News at various points dismissed coronavirus as a political cudgel to whack Trump.

In the view of Harder and Hannity, the stories are “false and defamatory, and extremely damaging.”

Or extremely accurate, to judge from the transcripts. At the top of his Feb. 27 program, for instance, Hannity mocked concerns about coronavirus, saying, “We’re all doomed. The end is near.” That, anyhow, was the line coming from the “media mob” and the “Democratic extreme radical socialist party.”

A headline on to this day reads, “Sean Hannity accuses Democrats of ‘weaponizing’ coronavirus ‘to score cheap, repulsive political points.’ ”

TV is a visual medium, moreover. It matters more what viewers see on the screen than what Hannity may have said:

The only New York Times vulnerability cited by the Harder letter emerges from Bellafante’s “Big City” column, which explores the covid-19 death of 74-year-old Joe Joyce, a longtime Brooklyn bar owner. He went on a cruise on March 1 with few worries about the coronavirus. In assessing his state of mind, Joyce’s daughter is quoted in the story as saying, “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control.” Unfortunately, to provide context on how Joyce may have reached such a conclusion, Bellafante went on to cite a dismissive Hannity remark that actually postdated Joyce’s departure for the cruise. “Mr. Hannity could not have influenced Mr. Joyce because the statements that you claim Mr. Hannity made which supposedly influenced Mr. Joyce were made on March 9—eight days after Mr. Joyce had already embarked on his cruise on March 1, according to the timeline in your report,” notes Harder’s letter. Bolding in original, again.

As the Erik Wemple Blog has noted before, that’s a mistake. A highly un-actionable mistake, we might add: Hannity, after all, couched coronavirus as a political ploy before and after Joyce left for his cruise.

There’s a comical dimension to the letter, too. It states that Hannity participated in an hour-long phone call with Smith before his influential March 22 column. “During this telephone call Mr. Hannity also specifically explained to you that your characterization of his coverage of the coronavirus pandemic was false and incorrect.” To judge from the paucity of Hannity quotes in that Smith column, it appears that the call with Hannity was off the record. So: Hannity expects the New York Times to take at face value the remarks that he made on an anonymous basis. This, from a guy whose on-the-record remarks on radio and television are commonly fraught with falsehoods, omissions and misdirection.

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

In a letter to Harder, New York Times Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel David McCraw wrote that the “columns are accurate, do not reasonably imply what you and Mr. Hannity allege they do, and constitute protected opinion,” reads the April 28 letter. “In response to your request for an apology and retraction, our answer is ‘no.’ ”

Harder’s letter maintains that the material at issue isn’t, in fact, protected opinion. But to explore any legal intricacies here would be to honor Hannity’s gripes. What we have here is a media loudmouth whose millions and millions of earnings each year as a radio and TV host come wrapped in the protective gauze of the First Amendment. The very lines that he accuses the Times of crossing are boundaries he fails to observe in his daily ramblings.

Consider his treatment last year of former FBI director James B. Comey. Using a report from John Solomon, former executive of the Hill, Hannity last summer told viewers that an impending report from the Justice Department’s inspector general included a specific condemnation of Comey. “The DOJ’s watchdog, the Inspector General [Michael] Horowitz, is preparing a damning report on Comey’s conduct in his final days as the FBI director that will likely conclude that he leaked classified information and showed a lack of candor. That would be lying,” said Hannity.

Well, the report came out weeks later and guess what? Though it criticized Comey, it stopped short of finding that he exhibited a lack of candor. Even so, Hannity refused to take his mouth off autopilot: “Let’s be clear, this report is exactly what a few weeks ago we told you exactly what it would be. We were not wrong,” said Hannity. Comey noticed:

Were Comey anything like Hannity, he would have filed suit against Fox News.

And Mr. You-Harmed-My-Reputation might want to reconsider his treatment of Seth Rich, the slain Democratic National Committee staffer whom conspiracists accused of having leaked the DNC emails during the 2016 presidential election. This nonsense appealed to Hannity because of its political value; if Rich forked over the emails, Russia couldn’t have been involved! Hannity blew past signpost after signpost indicating that the story was garbage en route to hyping it.

Luckily for Hannity, you can’t libel the dead. Rich’s parents, however, sued Fox News for emotional distress over the outlet’s May 2017 ultimately retracted story that had fueled Hannity’s conspiracy-theorizing. The suit was tossed out, only to be reinstated last September. In their ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit cited concerns that the conspiracy theory was still available via a “Hannity” video from May 16, 2017. “Now, if true, this could become one of the biggest scandals in American history and could mean that Rich could have been murdered under very suspicious circumstances,” said Hannity during the segment.

As crazy as it is to have a television host hyping fringe falsehoods, it’s just about as crazy to have a television host hire his own lawyer to sue another media outlet. “Nothing says journalist like suing other journalists for defamation,” says First Amendment attorney Ted Boutrous. It’s almost as if taking such a step would constitute evidence that such an individual “pretty much rules” the network. We asked Fox News about all that. “The letter speaks for itself,” said a network spokesperson.

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

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