The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Wake me up when Sean Hannity editorializes against Trump

Sarah Matthews, Donald Trump's deputy White House press secretary, attends a hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill on July 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal on Friday published scorching editorials against former president Donald Trump in the aftermath of Thursday’s prime-time hearing of the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021. In the view of the Post, Trump has proved himself “unworthy” of returning to the presidency, and the Journal opined that he’d “utterly failed” the test posed by the Jan. 6 “crisis.”

Not exactly revolutionary thinking on display here, considering that the same conclusions follow from most crises that Trump brought upon himself while in office. But in this case, the editorials came from two outlets under the corporate umbrella of News Corp., a publisher controlled by the Murdoch family. And so the condemnations drew the sort of pickup over which editorial writers at U.S. newspapers commonly drool: NPR, CNN, CNN, CNN, the Hill, Insider, Axios, the Wrap. Yet they weren’t that surprising.

The newspapers’ editorials were strongly worded, with the New York Post writing of Trump, “His only focus was to find any means — damn the consequences — to block the peaceful transfer of power. There is no other explanation, just as there is no defense, for his refusal to stop the violence.” The Journal reached similar conclusions: “No matter your views of the Jan. 6 special committee, the facts it is laying out in hearings are sobering. The most horrifying to date came Thursday in a hearing on President Trump’s conduct as the riot raged and he sat watching TV, posting inflammatory tweets and refusing to send help.”

In a CNN opinion piece, Sirius XM host Dean Obeidallah writes, “The New York Post is a tabloid that reaches Trump voters where they are.”

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Perhaps so. But another Murdoch-controlled property reaches Trump voters and many other Americans where they live — namely, their couches. That would be Fox News, the No. 1 cable news outlet for the past 20 years. Hours after the Post and the Journal published their condemnations, Fox News viewers caught a different perspective from prime-time host Sean Hannity: “In real time I was on the radio on January 6, I condemned what was happening. I condemned it that night on this show,” said Hannity, who put his well-honed deflection skills to work reciting a worn-out talking point about the racial-justice protests of 2020. Democrats, he said, “were either completely silent because it was their base that was involved in the looting, the rioting, the arson, the attacks on police, thousands of cops injured, dozens dead, billions in property damage, 574 riots, very few prosecutions in this case, even though we have a wealth of evidence.”

Fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson fashioned a more original slam on the Jan. 6 committee: “These are not hearings in any recognizable sense. This is a show trial. That is exactly what it is. That’s not overstatement,” Carlson said Friday night.

For a look at the media power of Hannity-Carlson v. New York Post-Wall Street Journal, please consult just about any authority on the media diet of conservatives. A 2014 study by Pew Research Center, for instance, found the following:

When it comes to choosing a media source for political news, conservatives orient strongly around Fox News. Nearly half of consistent conservatives (47%) name it as their main source for government and political news, as do almost a third (31%) of those with mostly conservative views. No other sources come close.

Among the other sources that don’t come close are the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch properties don’t always speak with one voice about the nation’s affairs, a wrinkle that emerged in the high-profile lawsuit of Dominion Voting Systems against Fox Corp. Voting-technology company Dominion, which in 2020 had contracts in 28 states, charged that anchors on Fox platforms had defamed it by alleging its complicity in an effort to steal the 2020 presidential election from Trump. The company’s complaint notes that just days after that election, the New York Post’s editorial board scolded Trump for his stolen-election rhetoric:

But the president’s aides have shown no evidence that the election was “stolen.” Where Trump won several key states by razor-thin margins to take the White House in 2016, Biden seems to have done the same this year. It undermines faith in democracy, and faith in the nation, to push baseless conspiracies. Get Rudy Giuliani off TV. Ask for the recounts you are entitled to, wish Biden well, and look to the future.
If Trump persists in wild talk to the contrary, he’ll lead his people into irrelevance and marginalize his own voice. His years in the White House have transformed the nation, but refusing to let go now will make it easier for his enemies to undo it all.

The Journal opined on Nov. 6, 2020: “Mr. Trump’s legacy will be diminished greatly if his final act is a bitter refusal to accept a legitimate defeat. Republican officials will turn away, and eventually so will the American public that wants to see the election resolved.” For context on these skeptical takes, consider that Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul who launched Fox News in 1996 with Roger Ailes, wasn’t enamored of Trump in the first place, as Politico’s Jack Shafer writes.

Such views ground against the conspiratorial reporting on some Fox News shows, where serious chatter about a stolen election — including the notion, still without evidence, of complicity by voting-tech companies — proceeded in serial fashion. In fairness, some Fox News programming steered away from the lies.

Newspaper editorials and cable television shows are dramatically different platforms, as the Murdochs have learned. Under the ineffable laws of media distribution, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal can write editorials zinging Trump without causing much, if any, harm to their respective business models. The same doesn’t hold true for the opinion hours on Fox News, where unleashing the sort of logic deployed in Friday’s editorials would likely spark viewer revolts and a scramble for competing channels willing to indulge Trump’s fantasies.

So yeah, when Hannity starts blasting away at Trump, we’ll know something’s up.