A little more than 24 hours before Guardian U.S. reporter Ben Jacobs was knocked to the ground, choked, and punched by GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted that “Liberal Fascism” and the “corrupt media” were trying to silence him from reporting a debunked story about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Hannity has been doggedly pursuing the non-story for days now with increasingly irresponsible methods, even though his own employer Fox News has retracted the story about Rich’s death that fueled the speculation. Indeed, by his own admission, on May 23’s “Hannity,” the host is avoiding the story “out of respect for the family’s wishes.” But since Tuesday, the conservative talking head has been methodically attacking the “liberal media,” “corrupt media,” and/or the “Destroy Trump media” for quashing his narrative, with well-trod detours that invoke the specters of liberals such as billionaire George Soros and Media Matters for America founder David Brock as being involved in the effort to silence him. It is a performance of embattled integrity, when in fact, journalistic practice could not be further from his concerns.
As I wrote just a few days ago, Hannity’s rapt embrace of the Seth Rich murder conspiracy showcases the conservative media machine at its most craven, creating a blatant distraction from the still-unfolding coverup of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. The situation came to a head on Tuesday, as Fox News employees privately groused to reporters at CNN that focusing on the unsourced conspiracy theory lowered the standards of the entire network. Hours later, in a laudable move for the news organization, Fox News retracted the inciting story.
But Hannity’s restraint in primetime has not stopped the conservative talking head from tweeting about the conspiracy theory all day and talking it up on his radio show. Indeed, on his national syndicated radio program on Tuesday, which is distributed by iHeartRadio and not associated with Fox, he stood by the debunked story: “All of you in the liberal media: I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing,” he asserted.
Like other prominent conservative pundits, Hannity tends to point the finger at the “liberal media” while framing himself as a beleaguered outsider crusading for truth. But he is, according to the New York Observer, among the highest-paid TV and radio personalities in the country — a cool $29 million a year from Fox News and his radio program. Sean Hannity is as much the media establishment as CNN’s Anderson Cooper or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or even CBS’ Stephen Colbert, all of whom Hannity regularly lambastes. Following almost a year of tumultuous firings and contentious departures from Fox News, Hannity has by force of attrition become the channel’s biggest star. It’s irresponsible for him to act as if he does not have enormous influence. And it has been irresponsible to engage with the Rich non-story, which has caused the victim’s family so much grief.
As Jacobs’ assault has made clear, the language that Hannity and other conservative media pundits use with impunity about the fact-based news media has consequences. Wednesday evening in Bozeman, Mont., Jacobs was assaulted by Gianforte, who is now facing a misdemeanor charge. The audio recording of the encounter indicates that Gianforte, angered by Jacobs’ question about the Republican healthcare bill currently moving through Congress, attacked the reporter rather than answer. Gianforte’s campaign responded by labeling Jacobs a “liberal journalist” who “created this scene” with “aggressive behavior.” Every indication, including Gianforte’s own statement, suggests that this “aggressive behavior” was holding a tape recorder close to Gianforte’s face.
The past week has been an awful case study in just how much conservative rhetoric has endangered the fourth estate. Hannity’s blatant disregard for journalism is mirrored by Gianforte’s violence against Jacobs.
What is most interesting in this saga is that Fox News appears to have subtly broken away from Hannity’s narrative. It is already surprising enough that the network issued a rare retraction of its original story, which was posted May 16 on its website. It’s also intriguing that Hannity would continue to talk about this theory on his radio show and on Twitter but refrain from fanning the flames on his biggest platform.
Hannity denied any interference from the network in an interview with Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone. “Nobody tells me what to say on my show. They never have and frankly they never will. I’m not that type of person you can say, ‘Go on air and say this.’ That’s been the beauty of Fox News all these years. They leave me alone,” he said. But given that both the host and the network would have a vested interest in maintaining Hannity’s image as an independent maverick, it’s hard to not conclude that there’s more to Hannity’s movement away from the Rich story than what’s been made public.
After all, there are more sides to Fox News than just its primetime opinion hosts. The primary witnesses to Jacobs’ encounter with Gianforte included a trio of Fox News reporters who were setting up for an interview with the candidate. As conservative commentators Laura Ingraham (a frequent Fox News guest) sought to defend Gianforte and denigrate Jacobs — using the convoluted argument that “real men” settled conflicts in certain ways — Fox News’ Alicia Acuna published a candid, first-person story that corroborated Jacobs’ version of the encounter. (Indeed, Acuna’s version paints an even more violent picture than what was first reported online.)
It is absurd that an assault on a reporter is a partisan issue, but bipartisanship has deteriorated so much in this country that some conservatives are not-so-quietly applauding Gianforte for his violence against Jacobs. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized deeply sourced reporting from mainstream outlets simply because it counters his own interests. And the assault on Jacobs is just one in a series of escalating hostility against the members of the fourth estate, all tacitly sanctioned by Republicans in power.
Fox News is typically a media outlet that is deeply beholden to and supportive of those same Republicans in power. But with the Jacobs incident, the news channel is undercutting itself by offering competing narratives of the encounter. On Thursday morning, “Fox & Friends” contradicted Fox News’ own account of what happened by repeating the campaign’s stance that Gianforte and Jacobs fell — as if it were a mutual altercation instead of one man attacking the other. Thursday evening, a Fox contributor called Gianforte’s actions “Montana justice.”
More than ever, it is clear that there is a side of Fox News that prioritizes strong reporting and fact-based commentary. But the opinion side of Fox News that was directed by Roger Ailes, popularized by Bill O’Reilly, and exploited by Roger Stone seems determined to stamp out any journalistic integrity that the network has to offer. In sowing so much distrust for the “liberal media,” Fox News runs the risk of convincing viewers that fact-based reporting is propaganda that can’t be trusted. Unfortunately, the logical extension of that becomes a narrative in which Fox News’ core conservative viewers won’t even trust Fox News for much longer.