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Fox News Wants to Keep Sean Hannity Despite Conspiracy-Theory Controversy

Sean Hannity has been one of Fox News Channel’s most popular personalities, throwing red meat daily to the cable network’s core red-state viewers by talking up issues of interest to conservatives. If he were to leave, the network would likely get the blues.

Hannity is no stranger to controversy — he has sparred with former colleague Megyn Kelly and CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, to name a few — but he is at the center of a new one that has sparked a few defections from his show by a handful of advertisers as well as speculation over whether he might return from a Memorial Day weekend vacation that began after his broadcast last night.

“Like the rest of the country, Sean Hannity is taking a vacation for Memorial Day weekend and will be back on Tuesday,” the 21st Century Fox-owned network said in a statement Friday. “Those who suggest otherwise are going to look foolish.” Hannity used Twitter last night to weight in on the issue: “Uh oh My ANNUAL Memorial Day long weekend starts NOW,” he wrote. “Destroy Trump/Conservative media breathless coverage starts! Did Hannity do last show?”

At issue is a furor that started to swirl around Hannity’s recent promotion of a conspiracy theory about the death last summer of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was murdered in Washington, D.C. last July in what local police have stated they believe is a botched robbery. Hannity has in recent days promoted an unproven notion that Rich was killed in exchange for providing internal documents to Wikileaks, prompting statements of outrage from the Rich family.

On Tuesday, Fox News said it had retracted a story, published on FoxNews.com, about Rich’s murder — believed to mark a rare instance of the news outlet has withdrawing an article in its more than 20-year history. The killing remains unsolved and right-leaning press outlets such as Breitbart and The Drudge Report have in posts and links bolstered the conspiracy. Hannity continued to promote the theory about Rich on his Tuesday radio show, noting that “this issue is so big now that the entire Russia collusion narrative is hanging by a thread.”

But on his Fox News broadcast Tuesday night, Hannity appeared to back away from the contretemps. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing the matter at this time,” Hannity said. He added that he might come back to it and would continue to keep tabs on the matter.

Hannity has been on Fox News Channel since the parent company launched in 1996. Since Bill O’Reilly, Greta van Susteren and Megyn Kelly have left, he is truly the outlet’s last link to its primetime past. The network doesn’t want to see that connection broken.

Losing Hannity would only add to a series of challenges now in front of Fox News Channel, which has parted ways with a passel of senior executives and popular anchors in recent months. The departure of former chief Roger Ailes in the wake of a probe into sexual-harassment allegations leveled at him by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson has set off a series of dominoes that has resulted in a new set of senior staffers and a new primetime lineup at Fox News. Bill Shine, the longtime producer who has risen through the ranks to become co-president, has also left. Keeping Hannity on at 10 p.m. would help the network keep some consistency with its viewers.

Hannity has enjoyed a viewership surge in recent months. Year to date as of May 23, his audience among people between 25 and 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers — hiked 41%, according to Nielsen. Overall viewership has risen 38% during that period – likely in part due to his enthusiastic backing of President Donald Trump.

He has also seen an uptick in advertiser interest. In 2016, his “Hannity” brought in approximately $65.7 million, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. That represented a 17% jump from the approximately $56.1 million the show captured from Madison Avenue in 2015.

Cars.com, USAA, and a handful of other sponsors have said they will not advertise on Hannity’s show in the wake of the controversy. “USAA advertises on news programs, but advertising on opinion shows is not in accordance with our policy,” the financial-services company said in a statement on Twitter. “The fact that we advertise on a particular program doesn’t mean that we agree or disagree, or support or oppose, the content. We don’t have the ability to influence content at the time we make our advertising purchase,” Cars.com said in a statement. “In this case, we’ve been watching closely and have recently made the decision to pull our advertising from Hannity.”

One big advertiser, Mercedes-Benz USA, told Buzzfeed in a statement that the company’s “rule of thumb is that we do not pull our ads based on editorial content. Our feeling is that a variety of viewpoints is part of the natural discourse that takes place in a free media.” The automaker was among the first to announce its decision to yank ads from Bill O’Reilly’s program. A company spokesperson did not respond to a query seeking further comment.

Conservatives have pushed back against the pressure placed on Hannity, citing concerns about free speech. “The attack on Sean Hannity is a part of the liberal strategy to re-establish their monopoly over television news,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, an organization that looks for what it says is liberal bias in media. “They want only one voice on the air: their own. All others must be silenced.”

Hannity has emerged from other imbroglios intact. More of this current drama is likely to play out next week when he is expected to return to the air.

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