Fox News Channel executives said they would give primetime host Sean Hannity the network’s “full support” despite being blindsided by news that he may have had a business relationship with Michael Cohen, the controversial Trump Organization attorney, that he did not disclose even as he offered commentary on the network about current events involving the lawyer.
“While Fox News was unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support,” the 21st Century Fox-owned network said in a statement.
The ties between Hannity, the most-watched host on cable-news, and Cohen, a longtime Trump associate and lawyer, were revealed Monday in U.S. District Court in New York, where Cohen was ordered to appear after the FBI raided his office last week. Among the documents seized was information about the $130,000 porn star Stormy Daniels said she was paid to keep quiet about allegedly having an affair with Donald Trump in 2006, before he was elected President of the United States. Cohen has been described by the adult actress as a key player in negotiations to keep her quiet about her relationship with the candidate before the 2016 election. The disclosure raised hackles in many journalism circles, where reporters, anchors and hosts are supposed to disclose relationships that may prejudice their coverage or commentary.
“I think the onus should be on both Fox and Hannity to clear their names here because both were compromised by the failure to disclose Hannity’s glaring conflict-of-interest when he defended Cohen on the air without acknowledging that he served as his lawyer,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, in an email exchange.
Speaking on his Fox News program Monday night, Hannity told viewers he has never paid Cohen for legal services. “Let me set the record straight – here’s the truth. Michael Cohen never represented me in any legal matter. I never retained his services, I never received an invoice, I never paid Michael Cohen for legal fees. I did have occasional brief conversations with Michael Cohen – he’s a great attorney – about legal questions I had where I was looking for input and perspective,” he said in the final minutes of his 9 p.m. show. “My discussions with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions and to be absolutely clear, they never involved any matter, any – sorry to disappoint so many – matter between me, a third party, a third group – at all.”
Fox News has reason to keep Hannity – the only one of its primetime anchors who has been with the network since its debut in 1996 – on the air. Hannity was the most-watched cable-news host in the first quarter of 2018 (MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow commands the most viewers in the demographic most coveted by advertisers, people between 25 and 54). And the cable-news outlet is still grappling with a defection of advertisers from 10 p.m. host Laura Ingraham, who recently took a swipe at David Hogg, one of the survivors of the February 14th shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Ingraham returned to the air last week after taking a brief vacation around the Easter holiday.
This isn’t the first time Hannity has sparked a controversy for the network. He was spotted appearing in a Trump campaign video in 2016. Fox News made him stop and in a statement noted “he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election.” Last May, Hannity became embroiled in a furor over his promotion of a discredited story about the 2015 death of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was murdered in Washington, D.C. in what local police had stated they believe is a botched robbery. Hannity talked up an unproven theory that Rich was killed in exchange for providing internal documents to Wikileaks, prompting statements of outrage from the Rich family. He took a vacation soon after, and Fox News released a statement chiding those who thought he had been pulled off the air.
The host has long reminded viewers that he offers opinion and commentary, not straight reporting. At the same time, he holds forth for a cable network that long relied on the slogan, “We Report. You Decide.”
Other anchors have been punished, suspended and chastised for not disclosing ties to subjects they might cover. In 2010, for example, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was suspended without pay for two days after it was discovered he made eight campaign donations to Florida political candidates -a violation of NBC News’ ethics policy. The NBCUniversal-owned cable network also suspended Keith Olbermann that year for donating to three Democratic congressional candidates. In 2013, CBS News asked correspondent Lara Logan to take a leave of absence after a broadcast of a flawed report about an attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, on “60 Minutes.” One of the factors in that decision was a speech Logan made before the segment aired advocating how the U.S. should respond.
Some have transgressed journalistic norms and been left alone. ABC News did not punish George Stephanopoulos in 2015, for instance, after he disclosed he had made donations to the Clinton Foundation even as he reported on both President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.
Few expect the current imbroglio to prompt any changes in the way Hannity conducts himself or the way Fox News supervises him. “Hannity isn’t going anywhere and he’s not going to stop talking about the investigation into Cohen and Trump. I expect Hannity to double-down on his conspiracy theories about a deep state and claim that he is now a victim of it. That’s what he wants his audience to believe, so that’s what he will deliver without any regard to journalistic conventions regarding conflicts of interest,” said Rich Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. ” The calls for him to disclose these conflicts are futile, as Hannity is as far removed from journalistic conventions as the guy shouting from the end of the bar at the television.”