On his Fox News show last night, Sean Hannity lashed out at former Department of Education official Kevin Jennings, launching into a series of discredited smears and anti-gay slurs.
Hannity was responding to an interview Jennings gave to Media Matters, in which Jennings had discussed the impact of his anti-bullying work and said that those (including Fox) who had engaged in a campaign of "defamation" against him had "completely failed."
Hannity apparently took exception to this, saying last night, "How is it defamation if the facts are accurate? All we did here, for example, on Hannity was report all of the news that America was not hearing anywhere else."
And then the defamation began.
Hannity claimed that "the openly gay Jennings" had "advocated promoting homosexuality in our schools" -- an age-old slander used against anyone who advocates treating LGBT students with the dignity and respect accorded to others.
Hannity said Jennings had been "accused of not reporting an incident where an underage student told him that he was having sex with an older person." Hannity then claimed, "It was later revealed that the student claimed that he was 15 at the time, which is the legal age of consent in Massachusetts where the incident occurred."
This is simply wrong. The student in question -- who says he didn't actually have sexual contact with anyone at the time and has praised Jennings' "courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life" -- was actually 16, a fact confirmed by both Media Matters and CNN. Fox News was forced to acknowledge this basic fact more than a year-and-a-half ago, and Hannity himself has been informed of the truth on the air. Since 16 was the Massachusetts age of consent, there would have been no reason for Jennings to "report" the "incident" to anyone.
Later, Hannity complained that Jennings had "cursed God in his 2006 memoir, Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son, by writing, quote, 'What had He done for me, other than make me feel shame and guilt? Squat. Screw you, buddy -- I don't need you around anymore.' "
Hannity's stunningly dishonest point, presumably, was that Jennings wanted to teach school children to hate God. In reality, Jennings was describing the aftermath of his suicide attempt as a teenager and the failure of his friend's promise that "Jesus would save me from same-sex temptation." Jennings writes:
I developed a new attitude toward God as a result. Before, I was the one failing God; now I decided He was the one who had failed me. ... What had He done for me, other than make me feel shame and guilt? Squat. Screw you, buddy -- I don't need you around anymore, I decided. The Baptist Church had left me only a legacy of self-hatred, shame, and disappointment, and I wanted no more of it or its Father. The long erosion of my faith was now complete, and I, for many years, reacted violently to anyone who professed any kind of religion. Decades passed before I opened a Bible again.
But Jennings eventually regained his faith. The end of his book is filled with quotations from the Bible. Jennings describes how he now keeps Bibles on his home and work desks. He writes:
How ironic that, in my middle age, I have returned to the book that shaped the lives of my father and mother, the book whose misreading almost destroyed me as a child, and have found in it the inspiration I need to continue my work. I guess so doing honors them. "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land" (Exodus 20:12).
Thanks, Mom, for teaching me the difference between right and wrong. I honor you by passing the lessons you taught me on to the next generation. And I know that those who oppressed and opposed you once and who try to oppress and oppose me still will one day be greatly ashamed. I know this because I'm your boy, and because I'm a preacher's son.
And because the Bible tells me so.
Throughout the segment, Hannity complained that Jennings wrote the foreword to a book titled Queering Elementary Education. He never explained what was wrong with this, but the unspoken insinuation seemed to be that it was part of some sort of plot by Jennings to recruit elementary school students into homosexuality. (Or, as Hannity-guest Karen Hanretty said during the segment, "This is a man who wants to force sexuality -- and I don't care if it is the homosexuality or heterosexuality. We should not be forcing sexuality on kindergartners or on elementary school children, period. And that's his agenda.")
But as Jennings makes clear in the foreword, his intention was to "address antigay bigotry" in schools:
The reality is that this issue -- antigay bigotry -- is already in our schools. It's not only in our schools, it's pervasive, it's rampant, it's out of control. Little kids are learning to hate, and they're learning it right now, in elementary schools across America. It's not a question of whether or not we should "bring this issue into our schools." It's a question of whether or not we are going to address an issue that is omnipresent in our schools. If we mean it when we make students pledge allegiance to a flag that promises "liberty and justice for all" at the start of each school day, then the choice is clear. We must address antigay bigotry, and we must do it as soon as students start going to school.
In this groundbreaking volume of plainly written, cutting-edge scholarship, Will Letts and Jim Sears have pointed us down the path to a brighter tomorrow. Here they bring together a diverse range of writers who offer both theoretical constructs and practical advice to those who believe our schools should actively foster the values of justice. Queering Elementary Education gives us the tools we need to move ahead. The sweeping nature of the essays -- addressing issues of race, the perspectives of students, parents, and teachers, the challenges of different disciplines, and a host of other matters -- offers invaluable breadth and depth.
Hannity also grossly distorted what Jennings said in his Media Matters interview:
HANNITY: He even admits in this exiting interview, "There were times in the fall of 2009 when I really went home and curled up in a ball in my bed and didn't want to get out of bed the next day." Now, does that sound like somebody that -- [crosstalk].
It's not entirely clear what Hannity's point was here, but Jennings was obviously describing his reaction to the vicious lies that people like Hannity were spreading about him. Regardless, here's what Jennings actually said:
"There were times in the fall of 2009 when I really went home and curled up in a ball in my bed and didn't want to get out of bed the next day," [Jennings] says. "But I got out of bed every day. I went to 33 states and three foreign countries doing this work in two years, and we succeeded in doing what we came here to do."
At the start of last night's segment, Hannity quoted Jennings' comment that "it is a complete and total victory for us and a complete and total defeat for our opponents, because they tried to derail ... the work I was brought here to do, and they completely failed to do so." Hannity then asked, "But is it really a complete failure, Mr. Jennings, if you're stepping down after less than two years in office?" And at the end of the segment, Hannity again tried to take credit for Jennings' departure, saying:
HANNITY: And by the way, he can claim all the success he wants, but if he really wanted to stay there, he would have stayed. He couldn't take the heat, nor should he have been appointed in the first place. And, you know what, telling the truth about him obviously got a lot of people involved.
But the idea that Jennings was forced out or that hordes of Hannity-inspired antigay bigots somehow drove him from office is simply not credible. Hannity attacked Jennings on his Fox show at least 15 times in three months in late 2009. It didn't work. Hannity's lies were debunked. Jennings weathered the storm, and he kept doing his job.
In the year leading up to last night's show, Hannity mentioned Jennings on Fox just twice -- both times in passing. In other words, Hannity had essentially given up on the issue. Jennings is leaving the Department of Education on his own terms -- to take a job running a national non-profit.
Sorry, Hannity, but Kevin Jennings is right. You failed.