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Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • Introducing the Sean Hannity Expanded Universe, Fox’s anti-Mueller alternative reality

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Conservatives often bemoan liberal dominance of Hollywood. But since Donald Trump’s election, Fox News’ Sean Hannity has built the closest thing the right wing has to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the wildly successful superhero franchise. Where Marvel’s superheroes fight alien invaders, the stars of the Sean Hannity Expanded Universe (SHEU) position themselves as the last bulwark against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But while the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fight villains like Thanos on their own, Hannity and his compatriots want to go a step further and enlist their audience to support a frightening and anti-democratic response by Trump.

    Hannity has cast himself as his series’ Iron Man, the only visionary clear-sighted enough to identify an existential threat. The sprawling team assembled around him includes bankable leads, aging stars seeking new relevance, promising new faces, and ensemble players, all crossing over into each other’s storylines to build common narratives. Their overarching tale is that Mueller’s Russia probe is a “witch hunt,” the result of the fabrications of a shadowy cabal of journalists, Democrats, and “deep state” operatives. The happy ending they seek is the president saving himself by curtailing Mueller’s probe and instead ordering investigations into his political enemies. 

    For more about Hannity's conspiratorial narrative and the authoritarian endgame he's pushing, see our study reviewing his coverage of the first year of the Mueller probe.

    President Trump is simultaneously the audience for this story, the victim who needs to be saved, and, in Hannity’s telling, the potential hero. The SHEU’s proposed solution to the Mueller investigation is in line with the authoritarian model for law enforcement Trump prefers, casting the Justice Department’s function as protecting the president and punishing his enemies. Unlike Marvel fans, Trump is able not merely to watch members of the SHEU on Fox broadcasts, but to break the fourth wall and go on their shows for fawning interviews, highlight particular segments for his Twitter followers, promote their programs and books, and even call on a select few for advice.

    That might be a fanboy’s fantasy. But it has real and frightening consequences. The SHEU is reaching out from the Fox News screen and encouraging the president to act on his authoritarian impulses. Hannity and his teammates are preparing their viewers to support Trump no matter what norms he shatters. They have great power, and if Trump takes their advice, they will bear great responsibility.

    Anti-Mueller conspiracy theories have permeated nearly every corner of Fox. But only the true stalwarts merit inclusion in the Sean Hannity Expanded Universe:

    • A weekly guest spot with the Fox & Friends crew helped turn Trump into a political phenomenon, and he’s remained a loyal viewer throughout his presidency. If you see Trump angrily tweeting about the Mueller probe early in the morning, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, Brian Kilmeade, or one of their guests is almost certainly responsible.

    • Lou Dobbs’ cable news career seemed over when his bigoted commentary finally forced CNN to push him out in 2009, but he soon found a new home at Fox Business. Even at Fox, he’s distinguished himself as a shameless pro-Trump sycophant whose calls to not just fire but jail Mueller and the FBI and Justice Department leaders who have defied Trump are genuinely unnerving.

    • A longtime friend of Trump’s whom he considered for a senior Justice Department position, Jeanine Pirro has a Saturday night program that’s a must-watch for both White House aides and observers hoping to predict Trump’s messaging. She drew attention for her disturbing call for a “cleansing” of the FBI and DOJ and the arrests of top officials she considers insufficiently loyal to the president.

    • Gregg Jarrett spent much of his career as a marginal legal commentator and weekend Fox anchor. But he raised his profile by becoming the go-to analyst for hosts like Dobbs and Hannity, who value having someone with a law degree claim that Trump’s associates are innocent because collusion isn’t a crime and condemn their FBI pursuers for acting like “the old KGB.”

    • Jarrett’s a hack, but at least he’s Fox’s hack. Other attorneys regularly called upon to dismiss the investigation include Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow and the husband-and-wife team of Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, who were briefly considered for Trump’s legal team and have represented several figures under Mueller's investigation. All three are mainstays in the right-wing legal community -- and each has done legal work for Hannity.

    • Once colleagues at the right-wing website Circa News, John Solomon has moved on to The Hill while Sara Carter is a Fox contributor who publishes her reporting at her personal blog. Their slanted reporting based on conservative sources helps fuel anti-Mueller Fox hosts eager for information confirming their dire theories, and it garners the pair regular appearances throughout the SHEU -- and Hannity’s call to award them with Pulitzer Prizes.

    • A former Secret Service agent, Dan Bongino parlayed three failed bids for federal office into a career as a mid-level right-wing pundit, a gig on the National Rifle Association's media operation NRATV, and regular appearances on Fox & Friends and Hannity. Keep an eye on this one -- someone willing to call the Russia probe “an obvious frame job” could go far in this morally bankrupt movement.

    • Sebastian Gorka, who joined Fox after being canned from his poorly defined White House job after only seven months, has argued that Clinton should be put to death for treason.

    • After spending years attacking the ethics of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton now uses his Fox appearances to urge Trump to pardon everyone implicated by the Mueller probe and describe the FBI as “a KGB-type operation.”

  • Study: Sean Hannity spent the last year laying the groundwork for an authoritarian response to the Russia probe

    I reviewed all 487 of Sean Hannity’s segments about the first year of Robert Mueller's investigation. Here’s what I found.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    There’s nothing President Donald Trump hates more than the media, but that’s hardly because he’s indifferent to what the press says about him. Instead, the first 15 months of his administration have been defined by his tirades against outlets that have covered him critically and his fondness for live-tweeting Fox & Friends.

    But Trump’s most consequential media relationship is with Fox News host Sean Hannity. While guests on Fox & Friends speak to the president through the cameras, Hannity and Trump are so close that White House staffers refer to the Fox host as Trump’s “unofficial chief of staff.” In personal meetings and late-night phone calls, the Fox host frequently encourages the president to act on his worst and most destructive impulses. Trump, in turn, serves as an unofficial producer to Hannity’s show, regularly watching the program, encouraging his supporters to tune in, and reportedly floating segment ideas during their frequent conversations.

    That relationship has been very good for Hannity, whose show became the most-watched cable news program last year. And Hannity’s rise has aided Trump by providing an enormous platform to advance a dangerous idea to the Republican base: that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is a sprawling conspiracy that justifies the president using any means -- including trials of the law enforcement officials who initiated the probe -- to stop it.

    Hannity’s success has spawned a legion of right-wing imitators who use similarly dire language to hype the menace they say Mueller poses and to prime their audience to support the frightening actions they are encouraging Trump to take in response. Some, like Fox hosts Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro, have also developed personal relationships with the president, advising him both privately and through their programs (for more on Hannity's collaborators, click here).

    Understanding the president's increasingly hyperaggressive response to the Mueller investigation requires a familiarity with the paranoid conspiracy theory that Hannity and his compatriots have constructed over the past year.

    Over the past few weeks, my colleague Shelby Jamerson and I reviewed more than 2,700 pages of Hannity transcripts from the 254 episodes that aired between Mueller’s appointment on May 17, 2017, and May 16, 2018. Those episodes included 487 segments substantially devoted to the probe -- nearly two segments per episode. Hannity featured the story in his program’s opening segment 152 times, roughly three times each week.

    How Hannity actively discredits the Mueller probe

    Our study, building on our earlier reviews of the program’s coverage of the Trump-Russia saga, found that of the 487 Hannity segments about the Mueller probe:

    • 256 segments -- a whopping 53 percent -- included criticism of the media’s coverage of the Mueller investigation, which Hannity and his guests consider excessively anti-Trump.

    • 191 segments included commentators suggesting that there had been no collusion between Trump or his associates and Russia.

    • 82 segments feature attempts to construct a counternarrative by claiming that the real collusion had been between Russia and Democrats. This is often a reference to the Uranium One pseudoscandal, which was referenced in 38 percent of all segments about the Mueller investigation.

    • 25 segments involved commentators downplaying reporting about Trump and his associates by saying that collusion is not a crime.

    • 81 segments described Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt,” while 140 included criticism of purported “conflicts of interest” involving members of his team.

    • 67 segments included suggestions that Mueller should resign, recuse himself, be fired, or otherwise end the investigation. 41 suggested that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the probe, should do so.

    • 186 segments -- nearly 38 percent of the total -- claimed top federal law enforcement officials involved in the creation of the probe had broken the law.

    • 218 segments -- 45 percent of the total -- featured Hannity or his guests saying Hillary Clinton had committed crimes.

    • 77 segments included a call for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate Trump’s political enemies.

    The “soft coup” against Trump, and the horrific acts Hannity says it justifies

    To watch Hannity’s broadcast over the last year is to plunge into a strikingly paranoid vision of America today.

    “A soft coup is underway right here in the United States of America,” Hannity said last June, “in an attempt to overturn November's election results and forcibly remove a duly elected president from office, sinister forces quickly aligning in what is becoming now, in my mind, a clear and present danger.”

    Specifically, Hannity claims that the leadership of the FBI, aided by Democrats and the media, conspired during the 2016 election to exonerate Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of the crimes they knew she had committed. At the same time, Hannity alleges that this cabal fabricated the narrative that Trump had colluded with Russia in order to prevent him from becoming president -- and that once Trump won the election despite these efforts to manipulate voters, his enemies continued to try to drive him from office. This narrative bears little relationship to reality: In the months leading up to the election, the FBI kept its investigation into whether the Trump campaign collaborated with the Kremlin’s effort to support his candidacy a secret while repeatedly calling attention to the Clinton probe, likely costing the Democrat the presidency.

    Nonetheless, the sinister cabal of Democrats, journalists, and the “deep state” are the villains of this story. And in Hannity’s telling, the host and his rotating cast of guests are the only thing standing between Trump and his annihilation.

    Hannity presents his show as the only venue willing to tell the truth about the story, casting reporting about Trump, Russia, and the 2016 election not as the result of serious journalism, but as part of a plot against the president.

    The Fox host is adamant that any suggestion of collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials is the stuff of “black-helicopter, tinfoil-hat conspiracy.” Instead, Hannity claims that the “real collusion” happened between Russia and the Democrats, in the form of various broadly discredited pseudoscandals.

    Hannity’s attempts to exonerate Trump are disturbing enough. But it’s his attempts to turn his audience against a set of new enemies that are truly dangerous.

    In Hannity’s telling, Mueller, a Republican who served as a Marine officer during the Vietnam War and was first appointed to run the FBI by George W. Bush, is running a duplicitous “witch hunt.” His team is composed of vicious Democratic partisans, and his personal relationship with former FBI Director James Comey is both suspect and actually illegal.

    This counternarrative of Hannity’s, repeated ad nauseum over the months, is designed to lead his audience inexorably to a simple conclusion: “Mueller's probe is tainted. Hillary is a criminal.” And Trump is justified in taking drastic action, including shutting down the investigation into his activities and then prosecuting and jailing his opponents, to protect himself.

    Hannity’s story is in step with the president’s own crude preferences and biases. Trump prefers an authoritarian model for law enforcement, in which the job of the Justice Department is to protect him and punish his enemies. Hannity’s show is providing Trump with both constant encouragement to act on those impulses, and is a powerful propaganda tool urging his base to support him if he does. Hannity benefits in turn from his private access to the president and Trump’s public displays of support for his program.

    This joint strategy is working. Hannity’s ratings have never been higher. And while polls show broad support for Mueller’s probe, among Fox viewers and Republican voters, the Fox host and his colleagues, in collaboration with the president, have successfully poisoned the well.

    The result is a very dangerous moment, in which the president could act on Hannity’s entreaties for authoritarian action -- and escape unscathed thanks to the supine congressional Republicans and the unyielding support the host and his allies have inculcated for the last year in Fox’s legions of viewers.

    Hannity is the chief author of the sprawling conspiracy theory, but he could not weave this vast fictional drama alone. The motley team he’s assembled to help him would hardly inspire confidence in other circumstances.

    Frequent guests for Hannity’s Mueller segments

    • Gregg Jarrett (who appeared in 121 Mueller segments over the course of the study), long a marginal legal commentator and Fox anchor, raised his profile by using his law degree to claim that Trump’s associates are innocent because collusion isn’t a crime and the FBI investigators are acting like “the old KGB.”

    • Sara Carter (also 121 Mueller segments), a Fox contributor who publishes stories on a personal blog that are too thinly sourced even for the network’s own website, produces “reporting” to validate Hannity’s claims about an anti-Trump “deep state” conspiracy.

    • Sebastian Gorka, who exaggerated the expertise that won him a poorly defined White House job that he held for only seven months (50 Mueller segments), argued that Clinton should be put to death for treason.

    • Jay Sekulow (50 segments total), who had little experience in white-collar crime but was hired as Trump’s lawyer in June in part due to sycophantic media appearances about the case like the ones he made on Hannity, continues to appear to present the president’s defense.

    • Dan Bongino (30 Mueller segments), a former Secret Service agent who parlayed three failed bids for federal office into a career as a mid-level conservative pundit with a gig on the National Rifle Association’s media arm NRATV, calls the Russia probe “an obvious frame job.”

    • A host of Republican congressmen of questionable ethics who parade before the host to preen about their latest efforts to defang the deep state (a total of 44 segments).

     

    This study reveals the four prongs of the overarching strategy Hannity has followed over the past year: delegitimizing the press, defending Trump from collusion claims, and creating a counternarrative that targets the investigators. All of those build to the authoritarian endgame Hannity's conspiracy theory is courting -- which is supported by the series of guests who help sell his tale to the Fox audience.

    I. Delegitimizing the press: “The media has been corrupt and lying to you, the America people.”

    Fox News has always branded itself as the only “fair and balanced” antidote to the rest of the supposedly biased press, aiming to peel off viewers from other outlets. Hannity has played a key role in that effort, regularly declaring that journalism is “dead” and that Fox is the source for “real news.”

    This attack on other outlets is at the heart of his coverage of the Mueller probe. Hannity has criticized the press coverage of Mueller’s investigation in 256 segments over the year of the study, 53 percent of all segments in which he discussed it. Building on decades of conservative animus for journalists, Hannity tells his audience that the media are working hand in hand with other Trump enemies; that their reporting is hostile and should not be believed; and that only Hannity provides an accurate take on the investigation.

    At times, Hannity seizes on instances in which journalists have made legitimate errors in their pursuit of the story, arguing that inaccurate reporting that is later corrected is evidence of bad faith, rather than proof that outlets are acting responsibly.

    But far more frequently, he simply accuses journalists of deliberately lying to the public to hurt Trump. This rant from February 2, after congressional Republicans released a drastically overhyped memo Hannity had spent weeks promoting, is characteristic of his general argument:

    Everything that we have been talking about and uncovering for a year on this program is now being shown to be true and exposed. In the meantime, all this while, the liberal mainstream media, they have wasted an entire year holding this country hostage on a false narrative based on a conspiracy theory that President Trump colluded with the Russians.

    They have and have had no evidence whatsoever because it doesn't exist. The media has been corrupt and lying to you, the America people. At the end of the day they are nothing but propagandist, an extension of the Democratic Party and tin foil hat conspiracy theorists that are so pathologically locked in their hate of President Trump they don't know any better at this point.

    All the information we have been reporting now on this has been out there. But you have overpaid journalists just too lazy, to rigidly ideological to do their jobs. They have been sitting on the sidelines while the biggest scandal in their lifetimes has been unfolding right before their very faces.

    That’s an absurd conspiracy theory on its face, but it’s one that fits comfortably with the narrative Trump has woven about the “Fake News Media” and its coverage of the Russia probe.

    II. The defense: “Tinfoil hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump Russia collusion” (which isn’t a crime)

    Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a multifaceted influence effort -- including hacking Democratic email accounts and releasing their contents -- in order to help Trump win the 2016 presidential campaign, the U.S. intelligence community and the Republican-led Senate intelligence committee have concluded. In the summer of 2016, after learning that a Trump adviser had known about Russian meddling in advance, the FBI opened an investigation into whether the Trump campaign had been collaborating with the Kremlin effort. The FBI largely kept its effort secret through the election, but in March, amid a flurry of news stories pointing to possible collusion between Trump and Russia, FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation. Six weeks later, Trump fired Comey, then admitted on national television that he had done so because he was unhappy with Comey’s handling of the Russia probe. A few days after that, on May 17, 2017, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to take over the FBI probe.

    A year is not a long time as investigations go, but Mueller’s investigation has already reaped a substantial harvest and made its way to the center of Trump’s circle. Mueller has issued more than 100 criminal charges against 19 people and three companies, with five pleading guilty. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair, faces dozens of charges related to money laundering and bank fraud. Rick Gates, who played central roles in the Trump campaign, presidential transition team, and the White House, as well as Michael Flynn, Trump’s first White House national security advisor, are cooperating with the probe. Given how close-mouthed Mueller’s team has been, there’s no telling what he knows, or what his next move might be. Meanwhile, every day seems to bring a new news story demonstrating that the Trump campaign cooperated with a Kremlin influence campaign whose aim was to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election, while the president’s team members keep moving the goalposts on what exactly they deny happened.

    But through it all, Hannity -- like Trump himself -- has made “NO COLLUSION” his mantra, regularly denouncing what he terms “black helicopter, tinfoil hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump-Russia collusion.” He and his guests argued that point in 191 of the broadcast’s segments on the Mueller probe, 39 percent of the total. When Mueller indicts close aides to the president, Hannity’s takeaway is that the charges have “nothing to do” with collusion. When Mueller indicts Russians for their efforts to impact the election, Hannity celebrates the indictment for not demonstrating a connection to the Trump axis. Other times he uses nonsequiturs to remind viewers that Trump did nothing wrong and everything’s going to be fine.

    Hannity has yet to be convinced that any Trump associates might have colluded with Russia, no matter what new events unfold. But if that position ever becomes untenable, he’s already advancing an argument for Trump supporters to fall back on.

    In 25 segments discussing the Mueller probe, Hannity and his guests have suggested that “collusion” is not a crime. The argument rests on the fact that there is no statute literally called “collusion” that might be relevant. But legal scholars have pointed to a host of laws that Trump associates might have broken by working with a foreign government to swing an election. And even if “collusion” is illegal, it’s still morally repugnant.

    And Hannity does seem to hold strong objections to what he describes as “collusion” between Democrats and Russians. He’s alluded to such alleged wrongdoing in 82 segments over the first year of Mueller’s probe.

    Hannity has two main arguments in favor of this theory of “real collusion.” His first is that the 2010 Uranium One deal to sell a U.S. uranium company to Russia, which was approved by Hillary Clinton’s State Department and a host of other government agencies, was made because of donations given to the Clinton Foundation. Hannity featured discussion of Uranium One in 184 segments about the Mueller probe, 38 percent of the total. Conservatives have struggled to get traction on this charge for a reason: No evidence has ever shown that Clinton played a role in the deal’s approval, and numerous other agencies all approved it as well. Yet it comes up in nearly two out of every five Hannity segments about the Mueller investigation.

    Hannity’s second charge makes even less sense. He has repeatedly invoked the dossier assembled by a former British intelligence officer and funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee as evidence that Clinton and other Democrats were “spreading propaganda, Russian propaganda, misinformation and outright lies to the American people.” The dossier cited troubling links between the Trump team and the Kremlin, and FBI investigators analyzed it in the stages of the probe alongside a host of other sources pointing to the same conclusion. Under Hannity’s warped argument, because the dossier cited interviews with Russian sources, it is itself the product of “real” collusion.

    Trump doesn’t need to watch Hannity’s show to constantly bellow that there was “no collusion.” But in recent months, he’s adopted the Fox host’s talking points that Democrats were the ones who actually colluded with Russia and that collusion is a “phony” crime.

    III. The counter-attack: Trump as victim of “the biggest abuse of power corruption case in American history”

    Having told his audience that, unlike the Democrats, the president and his associates did nothing wrong, Hannity needs to provide his viewers with an explanation for why the investigation is continuing. His explanation is that “deep state” forces -- first at the FBI and Justice Department during the 2016 election and the first months of the Trump administration, and later on Mueller’s team -- have engaged in a broad conspiracy to destroy Trump. Hannity describes this plot as “the biggest abuse of power corruption case in American history” and “a direct threat to this American republic.”

    In at least 81 segments, Hannity and his compatriots described the president as a victim of Mueller’s “witch hunt.” Making this task harder: Mueller, whose appointment as special counsel drew bipartisan praise, is a lifelong Republican. The Fox host has settled for invective, saying the special counsel is “as corrupt as they come, he doesn't seem to care about truth, doesn't care about facts, doesn't care about evidence. He doesn't care about being fair. He doesn't care that he's biased.” Hannity’s basis for these claims? Bogus claims about “conflicts of interest” he says Mueller and his team have, an attack Hannity and his guests have levied in 140 segments, 29 percent of the total.

    Among the alleged conflicts Hannity has said call for the special counsel’s removal: Mueller’s purportedly close relationship with fired FBI Director James Comey, and the fact that some of the lawyers working for the Republican special counsel are registered Democrats, have donated to Democratic politicians, or have worked for progressive organizations. All of these supposedly sinister connections have been debunked by actual reporters or ethics experts with greater knowledge of the law and civil service rules, and more genuine interest in seeing them enforced, than Hannity can claim to possess.  

    Hannity’s arguments are in step with the president’s talking point that Mueller’s probe is a “witch hunt,” and Trump has regularly assailed the purported conflicts of members of Mueller’s team in recent months.

    IV. The authoritarian endgame: “Mueller's probe is tainted. Hillary is a criminal.”

    Having painted Trump as the innocent victim of a corrupt investigation, Hannity’s argument almost inevitably concludes with demands to shutter it -- and more. In 67 segments over the first year, Hannity and his guests called for Mueller’s firing, resignation, recusal, or the termination of the investigation. In 41 segments, they sought similar action regarding Rosenstein. The “legal war” on the president needs to end, Hannity claims apocalyptically, because “the country is hanging by a thread.”

    Hannity has primed his audience to reject any conclusions from the Mueller investigation and to support Trump if he fires the special counsel or demands the Justice Department take action against his political foes. If Trump decides to undermine the rule of law by taking such steps, he will have the fervent support of the Fox host and his viewers.

    But it’s not enough to simply ensure that the president and his allies cannot be punished if they committed crimes. Hannity is paving the way for another chilling action: the prosecution of Trump’s political enemies. Because the president has been the target of crimes that were “worse than Watergate, on a million levels here,” Hannity argues, many of the people involved in the Russia investigation will need to go to jail. Hannity and his guests have accused senior Justice Department or FBI officials involved with the investigation of crimes in 186 segments, 38 percent of the total. In 28 segments, they accuse Mueller himself.

    And of course, night after night, Hannity rants that Trump has been treated unfairly compared to Clinton, whom he paints as a dangerous criminal still at large. Over the course of the study, Hannity and his guests accused Clinton of crimes in 218 segments, an incredible 45 percent of all segments on the investigation. While the FBI investigated Clinton’s use of a private email server and recommended no charges against her, Hannity’s cohort is convinced that she is guilty of numerous crimes. “I want Hillary prosecuted because she committed felonies,” Hannity said in June. “That's just a fact. And if we deny that, then there's not equal justice under the law.” Eleven months later, he declared: “Mueller's probe is tainted. Hillary is a criminal. It all begins with Hillary Clinton.”

    To investigate these various purported crimes -- from Clinton’s use of a private email server and the supposed efforts to “fix” the investigation into it, to the early stages of the federal investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, to financing the Trump research dossier -- Hannity and his guests have called for the appointment of a second special counsel in 77 segments.

    “People need to be exposed,” he explained in March. “Crimes were committed at the highest levels, and people in the end need to go to jail. The full story needs to come out. You deserve that and so much more from the people that are supposed to serve you in government.” Only a second special counsel, Hannity claims, can get to the bottom of all these crimes and ensure “justice and the rule of law in this country.”

    Hannity’s minion Jarrett has even floated a candidate for the job -- Joseph diGenova, a Republican attorney and activist who briefly served on Trump’s legal team and has claimed the existence of “a brazen plot” by federal law enforcement “to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.”

    Trump is listening. The rule of law rests on the political independence of the FBI and the Justice Department -- the assumption that the president will not interfere with investigations for political purposes. But Trump views the job of federal law enforcement agencies not as protecting the country, but as protecting his interests. Egged on by Hannity, he reportedly threatened to fire Mueller and Rosenstein in order to curtail the probe into his activities and those of his allies, and he regularly suggests his perceived enemies have broken the law and publicly pressures the Justice Department to respond.

    If Trump ever takes such dire steps as firing Mueller and Rosenstein -- or forcing investigations of his enemies -- he has every reason to believe that Hannity’s propaganda effort will keep the Republican base on his side, forestalling any real accountability.

    Appendix: The cast of characters

    Here are the 10 Hannity guests who appeared most frequently during segments about the Mueller probe:

    1. Sara Carter, Fox contributor, 121 appearances

    2. Gregg Jarrett, Fox legal analyst, 121 appearances

    3. Sebastian Gorka, Fox contributor, 50 appearances

    4. Jay Sekulow, Trump lawyer, 50 appearances

    5. Newt Gingrich, Fox contributor, 37 appearances

    6. John Solomon,The Hill executive vice president, 33 appearances

    7. Dan Bongino, NRATV contributor, 30 appearances

    8. Jeanine Pirro, Fox host, 27 appearances

    9. Geraldo Rivera, Fox contributor, 22 appearances

    10. Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch president, 19 appearances

    Methodology

    Media Matters identified segments based on a search of Nexis transcripts for Fox News’ Hannity between May 17, 2017, and May 16, 2018, for instances of the word “Trump” within 20 words of “Russia,” “Mueller,” or “special counsel.”

    We included each segment where the special counsel probe was the stated topic of discussion. We also included segments that were not limited solely to the special counsel probe but that featured significant discussion of the topic. We defined significant discussion as at least two speakers in the segment talking about the special counsel probe to one another (e.g. the host asking a guest a question about the special counsel probe during a multitopic interview).

    We identified all guests hosted during each segment and coded for whether each segment contained the following criteria, counting instances in which the host or guests made such comments as well as instances in which the host or guests positively affirmed such comments made in video clips:

    Media criticism

    • A1: any criticism of media coverage of the investigation/the Trump-Russia story

    Firings

    • B1: suggestions that Robert Mueller should be fired/resign/recuse himself/end the investigation

    • B2: suggestions that Rod Rosenstein should be fired/resign/recuse himself/end the investigation

    Conflict of interest

    • C1: suggestions that those involved in the investigation -- including but not limited to Mueller, Rosenstein, and the FBI -- have conflicts of interest, including because they are or have donated to Democrats

    Witch hunt

    • D1: suggestions that the investigation is a “witch hunt” (using that exact phrase)

    Collusion

    • E1: suggestions that there was no “collusion” (using any variation of that word) between Trump or his associates and Russia

    • E2: suggestions that there was “collusion” between Democrats or Obama-era law enforcement agencies and Russia

    • E3: suggestions that “collusion” is not a crime

    Crimes

    • F1: suggestions that Mueller may have committed crimes or may be guilty of crimes

    • F2: suggestions that other senior current or former DOJ/FBI officials involved with the investigation may have committed crimes or may be guilty of crimes

    • F3: suggestions that Hillary Clinton may have committed crimes or may be guilty of crimes

    • F4: suggestions that a second special counsel should be appointed to investigate Trump’s political enemies, including but not limited to Hillary Clinton and senior current or former DOJ/FBI officials

    Uranium One

    • G1: references to the Uranium One pseudoscandal

    Teasers for upcoming segments were not included. We did not include repeats of the same episode. We also identified whether a segment was the opening segment of the program and identified any guests who appeared during a segment.

    Shelby Jamerson and Rob Savillo contributed research to this report.

  • Trump’s Fox & Friends interview shows he knows exactly what he’s doing with media attacks

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    When President Donald Trump called in this morning to his favorite program, the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, it seemed inevitable that sooner or later the conversation would turn to the president’s virulent hatred for journalists. Trump spent much of his presidential campaign and presidency thus far embroiled in an ongoing war against what he terms the “fake news” media, and indeed today’s interview featured several such attacks, with the president calling out NBC’s Chuck Todd by name. But the president also confirmed that his criticisms of the press aren’t merely a sign that he hates public criticism -- they’re a deliberate strategy intended to convince his supporters not to believe critical information about him.

    During a long tangent about his 2016 Electoral College victory, Trump portrayed media coverage that suggested he had a low chance of winning as an effort to “suppress the vote,” designed to trick the viewers into not voting because they would assume it was futile. “They don’t know it’s fake news,” the president said of his supporters. “I have taught them it is fake news.”

    I have taught them it is fake news.

    Trump is correct. While his attacks build on a decades-long conservative campaign to undermine the news media, his ferocious, unending feud has triggered a noticeable dip in support for the press among Republicans since the beginning of the presidential campaign. He is trying -- and succeeding -- in keeping his supporters from accepting bad news about his presidency.

    Delegitimizing alternative sources of information is a necessary step for a president and administration that constantly lie, have a wildly unpopular agenda, and are embroiled in a host of corruption scandals. If Trump’s supporters come to trust reality over the president’s words, he’s toast.

    Throughout the interview, Trump divided up the press into two factions. On one side, there’s ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and the rest of the mainstream media, whom he described as “fake news” outlets that are conspiring against him. On the other side, there’s Fox, which he described as “tough” but “fair.” “In all fairness to Fox,” Trump said, “you guys don’t always treat me great. You treat me fairly.”

    If Fox -- a network known for its sycophantic Trump defenses -- becomes the standard for tough coverage, the president knows he has nothing to worry about. That’s what this whole campaign against mainstream media has been about.

  • What comes next after a NY Times reporter admitted becoming “an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence”

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s just-released memoir, Chasing Hillary, offers a detailed and direct admission that major media outlets played into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands by devoting obsessive coverage to hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. It's a striking acknowledgment, given how defensive the Times and its campaign journalists have generally been about their work. But rather than writing off Chozick's mea culpa as proof of personal weakness or a one-off error, journalists should take it as a warning. The 2016 election may have been the first time that journalists found themselves the tools of a foreign government aimed at undermining American democracy. It won't be the last.

    In a chapter titled “How I Became an Unwitting Agent of Russian Intelligence,” Chozick, who spent a decade covering Hillary Clinton for the Times and The Wall Street Journal, recounts the October afternoon when WikiLeaks began releasing a new set of documents obtained from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s Gmail account. By then, journalists had reason to suspect that hackers working for Russian intelligence services were the source of the emails. Nonetheless, Chozick writes that she “chose the byline” rather than urging her editors to consider the possibility that the paper was being used by a hostile government. She was not alone -- virtually every major publication devoted significant attention to the hacked emails.

    Only after the election, when Times national security reporters detailed how the all-consuming reporting had aided the Russian plot, did Chozick come to grips with what she had done: “[N]othing hurt worse than my own colleagues calling me a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence. The worst part was they were right.”

    The Times post-election bombshell on the Russian hacking campaign that caused Chozick to reassess her actions started a conversation about how journalists had treated the hacked emails, including inside the Times. But those discussions yielded little consensus, with leading newsroom figures, notably including Times executive editor Dean Baquet, arguing that their outlets had done nothing wrong.

    “If you get email correspondence of newsworthiness from any source, you have an obligation to publish it, assuming it's true, which in this case it was. You have an obligation to publish it,” Baquet said on NPR. “And if a powerful figure writes emails that are newsworthy, you've just got to publish them.”

    Baquet presents a false choice between hiding vital information from the public and behaving exactly as media outlets did during the 2016 election -- one that seems to appeal to other Times political reporters. This formulation ignores a third option -- that the failure wasn’t that news outlets had published emails stolen by a hostile source, but that the scope of their coverage greatly exceeded the actual news value of the emails. The hacked email coverage is one of a series of cases in which poor editorial judgment led to an overwhelming focus on Clinton email-related purported scandals instead of pressing policy issues.

    There’s a reason that critics of media coverage of the Russia-hacked emails fixate on the revelation of Podesta’s risotto recipe -- it’s a perfect encapsulation of the sort of small-bore “scoop” that journalists discovered when rooting through the documents that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign chair. There were valid stories in the lot, but none of them detailed the sort of illegal behavior or sinister scandal one might have expected from the tone and volume of the coverage. Instead, “The dominant feature of the emails was their ordinariness,” as the Times’ David Leonhardt explained in a column last May.

    Given how mundane the emails were, journalists should have given their content much less attention, while making the fact that they had been released as part of an effort by a hostile foreign government to sway the election an essential part of their reporting. That’s how French reporters would later treat the release of “spectacularly mundane” emails stolen from Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign for president of France. It’s also how the Miami Herald treated hacked internal Democratic campaign documents -- finding them "embarrassing" but unenlightening, the paper published only two articles about them, one of which highlighted in its first sentence that the documents seemed to have been obtained by Russian hackers.

    “The overhyped coverage of the hacked emails was the media’s worst mistake in 2016 — one sure to be repeated if not properly understood,” Leonhardt concluded a year ago. It won’t be long until we find out if journalists will repeat that failure. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified in February, one of the numerous national security experts to warn that Russian election meddling will continue.

    Chozick’s memoir provides a new opportunity to consider their past errors and strive for a better process as the 2018 elections loom. Reporters won’t be “unwitting agent[s] of Russian intelligence” again -- the next document dump intended to warp the democratic process will come after plenty of warnings. If major media outlets want to avoid becoming witting agents of a foreign power, they need to consider what happened in 2016 and develop processes that make that less likely. And it would behoove them to tell their readers and viewers up front how they plan to cover stolen documents going forward.

    Maybe then we’ll be spared future attempts by reporters to explain why they always "chose the byline.”

  • Sean Hannity’s effort to tie Robert Mueller to Whitey Bulger was bullshit

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and adviser to President Donald Trump who has turned his broadcast into a nightly attack on special counsel Robert Mueller, smeared the head of the Russia probe by referencing one of the darkest chapters in the FBI’s history on four consecutive broadcasts last week. “During Mueller’s time as a federal prosecutor in Boston, four -- four men wrongfully imprisoned for decades framed by an F.B.I. informant and notorious gangster, Whitey Bulger, all while Mueller’s office looked the other way,” Hannity said in one such report last Wednesday.

    That’s nonsense, according to Nancy Gertner, the retired federal judge who presided over the wrongful imprisonment trial of the four men and ordered the government to pay them and their families $101.7 million. As Gertner explains in a Wednesday op-ed in The New York Times, there is “no evidence” linking Mueller to the case -- and in fact, the case didn’t even involve Bulger, the infamous head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang.

    The swift unraveling of Hannity’s latest shoddy effort to discredit Mueller points to Fox’s inability or unwillingness to restrain its top-rated host as he barrels through journalistic ethics rules and ignores basic fact-checking standards.

    The Bulger story has its roots in an apparently coordinated right-wing effort that kicked off last month after Trump lashed out at Mueller for the first time by name on Twitter. Those tweets, which followed reports that the special counsel had issued a subpoena for Trump Organization records, triggered a series of reports from pro-Trump sources about Mueller’s record that reportedly bore “the hallmarks of professional opposition research.”

    In one such missive, headlined “Questions Still Surround Robert Mueller’s Boston Past,” Fox News contributor and Hannity fixture Sara Carter wrote on her personal website that the special counsel’s tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney and acting U.S. attorney in the 1980s “raised questions about his role in one of the FBI’s most controversial cases involving the FBI’s use of a confidential informant” -- whom she identified as Bulger -- “that led to the convictions of four innocent men, who were sentenced to death for murders they did not commit.”

    The story heavily drew on criticism from David Schoen, a civil rights and defense attorney who had previously linked Mueller to Bulger while appearing alongside Carter in a February Hannity segment. Carter’s report quoted Schoen claiming Mueller had been “neck deep” in the case.

    As Gertner explained in her Times op-ed, there’s no reason to believe any of this is true:

    Based on the voluminous evidence submitted in the trial, and having written a 105-page decision awarding them $101.8 million, I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mueller, who worked in the United States attorney’s office in Boston from 1982 to 1988, including a brief stint as the acting head of the office, had no involvement in that case. He was never even mentioned.

    The case wasn’t about Whitey Bulger but another mobster the F.B.I. was also protecting, the hit man Joseph Barboza, who lied when he testified that the four men had killed Edward Deegan, a low-level mobster, in 1965. Mr. Barboza was covering for the real killers, and the F.B.I. went along because of his importance as an informant.

    [...]

    Mr. Mueller is mentioned nowhere in my opinion; nor in the submissions of the plaintiffs’ lead trial counsel, Juliane Balliro; nor in “Black Mass,” the book about Mr. Bulger and the F.B.I. written by former reporters for The Boston Globe.

    Carter, a former reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group website Circa, regularly produces shoddy reports that appear to channel the talking points of Trump’s lawyers and Republican congressional investigators. But while she now writes only for her personal blog, she is a key player in the right wing’s anti-Mueller effort because she regularly appears on Hannity and other pro-Trump Fox programs to discuss her stories.

    In this case, Hannity hosted Carter and Schoen to discuss her “brand new report” on March 20, the night after she published it. Hannity termed Mueller’s purported connection to the wrongful imprisonment of the four men “one of the worst stains” on the special counsel’s record. He returned to the story on the next two editions of his show.

    Hannity did not mention the case again until last Monday, when he responded to the FBI’s raid of Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer (who, as would later be revealed, had also done legal work for Hannity himself).

    During his unhinged performance that night -- promoted by the president on Twitter -- Hannity mapped out the “Mueller crime family,” which he said included Bulger. He trumpeted Mueller’s purported malfeasance in the case that night and during his next three broadcasts.

    Meanwhile, other players in the pro-Trump media, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and Boston Herald columnist and radio host Howie Carr, picked up the story. These conservative commentators, desperate to damage Mueller’s credibility in order to forestall his investigation and set the stage for his firing, don’t much care if these stories are true.

    “When Mr. Hannity and others say Mr. Mueller was responsible for the continued imprisonment of those four men, they are simply wrong — unless they have information that I, Balliro, the House investigators and the ‘Black Mass’ authors did not and do not have,” Gertner concluded, referring to a book by Boston Globe reporters about Bulger and the FBI. “If they do, they should produce it. If they don’t, they should stop this campaign to discredit Mr. Mueller.”

    Hannity doesn’t have any additional information, but don’t count on him to stop running with the talking point now that it’s been debunked -- or issuing a correction, as would happen at any other network. At Fox, there are no rules for Hannity.

  • The Fox News pardon pipeline

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plea to overturn his 2010 criminal conviction and 14-year prison sentence on charges related to political corruption, his wife Patti Blagojevich appealed to a higher authority: Fox News.

    “If you could speak to the president, what would you say?” Fox host Tucker Carlson asked at the top of a sympathetic Monday night interview with her. “What would be your pitch to pardoning your husband?” As she explained why she thought the former governor deserved clemency for charges that he tried to sell off President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, the caption "Will Trump intervene in Blagojevich case?" flashed across the screen.

    President Donald Trump himself, who spends hours each day consuming his favorite news network, may have been watching -- a spokesperson for Patti Blagojevich said she hopes he saw the segment. Even if he hasn’t personally seen it, the appeal may find favor with one of the network hosts or regulars whom Trump regularly consults.

    Appealing for presidential relief on Fox is a sound strategy, and one that more lawyers will likely attempt in the years to come. At this point in his presidency, all three of Trump’s pardons have had a Fox connection, and each avoided the standard, complex Justice Department procedures.

    With Trump largely ignoring the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the best path to clemency is getting the president’s attention. And no one has the president’s attention quite like the programs and staffers at Fox.

    Trump’s first pardon went to Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff notorious to most for the brutal, humiliating treatment undocumented immigrants suffered under his authority and his refusal to stop racially profiling the Latino community.

    But on Fox, Arpaio was a folk hero, the lawman who took undocumented immigration and the border seriously. The president likely had that image in mind when he issued the pardon with a statement praising Arpaio’s “life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

    A Fox regular may have given Trump the idea in the first place. It was Gregg Jarrett, a Fox legal analyst and Trump sycophant, who broke the news that Trump was thinking about pardoning Arpaio, saying they discussed it at the president’s Bedminster, NJ, golf club. Jarrett, who clearly supported an Arpaio pardon, didn’t say who first raised the idea. For his part, Arpaio credits the work of pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for the pardon; Jones, in turn, has said Fox host Sean Hannity was involved.

    Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor who pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized possession and retention of national defense information, was the second recipient of a Trump pardon.

    Saucier’s lawyer specifically attributed the pardon to a Fox-centric strategy that included getting Saucier on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite program and one he frequently live-tweets.

    I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former White House aide, recently received the third pardon, which was widely perceived as a way for Trump to signal that pardons might be available to witnesses who don’t cooperate with the Russia probe.

    Here, too, Fox appears to have played a key role. Libby’s lawyer is Victoria Toensing, the Republican attorney who uses frequent Fox appearances to defend Trump from the Russia investigation and had been in talks earlier in the year to join the president’s legal team. She “declined to say what conversations she had with the White House about Libby in recent days and weeks” in a Washington Post interview after the pardon was announced.

    A president’s tenure typically includes a few controversial pardons that critics say were political. But under Trump, every single pardon has been of that sort, without the usual mix of ordinary citizens who served their time and appealed to the Justice Department.

    Criminal defendants and prisoners who lack resources and who don’t count professional political operatives among their friends -- like the nonviolent drug offenders who received pardons from President Barack Obama -- may be out of luck.

    Attorneys and applicants will likely draw lessons from the unusual way Trump has wielded the pardon power.

    Pardon seekers are more likely to be successful if they have some sort of connection to conservative politics, either as a politician like Arpaio, a cause célèbre like Saucier, or an operative like Libby.

    Trump has loudly proclaimed himself the victim of a political prosecution, and he seems more likely to respond to people making the same case.

    Hiring a lawyer with connections to the president has always been good advice. But under this administration, those connections may well be driven by the lawyer’s willingness and ability to shill for the president on television.

    And, of course, get on Fox if you can, and have your spouse or lawyer do it if you can’t. Thanks to the president’s obsession with the network’s programming, he may be watching.

    Even if Trump doesn’t see your segment, someone who has the president’s ear may.

    “On a show just before we were talking about the former governor of Illinois,” the lawyer Alan Dershowitz said on Hannity Monday, just minutes after Patti Blagojevich’s interview. “Gets 14 years in prison for what people do every single day in state legislatures all over the country, and yet we prosecute him and throw the book at him.”

    Last week, Dershowitz had dinner at the White House with Trump, a reward for making the president’s case on television. Next time he has that opportunity, perhaps he’ll suggest that the president fix a miscarriage of justice and offer Rod Blagojevich a pardon.

    The Fox pardon pipeline will be back in action.

    UPDATE: In addition to the three Trump pardons, the sole person to receive a Trump commutation also has a Fox tie.

    On December 20, Trump granted clemency to Sholom Rubashkin and ordered his release. Rubashkin had so far served eight years of his 27-year sentence on dozens of charges of financial fraud. Observers were puzzled by Trump’s decision to free him, noting that leniency for the owner of a meatpacking plant that had been the target of a huge immigration raid was at odds with Trump’s generally harsh stance on undocumented immigration.

    Rubashkin had one advantage, though -- his lawyer was Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz had been working on the case for five years and told The New York Times that he had personally asked Trump to consider commutation.

    According to Forward, Dershowitz brought up Rubashkin during a meeting with the president to discuss the Middle East peace process in fall 2017. August of that year saw the publication of Dershowitz’s latest book, which argues that the Russia probe is the result of the “criminalization of political differences” and highlights his Fox & Friends appearances in publicity materials. He regularly made the same arguments on Fox in the months and weeks leading up to the pardon.

    On December 4, a few weeks before Trump issued the commutation, the president flagged one such Dershowitz appearance on his Twitter account:

  • Fox News on Hannity’s Cohen conflict: We don’t care

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    If anything good came from Monday’s revelation that Sean Hannity had concealed a massive conflict of interest from Fox News’ viewers, it was that his conduct was so egregious, and his network’s lack of interest in journalistic ethics so obvious, that it may have cleared things up for any mainstream reporter who still considers Fox a real news outlet.

    As part of Hannity’s campaign against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump, the Fox host last week repeatedly denounced the FBI’s raid of the office of Trump personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen on the network’s airwaves. Only yesterday did the public learn of a secret tie between Hannity and Cohen -- Hannity had been Cohen’s legal client.

    For many, including myself, this was simply confirmation of the obvious: Fox has no rules for the likes of Hannity. The network prioritizes keeping its top ratings star happy over its responsibility to the public.

    But for others, this was an opportunity for the network to prove itself:

    Fox has now released a statement on the issue that demonstrates just “what kind of org” the network is:

    The statement’s message is simple: Fox doesn’t care about ethics.

    The network isn’t interested in whether Hannity has a conflict of interest. It will take Hannity’s claims at face value without delving into his relationship with Cohen.

    Fox’s executives don’t feel that they owe it to their audience to apologize.

    There’s no indication that the host will be restricted from discussing Cohen going forward.

    There’s no signal that the network believes Hannity did anything wrong. He certainly won’t be disciplined.

    There’s not even a name attached to the statement taking responsibility for the comments.

    Fox has, through word and deed, consistently shown that the network doesn’t operate like a normal news organization. 

    Journalists should pay attention.

  • There are no rules for Sean Hannity at Fox News

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    “It seems that there’s no limit at all into the fishing expedition that [special counsel Robert] Mueller is now engaged in,” Sean Hannity claimed last Monday, after FBI investigators raided the home, office, and hotel room of Michael D. Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer. “And if he has access to everything that his personal attorney has, I can only imagine where that’s going to lead.”

    Seven days later, it led to Hannity himself, as an attorney for Cohen revealed that the Fox News host was Cohen’s mystery legal client, whose identity the lawyer had tried to keep concealed.

    That association raises many questions, not least of which is how Fox could have allowed Hannity to vigorously defend Cohen on the network’s airwaves without disclosing that he had been Cohen’s client.

    That is a serious breach of journalistic ethics that, in any normal newsroom, would lead to a suspension or even firing. “Going to find out what kind of org Fox is today,” NBC News’ Chuck Todd tweeted this morning. “No serious news org would allow someone this conflicted to cover this story.”

    It’s unclear what we could learn from Fox today that we didn’t already know several years ago.

    The rules are different at Fox News -- indeed, it often appears that there are no rules at all governing the behavior of the network’s top talent. This is, after all, a network that was happy for years to pay off employees who reported host Bill O’Reilly for sexual harassment in order to keep them quiet. Because Fox does not hold its stars to the most basic codes of ethical behavior, let alone the standard principles of journalistic conduct, critics hoping for accountability have little recourse but to appeal directly to the network’s advertisers.

    The Hannity-Cohen story is a classic case study. Reporters and experts agree that Hannity’s actions are a drastic violation of journalistic norms that demand a severe response. But network executives aren’t answering questions about whether they were aware of Hannity’s conflict of interest or whether he will be subject to any disciplinary action. Fox’s hosts have filled that void: Hannity used last night’s program to say that he hadn’t done anything wrong. And his Fox colleagues have largely rallied behind him.

    None of this is new. Hannity’s unwillingness to hew to journalistic ethics conventions has been causing the network problems for years.

    At times, Fox has tried to rein him in: Hannity’s plan to broadcast from a tea party fundraiser was canceled, and after Hannity appeared in an ad for Trump’s presidential campaign, a network spokesperson said it would not happen again. But Fox executives never formally reprimanded Hannity for his actions, much less suspended him.

    The last two years have only strengthened Hannity’s hand within the network. Trump’s election gave him direct access to the president of the United States. With O’Reilly gone, Hannity has the network’s most popular show and is the only remaining prime-time link to Fox’s founding. And the firings of Fox founder Roger Ailes, who hired Hannity, and Bill Shine, who was Hannity’s producer before climbing the network’s corporate ladder, removed two Fox executives to whom Hannity might have listened.

    Meanwhile, increasing competition from conservative cable network Newsmax and Sinclair Broadcast Group means that Hannity would have options if he and Fox were to cut ties.

    As a largely unrestrained power at Fox who has flipped back and forth on the question of whether he is a journalist who must abide by basic ethics rules, Hannity has been getting into trouble. The network’s response has been damage control, alternatively covering for him or even encouraging his actions.

    Last May, Hannity spent several programs championing the conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer had been murdered for leaking emails to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. But as advertisers fled his program, Fox stood behind Hannity. The network subsequently announced an internal investigation into its reporting on the story, but that review has yet to be made public, suggesting that the probe was a public relations tactic.

    In the fall, Hannity hosted O’Reilly for a series of interviews in which the former host attacked the women who reported him for sexual harassment. Fox responded by heavily promoting O’Reilly’s appearance on Hannity’s Fox program.

    And the network appears blissfully unconcerned about the biggest ongoing Hannity ethical disaster of all: his simultaneous status as a personal adviser to Trump and the host of a nightly program on which he worships the president and condemns his perceived foes.

    In fact, Fox has rewarded Hannity for his actions, apparently hiring several conservative commentators specifically to regularly appear on Hannity’s program and those of a small circle of Hannity’s fellow travelers.

    The network’s decision to prioritize Hannity over maintaining basic standards hasn’t sat well with the Fox employees who consider themselves serious journalists instead of Trump propagandists. Fox staffers have privately told reporters at other outlets that they are embarrassed and disgusted by Hannity’s antics. Fox’s Shep Smith has even publicly feuded with Hannity; he also has repeatedly run segments that appear to directly rebut arguments made on Hannity’s program.

    “They don’t really have rules on the opinion side,” Smith told Time magazine last month. “They can say whatever they want.” Fox’s handling of Hannity’s Cohen conflict of interest demonstrates that they can apparently do whatever they want as well.

    UPDATE: A Fox News statement on Hannity claims that the network was unaware of Hannity's conflict of interest, and now that they know, they don't particularly care. 

  • Sean Hannity is Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s secret client

    And Hannity reportedly hired him to go after us

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The mystery client that President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, fought in court to keep secret is Fox News host Sean Hannity, Cohen’s lawyer divulged on Monday.

    Cohen’s lawyers had acknowledged that Cohen had three legal clients since 2017 in a filing in federal court related to legal issues surrounding documents the FBI obtained by raiding his office, home, and hotel room last week. Two clients  -- Trump and GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy -- were publicly known. Attorneys for Cohen had argued that the identity of the third should remain secret. But Judge Kimba Wood rejected that argument, forcing Cohen’s lawyer to reveal his work for Hannity.

    Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported on MSNBC soon after that Hannity hired Cohen “to help defend him against left-wing groups that were calling for boycotts,” an apparent reference to Media Matterswell-publicized campaign to get advertisers to stop supporting Hannity’s program. Sherman added that Hannity may have hired “other lawyers and/or private investigators” as part of the effort.

    Hannity has not previously divulged employing Cohen as a lawyer, even as he extensively denounced the FBI’s raid on his Fox broadcast last week.

    On his show last Monday, for example, Hannity devoted his opening monologue (and much of the rest of the show) to arguing that the Cohen raid points to an “all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States” and the declaration of “a legal war on the president.” The next night, he said the raid was “an unprecedented abuse of power.”

    Cohen is at least the third lawyer tied to Trump whom Hannity has recently employed. In April last year, after a far-right troll suggested that the CIA had targeted Hannity for surveillance, Hannity claimed that he had hired lawyers Jay Sekulow and Joseph diGenova to investigate and pursue a civil action. Trump would later hire Sekulow as a personal lawyer with regard to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. In March, Sekulow announced that diGenova had been added to that team, only to state a few days later that “conflicts prevent” that from occuring.  

    UPDATE:  Hannity has responded on Twitter, claiming that Cohen provided him with legal advice for free:

    He also said on his radio show that he might have given Cohen $10 in order to ensure the conversation was covered by attorney-client privilege. As Business Insider's Josh Barro points out, this arrangement raises additional ethical questions for Hannity and Fox:

  • Fox hasn't stopped helping Diamond and Silk lie about Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    In a series of Fox News interviews this week, the pro-Trump YouTubers who go by the stage names “Diamond and Silk” declared themselves the victims of politically motivated censorship by Facebook.

    The network’s hosts have all but applauded the pair’s repeated claims that the social media giant deliberately kept their content from reaching their audience because the company is biased against conservatives, and that the company had not reached out to them to fix the purported problem. Fox trumpeting the story encouraged press-hungry Republican lawmakers to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the allegations when he testified on Capitol Hill, which in turn generated newsy clips for the network to highlight in its reports on the hearings.

    There’s just one problem: Diamond and Silk’s allegations don’t appear to be true. But that hasn’t stopped Fox from continuing to host them to attack Facebook, even after their story was debunked.

    The vloggers, sisters whose real names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, developed a fervent following during the 2016 presidential campaign because of their unyielding devotion to Donald Trump and their willingness to barnstorm the country on his behalf. The duo rose with Trump, and they currently have an audience of more than 144,000 YouTube subscribers and roughly 1.5 million followers on Facebook.

    But that rise, they claim, has been stymied by Facebook. Beginning with a Friday night post on their Facebook page and continuing in six subsequent Fox News interviews, Diamond and Silk have alleged that the company has been deliberately keeping those followers from seeing and interacting with their content since September 2017. After months of getting “the runaround,” they say, the company sent them an email stating that “they deemed our content and our brand unsafe to the community” (in a statement, Facebook said the message had been “inaccurate”). And that, in their telling, was their last communication with Facebook. They say that the company is biased against them because they are black women who support Trump.

    Facebook’s opacity and power leaves the company unusually vulnerable to criticism that it is choking off public debate. A change in Facebook’s algorithm can make or break news outlets and content providers, causing drastic changes in web traffic and thus ad revenue. But its willingness to bend over backward in response to conservative pressure campaigns also leaves it vulnerable to liars and grifters. And that appears to be what happened here.

    On Thursday, after Zuckerberg was battered by Republican legislators obsessed with the Diamond and Silk story and following several days of credulous Fox coverage, The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson and The Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell reported that contrary to the pair’s claims on Wednesday that Facebook had not contacted them beyond the “unsafe” email, the company had reached out to them by email as early as Monday and by phone on Tuesday.

    The root of Diamond and Silk’s issue, Erickson wrote, appeared to be new Facebook monetization guidelines the company had released in September 2017 that applied across Facebook, not a narrow effort to censor them. “I think Facebook made some mistakes, but that it was not intentional, not malicious, and not nearly as bad as it seemed,” he concluded.

    The same afternoon, ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum reviewed Facebook data about Diamond and Silk’s page and concluded that their claim that the company is deliberately ensuring they reach fewer people due to political bias “is totally without merit.” He determined that their Facebook page interactions actually grew from March 2017 to 2018 -- as liberal-leaning pages similarly focused on posting videos saw sharp declines -- and that while the reach of their videos has declined, it was to a lesser extent than those of liberal pages.

    “Any changes to their page performance over the last few months were not targeted at them, but the result of broader shifts across Facebook,” Legum concluded. “Indeed, many pages, including liberal pages, have suffered large declines because Facebook has reduced the distribution of videos and other content published by pages in favor of content from ‘friends and family.’”

    So Fox was used as a pathway to promote Diamond and Silk’s lies. And the network doesn’t appear to care. On Thursday afternoon, after Erickson, Kirell, and Legum had demolished their story, the pair was back on Fox. The host who interviewed them, Neil Cavuto, was nonplussed by their statements that the network had tried to contact them only via Twitter, or their claim that they had been targeted because they support the president. “Do you think Mark Zuckerberg does have a bias against conservative sites -- conservative participants?” he asked at one point. “Yes, we do,” Diamond replied. Indeed, while Fox had championed their tale in numerous reports, the network has yet to report on the new information debunking it.

    Why is Fox unwilling to set the record straight? Probably for the same reason the network first reported on Diamond and Skil’s claims: Their narrative fits cozily into Fox’s broad conceit that, in spite of controlling all three branches of government, conservatives in America are constantly being censored and stigmatized.

    The network appears particularly enamored of Diamond and Silk’s claim that they have been “silenced” because of their race. Here’s how Laura Ingraham -- currently trying to escape an advertiser boycott apocalypse by rebranding herself as a First Amendment crusader -- discussed the story Monday night:

    LAURA INGRAHAM: Silk, isn't it the case that the reason -- I mean, we all know the reason that Facebook didn't want your post to reach your followers is because you’re black, you’re conservative, you support Trump, and you tell it like it is and you call it as you see it. That's offensive to the left because they want to silence people like you, both you, Diamond and Silk -- doesn't matter if it was just Silk or Diamond or Diamond and Silk -- they do not want you to reach people. I'm sorry and I'm going to say it until I'm blue in the face.

    SILK: Say it.

    INGRAHAM: They are afraid of both of you. They don't want your views out.

    Perhaps the revelation that Fox was used to promote a lie will lead the network to be more reticent in giving Diamond and Silk airtime. But I rather doubt it -- I think it’s much more likely that the pair will end up on Fox’s payroll. They’re pro-Trump conservatives with a victim narrative, and at Fox, that’s probably enough.