You’d be forgiven if, amid the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate and the ongoing Democratic presidential primary, you missed BuzzFeed News’ story last week detailing how Fox News host Sean Hannity served “as a central point of contact” between the president and his associates under investigation during special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the report -- and Fox News’ lack of interest in addressing it -- marks new terrain for Hannity’s unpaid position in the Trump White House and his network’s effective merger with the administration.
Hannity has spent the last few years finding new and original ways to set afire the journalism ethics rules enforced elsewhere, from endorsing the then-Republican nominee in a campaign ad to failing to disclose that he shared a lawyer with the president to speaking at one of Trump’s rallies. Each of these instances underscored Hannity’s unconscionable role as a political operative whose first loyalty is to Trump, someone who simultaneously hosts a propaganda show enforcing the president’s positions while shaping Trump’s views as a powerful adviser.
The details BuzzFeed News revealed after combing through summaries of Mueller team interviews with key witnesses show that the Fox host hasn’t just been advising the president. Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen each revealed to the special counsel’s office that Hannity had also counseled them on how to respond to probes from Mueller and the House of Representatives, respectively, even as he reported on their cases on his Fox show.
BuzzFeed News quotes from a particularly instructive summary of an October 2018 interview, in which Manafort describes Hannity as acting as a “back channel” to the president between the time FBI raided Manafort’s residence in July 2017 and when he was indicted in October 2017. “Manafort knew Hannity was speaking to Trump around then because Hannity would tell Manafort to hang in there, that he had been talking to Trump, that Trump had his back, and things like that,” the summary states. “Manafort understood his conversations with Hannity to be a message from Trump.”
The summary provides new context for text messages Hannity sent Manafort during that period urging the former Trump campaign chair to “stay strong,” suggesting that Manafort at least believed the remarks to be from the president to influence him not to cooperate with the Mueller probe. And it shows Hannity privately and egregiously engaged with the subjects of his putative reporting.
These revelations would be completely unacceptable at any other network. But the most important line of BuzzFeed News’ story is the one that indicates that for Hannity’s network, they aren’t even worth publicly addressing: “Fox News declined to answer a series of questions BuzzFeed News sent the network about Hannity’s appearance in the documents.”
This passivity marks a change for Fox, which has previously responded to new revelations about its star host’s second life as an unpaid Trump aide first by pledging tough action and later by at least pretending to care with empty statements. Hannity’s 2016 appearance in the Trump ad led to a swift statement from a Fox spokesperson promising that it would not happen again. After news broke that Cohen had at one point represented Hannity -- a fact the Fox host never mentioned on-air while discussing Cohen’s own legal troubles -- Fox issued a statement saying that the host had been “spoken to.” And Hannity’s appearance on stage at the November 2018 Trump rally led to Fox statement that the network did not “condone” the appearance and that it “has been addressed.”
These were all woefully insufficient responses to what would likely have been, at any other news outlet, firing offenses. But they at least indicated that Fox felt it had to say something about its employee’s casual disregard for basic precepts of journalistic integrity. That no longer appears to be the case.
It’s possible that Fox executives have simply given up trying to deny the reality that Hannity’s top priority is the president, not their network or their audience. But this shift in public relations strategy may also speak to a shift in the power dynamic between Fox’s “news” and “opinion” side. In the past, Hannity’s ethical misdeeds would lead to an angry backlash from his “news”-side colleagues, sometimes spilling out into public view in the form of enraged anonymous comments to other outlets.
But over the past year, Fox’s “news” side has been completely routed in this internal battle. Longtime lead anchor Shepard Smith, who was willing to push back against the disinformation rampant elsewhere on the network and even feud with his prime-time colleagues, left the channel in October. His replacement, Bill Hemmer, is more comfortable hewing to the pro-Trump line and has used the media rollout for his new gig carefully avoiding ruffling the feathers of either Fox’s “opinion” hosts or the White House. Hemmer’s own replacement, Ed Henry, has spent the last few years cozily ensconced on Fox & Friends’ curvy couch as a co-host of its weekend edition. With Smith gone, voices of criticism within Fox seem to have been muted.
With the “news” side either replaced by shills or cowed by the changing of the guard, Fox executives no longer face internal pressure to rein in the likes of Hannity. That may leave them with no reason to restrain their opinion hosts other than their own regard for journalistic ethics. And as the ongoing silence on the Manafort connection shows, that doesn’t amount to much.