The banality of the Ben Sasse/Sean Hannity feud

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse has spent the last two years trying to carve out a niche as a bold truth-teller, the natural heir to the late Sen. John McCain’s position as a figure beloved by the press for supposedly rising above partisan politics. Sasse has been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric -- albeit one who fails to back up his fierce statements with action -- and has said he often considers leaving the Republican Party. The Nebraska senator is currently garnering a wave of headlines after criticizing Sean Hannity in his latest book, reigniting his feud with the Fox News host. But Sasse’s argument is both more clever and more cynical than merely calling out Hannity as a toxic element in the conservative movement. Instead, Sasse is using the naked corruption of Hannity and his ilk as an entry point to criticize the rest of the press, which he disingenuously portrays as the mirror image of Fox’s depravity.

Hannity is one of the most powerful figures in the conservative movement. He boasts cable news and talk radio programs with massive audiences, has long been a kingmaker in the Republican Party, and parlayed his early support for Trump in the 2016 primaries into a role as one of the president’s closest advisers. After Trump’s election, Hannity remade his show into a nightly assault on the vast, shadowy conspiracy he claims has assembled to oppose the president. Hannity’s role as a fervent Trump propagandist brought him into conflict with Sasse, with the commentator denouncing the senator after Sasse criticized Trump’s attacks on the press in October 2017.

Sasse misses much of what makes Hannity so dangerous in his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other -- And How To Heal, choosing not to present Hannity as a distinctly bad actor, but as the embodiment of what he terms the media’s “Polarization Business Model.” This is a shell game, one in which Sasse repeatedly presents specific, damning evidence against Hannity and his compatriots in the conservative press -- describing their activities as a dishonest game in which they gin up outrage to pad their own wallets -- then condemns the rest of the media for allegedly behaving in the same way. Having thrown up his hands in this manner, Sasse is left arguing to his readers not that Hannity’s influence must be curbed, but that they should focus on their “in-person communities” and practice the “healthy habits” detailed elsewhere in his book.

After writing that Hannity explained in a New York Times interview that the “core objective” of his programs “is to rage,” and that his show is one long diatribe telling his audience of “angry, isolated people what they want to hear,” Sasse concludes: “We’d all be better off, as would our communities, if we understood the game he and his colleagues—on both sides of the spectrum—are playing.”

Sasse notes a case in which Hannity used a hoax tweet to suggest that progressives had cheered last year’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music concert, and never corrected the record. His takeaway for his readers is that “the left” and the “national ‘news’” do the same thing, though he curiously does not identify any concrete examples of them doing so.

The senator presents a Fox News personality who tells him that “Hannity hasn’t been a conservative for years,” having determined that “teaching and defending conservatism is both harder and less effective than just hitting some crazy liberal.” He concludes that “most TV personalities are not trying to speak to any broad middle of the electorate but are rather competing only against others at roughly the same point on the ideological spectrum.”

And after describing conversations with three top-tier conservative radio hosts who, he claims, apologized for attacking him in order to preserve their pro-Trump audiences, Sasse criticizes “so many media personalities” who “view our nation as their personal vending machine.”

Sasse is up front that he hasn’t done the work to justify his broad conclusions. “The examples of media malpractice I detail in this chapter are predominantly from the right,” he writes, explaining that “this is a function of my daily life experience of being a Republican and representing a state that has been overwhelmingly Republican for decades.” Nonetheless, he concludes that “it is readily apparent that very similar echo chambers exist on the left side of the political and media spectrum as well.”

As an argument, this is nonsense; Sasse substitutes rhetoric for evidence to assume that conditions are the same on both sides of the aisle. Among other mistakes, Sasse dramatically misunderstands how central Fox News and the right-wing press are to the conservative movement relative to the importance of mainstream and left-leaning media to progressives. Fox isn’t the mirror image of a normal news outlet; it’s a right-wing propaganda outlet that has routinely served as a launching pad for Republican candidates. There is no recent precedent for Trump’s relationship to the network: He’s credited it for the launch of his political career, uses its staff as the talent pool for his administration, and regularly consults with the network’s array of conservative talking heads. Hannity isn’t just a guy with some shows; he speaks to the president so regularly that White House aides refer to him as the “shadow” chief of staff.

But Sasse is displaying a certain canniness. He is surely aware that the right has a limitless capacity for criticisms of the mainstream press. And he’s long benefited from the mainstream media’s eagerness to find Republican politicians they can lift up as somehow different from the rest. Sasse’s criticism of Hannity really benefits Sasse -- and, to some extent, Hannity himself. Sasse’s readers will come away convinced not that Hannity is a uniquely destructive force in American politics, but that he is a conventional commentator whose deleterious actions are really no different from anyone else in the press.