President Donald Trump will give his first nationally televised interview with a broadcast network in seven months this Sunday when he appears on Fox Broadcasting Co. before the Super Bowl. While the prospect of the president facing detailed questions about the abuse of power scandal that triggered his impeachment by the House of Representatives should place him in political peril, no one at the White House will lose sleep over this weekend’s sit-down. That is because Trump will be interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity, a loyal sycophant with deep ties to his administration who has no interest whatsoever in trying to elicit damaging information from the president.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump have all sat for pregame interviews with the network hosting the Super Bowl (the game rotates between CBS, NBC, and Fox, the NFL’s three primary broadcast television rights holders). Because those interviews receive massive ratings, with a viewership generally between 10 to 20 million, they are showcases for each network’s talent. For NBC and CBS, that has meant calling on the star anchors of their morning, evening, and Sunday political talk shows to interview the president. Fox, on the other hand, traditionally gave the slot to conservative opinion host Bill O’Reilly, their “king of cable news.”
But this year’s Super Bowl offered Fox the opportunity to decide who would represent it in a new era, as Sunday marks the first time the network has hosted the Super Bowl since O’Reilly’s 2017 firing. If Fox executives had wanted to showcase their much-touted “news” side, they could have put forward someone like anchor Chris Wallace, who has occasionally made news for challenging interviews with Trump officials. Instead, they are sending Hannity, who is so sympathetic to Trump that he effectively functions as a White House spokesperson.
Fox’s message is clear: When the stakes are highest and the spotlight is brightest, the network produces right-wing propaganda, not journalism.
The last few years have seen Hannity evolve from a standard-issue GOP mouthpiece infamous for tossing softball questions to Republicans, to a powerful Trump administration insider. The Fox host defies traditional principles of journalism ethics by serving as a counselor to the president and others in his circle while simultaneously using his show to bolster the administration’s every move. Here’s a brief timeline:
2016: Amid a presidential campaign that saw Hannity actively using his show to boost Trump’s candidacy and promote unhinged conspiracy theories about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Hannity endorsed Trump in a promotional video for his campaign, leading to a stern statement from Fox.
2017: Hannity triggered an advertiser exodus and internal dismay when he tried to defend Trump against reports linking his campaign to Russian interference in the 2016 election by championing the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
2018: Profiles in The Washington Post and New York magazine detailed the scope of Hannity’s White House influence and regular conversations with Trump. He was revealed as a secret client of Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, a fact the Fox host had not disclosed in his commentary on Cohen’s case. And he appeared on stage and spoke at a Trump political rally on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections.
2019: Hannity was a central figure in the Ukraine disinformation plot that triggered Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives.
2020: Documents uncovered by BuzzFeed News showed that Hannity had served as a backchannel between Trump and his associates under investigation during special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
These are violations of basic ethical tenets that any other news outlet would not tolerate -- indeed, the revelation that Hannity was a Cohen client and his appearance at the Trump rally alone would have been grounds for immediate termination elsewhere. At Fox News, by contrast, early efforts to check Hannity have been replaced by passivity and acquiescence as his close ties to Trump have apparently made him untouchable. And in allowing Hannity to represent the network and interview the president on the biggest possible stage, Fox executives are now all but shouting from the rooftops that they have no interest in reining him in.
Sunday’s result is a foregone conclusion. Hannity may have conducted more one-on-one interviews with Trump in recent years than anyone else on the planet. Trump spent more than 17 hours on Hannity's Fox show during the 2016 Republican primary and gave the host an additional 14 sit-downs after taking office. But for all that access, Hannity’s interviews are most notable for their consistency.
The pattern never varies: Hannity throws softballs, Trump responds with talking points, praise flows both ways, and the interview ends without any news being made. That’s what the audience will get on Sunday -- not a shred of journalistic credibility, just the president’s leading booster and sometime personal adviser doing his best to make Trump look good.
That’s the presentation the network is willingly offering to the broader public. Fox executives could have dispatched a “news”-side anchor or reporter to try to do some journalism on Sunday. But they ultimately decided they’d rather send the president’s buddy to film an infomercial for his reelection campaign instead.
This would be an embarrassment for Fox if anyone there still had any capacity for embarrassment. But as we’ve seen, the network has long abandoned even the pretense that any rules apply to Hannity, its undisputed standard-bearer. He is the epitome of Fox’s news product, and so it is appropriate that he represent it to the world.
Fox is Sean Hannity’s network, and it doesn’t care who knows it.
Update (2/3/20): As I anticipated, the interview was effectively a campaign ad for the president. The eight-minute clip Fox aired during its Super Bowl pregame coverage shows the Fox News host offering Trump no tough questions and providing him with a “lightning round” opportunity to smear Democratic presidential candidates and other party leaders.
Poynter's Tom Jones detailed the fallout from the interview, writing that while “it’s no secret that Fox News, as a whole, backs Trump,” Hannity's performance still “managed to do even more damage to whatever credibility Fox News has left as a serious news organization.” He added:
Choosing Hannity might have pleased the president and much of his base, but it was confirmation that Fox News cares more about pleasing the right than doing its job as a news source.
This isn’t about Trump’s answers. And it’s more than just Hannity’s feeble questions. It was about the higher-ups at a news division turning over their airways to Hannity in the biggest interview of the year and allowing Trump to run amok. That right there should tell you where Fox News stands.