Sean Hannity: Media Matters' 2008 Misinformer of the Year

As Media Matters for America has demonstrated time and again, Fox News' Sean Hannity has been a prolific and influential purveyor of conservative misinformation. But never has he so enthusiastically applied his talents for spreading misinformation as he did to the 2008 presidential race, focusing his energies primarily on President-elect Barack Obama. Day after day, Hannity devoted his two Fox News shows and his three-hour ABC Radio Networks program to “demonizing” the Democratic presidential candidates, starkly explaining in August: “That's my job. ... I led the 'Stop Hillary Express.' By the way, now it's the 'Stop Obama Express.' ” Hannity's “Stop Obama Express” promoted and embellished a vast array of misleading attacks and false claims about Obama. Along the way, he uncritically adopted and promoted countless Republican talking points and played host to numerous credibility-challenged smear artists who painted Obama as a dangerous radical. When he was not going after Obama, Hannity attacked members of Obama's family, as well as Sen. Hillary Clinton and other progressives, and denied all the while that he had unfairly attacked anyone.

Hannity's attacks may have also influenced mainstream media coverage. ABC News' George Stephanopoulos appeared on Hannity's radio program on April 15, during which Hannity suggested to Stephanopoulos that he ask Obama at the Democratic presidential debate the following evening about his “association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist from the Weather Underground.” Stephanopoulos assured Hannity that he was “taking notes right now.” Stephanopoulos then did ask Obama at the debate to “explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem,” though he later denied that Hannity had exerted any influence on his questioning.

Because of the unending stream of falsehoods and character attacks that fueled the “Stop Obama Express,” and the countless other distortions he promoted throughout 2008, Sean Hannity is Media Matters for America's Misinformer of the Year.

Among the myriad falsehoods and attacks that Hannity promoted throughout 2008, several found their way into regular rotation:

Obama will “invade” Pakistan

In an August 1, 2007, speech, Obama said of terrorists in Pakistan:

OBAMA: I understand that President [Pervez] Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

Almost immediately afterward, Hannity began attacking Obama over the comment, claiming he made a “rookie mistake” by saying “I'll invade an ally.” In fact, Obama never said he would “invade” Pakistan, and Hannity's co-host Alan Colmes corrected Hannity and accurately quoted Obama. Nevertheless, Hannity repeated the accusation several times throughout 2008, even once to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had just two days earlier advocated a position on Pakistan very similar to Obama's.

“Air-raiding villages”

At an August 13, 2007, campaign stop, Obama said regarding the war in Afghanistan: “We've got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.” As Media Matters noted at the time, Obama's comments were accurate -- U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan and accounts of resulting civilian casualties were widely reported in the media and reportedly provoked criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a British commander stationed there. Time and again, however, Hannity used these comments to attack and denounce Obama, even after Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged and apologized for Afghan civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes. Hannity has called the statement a “lie” and evidence that Obama was “the most radical and unqualified candidate”; mischaracterized Obama's remarks as an “accus[ation]” against “American troops” and praised Gov. Sarah Palin for attacking Obama over the comments; and cited Obama's remarks to question his “experience to be commander in chief.”

Most liberal senator

When the National Journal announced that Barack Obama was the “most liberal” senator in 2007, according to their ranking system, Hannity was one of many conservative media figures to tout the statistic despite the facts that the National Journal considered just 99 votes in its survey and that the publication admitted that its previous surveys' methodologies had been flawed. Moreover, a separate study by political science professors Keith Poole and Jeff Lewis that used all 388 non-unanimous Senate votes during 2007 produced a different result, placing Obama in a tie for the ranking of 10th most liberal senator. Hannity, however, has attacked Obama as “the number one liberal -- National Journal -- in the United States Senate” and called him the “No. 1 radical liberal in the Senate” and “the most liberal senator in Washington” (Hannity's America, July 13). On the October 26 Hannity's America, Hannity listed his “top 10 reasons” not to vote for Obama, and introduced his sixth reason -- “Barack Obama is anything but mainstream” -- by saying: “Obama's position on many issues has earned him the spot as the most liberal senator in the United States.”

Defense spending

In October 2007, Obama told Caucus4Priorities:

OBAMA: I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of Future Combat Systems. And I will institute an independent defense priorities board to ensure that the quadrennial defense review is not used to justify unnecessary spending.

At several points throughout 2008, however, Hannity mischaracterized this statement, claiming that Obama “talked about in the campaign cutting tens of millions of dollars in defense spending,” when Obama clearly said he would cut wasteful spending.

Attacks on Obama's family, associations

In addition to assailing Obama, Hannity also falsely attacked Obama's wife, Michelle, and mischaracterized Obama's associations with certain controversial figures in order to make Obama appear radical or corrupt:

  • Hannity repeatedly distorted Michelle Obama's 1985 senior thesis from Princeton University, suggesting that she was asserting her own views when she wrote that "[i]t is possible that Black individuals either chose to or felt pressure to come together with other Blacks on campus because of the belief that Blacks must join in solidarity to combat a White oppressor." As the context of the quote makes clear, however, she was purporting to document attitudes among black Princeton alumni who attended the school in the '70s and not expressing her own opinions. Hannity employed this distortion at one point to ask: “Do the Obamas have a race problem of their own?”
  • Hannity also frequently attempted to link Obama to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, claiming that Obama “associated” himself with Farrakhan and pointing to an award given to Farrakhan by Trumpet Newsmagazine, a publication founded by Obama's former church. What Hannity consistently failed to note in asserting this linkage, however, is that Obama issued a statement disagreeing with the award and criticizing Farrakhan, and that Obama has said he has been “a consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan.”
  • Hannity also repeatedly suggested that Obama was able to purchase his Chicago home at a discounted price because convicted Chicago businessman Antoin Rezko purchased an adjacent lot on the same day. As Media Matters noted, the sellers of the Obama's house reportedly told Bloomberg News that they did not cut the price of the house for Obama “because a campaign donor bought their adjacent land,” and that the Obamas had made the “best offer.” Nevertheless, Hannity asked on the June 5 broadcast of his radio program: “Did Obama know at the time that Rezko was saving him three hundred grand on the purchase of his home?”

GOP mouthpiece

Hannity helped to boost Republicans throughout 2008, parroting false McCain campaign talking points, touting unscientific polling to promote Sen. John McCain's debate performances, and embellishing President George W. Bush's economic record:

  • On January 3, Hannity interviewed then-Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and failed to disclose that he had reportedly helped raise money for Giuliani's campaign. The New York Daily News reported on August 19, 2007, that Hannity “introduced the Republican front-runner at a closed-door, $250-per-head fundraiser Aug. 9 in Cincinnati, campaign officials acknowledge.” Bill Shine, Fox's senior vice president of programming, was quoted in the article saying, “Sean is not a journalist -- Sean is a conservative commentator.”
  • On July 26, the McCain campaign released an ad claiming that Obama for “cancelled a visit with wounded troops” at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany because “the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.” This claim was quickly debunked by NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who accompanied Obama on the overseas trip. Mitchell said on MSNBC on July 28: “There was never any intention -- let me be absolutely clear about this. The press was never going to go. The entourage was never going to go. There was never an intention to make this political. ... And the McCain commercial on this subject is completely wrong, factually wrong.” Nonetheless, Hannity claimed on the July 29 edition of Hannity & Colmes that Obama “abandon[ed] the troop visit because the cameras weren't around -- allowed and the campaign wasn't allowed,” and repeated the allegation on July 30.
  • On September 10, the McCain campaign released a web ad claiming that Obama “smear[ed]” Palin when he said at a campaign rally the previous day: “But, you know, you can -- you know, you can put lipstick on a pig; it's still a pig.” On a September 9 McCain campaign conference call with reporters, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift (R) claimed Obama "[c]all[ed] a very prominent female governor of one of our states a 'pig.' " As Media Matters noted, Obama was actually alluding to McCain's policy platform in those comments, Swift herself later admitted not “know[ing] if it was aimed at Governor Palin,” and the phrase “lipstick on a pig” is in common parlance and has been used by many political figures, including McCain. Hannity, however, insisted that Obama was “talking about Sarah Palin,” even after McCain supporter Mike Huckabee told Hannity: “I do not think he was referring to Sarah Palin. He didn't reference her.”
  • On September 18, McCain released an ad citing The Washington Post in claiming that former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines “advises” Obama “on mortgage and housing policy.” Both Raines and Obama denied the allegation, and the Fact-Checker determined that the McCain ad “exaggerat[ed] wildly” in its claim about Raines' purported role with the Obama campaign. On the September 23 edition of Hannity & Colmes, however, Hannity went beyond the McCain campaign's allegation, claiming that Raines was “a chief economic adviser” to Obama. Hannity later claimed that Raines was “an economic adviser” to Obama, citing The Washington Post, even though the Fact-Checker had already called such claims “exaggerat[ed].”
  • Following the September 26 presidential debate, Hannity touted the results of a Fox News text-message poll that found that McCain won the debate, saying: "[W]e have gotten around 50,000 text votes so far. Eighty-two percent are correct: They say John McCain won." Unmentioned by Hannity was the fact that Fox News started conducting the poll while the debate was still going on. On-screen text had invited viewers to vote on “who [they] thought won” the debate as early as 9:12 p.m. ET, 10 minutes after the candidates began responding to the moderator's questions. Media Matters has documented Hannity's shifting opinions of text-message polls, depending on who the results favor.
  • On the December 8 Hannity & Colmes, Hannity claimed, “We had a good six and a half years with the economy” under Bush, adding: “We created 10 million new jobs, lower unemployment than in the last four decades' average.” In fact, the United States has gained 2,866,000 net private-sector jobs between 2001, when Bush took office, and the first quarter of 2008, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also, Hannity's claim about the unemployment rate is misleading, given that Bush inherited from Clinton an employment rate that was lower than the average unemployment rate during the Bush years.

Smears of Democrats

When not promoting the “Stop Obama Express” or the “Stop Hillary Express,” Hannity found time to falsely attack other prominent Democrats:

  • On the December 4 editions of Hannity & Colmes and his radio program, Hannity suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's use of a military jet was unprecedented, despite the fact that the White House and the Defense Department agreed in 2001 that military planes should be made available to the speaker of the House for national security reasons. The first speaker to use such a plane was Dennis Hastert (R-IL).
  • Hannity has repeatedly attacked Minnesota Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken. Hannity baselessly accused Franken of “stealing an election” by challenging ballots that appeared to favor Franken's opponent, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, failing to note that Coleman also challenged ballots that appeared to favor Franken. Hannity also claimed that by challenging ballots, Franken was “trying to litigate his way into the Senate seat,” even though Franken and Coleman had challenged roughly the same number of ballots at the time.
  • Hannity was one of many conservatives to baselessly blame “the Democrats” and the Community Reinvestment Act, passed in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter, for the current financial crisis, saying: “The federal government and the Democrats ... forced these banks, through the Community Reinvestment Act, to make these risky loans,” adding: “The risky loans started the subprime mortgage crisis, which impacted all these financial institutions, which needed government bailouts.” As Media Matters has noted, the allegation that the Community Reinvestment Act is the cause of the financial crisis has been widely discredited.
  • Following Obama's selection of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) as White House chief of staff, Hannity attacked Emanuel as “one of the hardest left-wing ... radicals,” citing no evidence. Contrary to Hannity's assertion, a study using every non-unanimous vote cast in the House in 2007 to determine relative ideology placed Emanuel in a tie for the ranking of 126th most liberal Democratic congressman, while several news reports cast Emanuel as “a centrist” who has “worked at good relations with Republicans.”
  • Hannity falsely accused former President Bill Clinton of “taking a shot at Senator McCain” during July 5 remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival, airing a deceptively cropped video of Clinton's comments. As the full context of Clinton's remarks made clear, however, he was not discussing McCain, but rather what former South African president -- and political prisoner -- Nelson Mandela means to him.

Conspiracy conjecture

Hannity frequently launched attacks on Obama and other progressives that were totally unsubstantiated or wildly speculative and which were often contradicted by available evidence:

  • Commenting on the State Department's admission that Obama's passport records had been repeatedly accessed without authorization by three contract workers, Hannity said on the March 20 edition of Hannity & Colmes: “Seems to me Barack Obama is looking for anything to distract from the story of Jeremiah Wright.”
  • On the July 30 broadcast of his radio show, Hannity repeated the already-debunked allegation that Obama had distributed to the press a prayer he had written and left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem: "[E]verything was well orchestrated, all the timing -- you know, for example, even the release of the note that he put at the Western Wall, that was all leaked to the press, and that was a big deal as well."
  • After airing a deceptively cropped recording of Hillary Clinton commenting on the October 2 vice-presidential debate, Hannity said on the October 6 broadcast of his radio show: “I just had to play that 'cause you just know the Clintons are just -- why do I bet, and this is just a guess on my part, that Hillary and Bill go in there, and they vote for John McCain? I just know it. I really believe it.”
  • On the December 9 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity disregarded the context in which the word “president-elect” appears in the criminal complaint filed against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), declaring: “The pres -- the word 'president-elect' is mentioned 44 times in the document. Pretty troubling.” Hannity never explained what he found “troubling” about those mentions, given that there are no allegations of wrongdoing against Obama in the document. Indeed, with one exception, none of the 44 instances in which “president-elect” was used in the complaint actually mentioned any alleged conduct or statement by President-elect Barack Obama, much less any conduct or statement amounting to wrongdoing. The one exception was an allegation that Blagojevich complained that Obama would not give him anything other than “appreciation.”

Selective amnesia

Even though Hannity and the rest of the conservative media spent much of the 2008 election cycle falsely attacking Obama and other progressives, he stridently denied that such attacks were happening and constantly rallied to the defense of Republicans and conservatives accused of smearing Democrats and liberals.

  • On the September 8 broadcast of The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity accused Obama of an “outright falsehood,” asserting that Obama said “Fox News and Republican commentators suggest that, in other words, that he is a Muslim. No one has ever suggested that.” In reality, Fox News was quite infamously the home of E.D. Hill and the "terrorist fist jab," and several other Fox News personalities promoted false reports about Obama's religion, including the claim that Obama was educated in a madrassa.
  • On the August 4 broadcast of his radio program, Hannity claimed that Obama could not “point to a single instance in which ... Sean Hannity or talk radio or any other major Republican has made an issue of Obama's race.” On the October 13 edition of Hannity & Colmes, he claimed that "[n]obody in the Republican Party" resorted to overtones of “race and fear” in attacking Obama. Months earlier, however, Hannity had claimed that Obama “has all the same problems with race as those before him,” and asked: “Do the Obamas have a race problem of their own?” As Media Matters noted, Hannity was joined by Rush Limbaugh, John Gibson, and several Republican officials and supporters in making “an issue of Obama's race” or name.
  • On the July 31 Hannity & Colmes, Hannity incredulously challenged a guest: “Can you name any prominent Republican that has brought up -- that has said that [Obama] is not patriotic, or that he's got a funny name, or that he doesn't look like those presidents on dollar bills? Do you know any prominent Republican that has said any of these things?” In fact, Hannity himself had raised questions about Obama's patriotism, as had Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), while Rep. Steve King (R-IA) claimed that if Obama was elected, “radical Islamists” would “be dancing in the streets because of his middle name.”
  • On the August 25 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity proclaimed that he thought was “more fair to the Clintons” during the 2008 Democratic primaries. He claimed this despite the fact that in February he proudly declared himself the leader of the “Stop Hillary Express,” and throughout 2007, he attacked Clinton as a socialist, suggested she was a co-conspirator in a murder cover-up, and denounced her for “hate speech” against Republicans, among other things. Less than a week after claiming he was “more fair to the Clintons,” Hannity declared that “demonizing” Clinton was his “job,” and acknowledged having rechristened the “Stop Hillary Express” as the “Stop Obama Express.”
  • On the September 1 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity, referring to Internet rumors about Palin's daughter, said: “Is that fair that they would attack that? I mean, I don't remember Chelsea Clinton being attacked. I don't remember Al Gore's children being attacked. I thought there was a general rule that children of candidates ought to be left alone.” Hannity's memory notwithstanding, Chelsea Clinton was not “left alone.” McCain reportedly told a “joke” about Chelsea Clinton in 1998, saying: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” Radio host Rush Limbaugh is alleged to have referred to Chelsea Clinton early in the Clinton administration as the “White House dog.”

Character assassins

Hannity, on his Fox News shows and his ABC Radio Networks program, hosted several controversial guests who attacked Obama, despite their documented credibility problems and histories of inflammatory rhetoric.

  • Andy Martin

Self-described "Internet Powerhouse" Andy Martin's years-long crusade against Obama has taken on many forms, almost all of them completely divorced from factual accuracy. Martin has been credited as the originator, in 2004, of the false rumor that Obama is actually a Muslim. Shortly before Obama launched his presidential campaign in February 2007, Martin promoted his “CIA-style psychological profile” on Obama that “will cast more light on Barack's supple psyche and his ability to seamlessly deny objective reality.” Months later, Martin baselessly attacked Obama for “lock[ing] the grandmother who actually raised him away in a closet” in “one of the cruelest and most mendacious political kidnappings this nation has ever seen.” Prior to all this, Martin reportedly attacked a federal judge as a “crooked, slimy Jew, who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race,” expressed “understand[ing] for how the Holocaust took place,” and the Illinois Supreme Court reportedly noted that, according to his Selective Service records, Martin possessed a “moderately-severe character defect manifested by well documented ideation with a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character.”

Despite Martin's glaring credibility issues and history of “viciously anti-Semitic assertions,” he featured prominently in the October 5 edition of Hannity's America, titled “Obama & Friends: History of Radicalism”. On the program, Martin, identified as an “author & journalist,” baselessly claimed that Obama's work as a community organizer was “training for a radical overthrow of the government” and that if Obama were elected president, “we're basically going to be ... in the throes of a socialist revolution, which attempts to essentially freeze out anybody who's not part of this radical ideology.”

As Media Matters noted, Fox News reportedly later “express[ed] regret for booking” Martin on Hannity's America, and Fox News Senior Vice President Bill Shine called Martin's appearance a “mistake.” Hannity, however, has not yet expressed any on-air misgivings about hosting Martin. Confronted by Obama adviser Robert Gibbs, Hannity defended Martin's appearance, saying, “I'm a journalist who interviews people who I disagree with all the time.” (Hannity, who has both embraced and rejected the “journalist” label, did not challenge any assertion or statement by Martin, nor did he mention any of Martin's anti-Semitic and racially charged statements.) Challenged again by Fox News political contributor and NPR news analyst Juan Williams about Martin's appearance, Hannity once again declined to express regret.

  • Jerome Corsi

Jerome Corsi, co-author of the falsehood-ridden 2004 book Unfit for Command, returned to presidential politics in 2008 with The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality. The book, which described as a “mishmash of unsupported conjecture, half-truths, logical fallacies and outright falsehoods,” was widely and thoroughly discredited by Media Matters, the Obama campaign, various media outlets, and even some conservatives. Corsi, however, appeared several times on Hannity's various programs to promote the book, with no challenge from Hannity regarding the book's many falsehoods. Corsi even appeared on Hannity & Colmes on August 20, just days after it was revealed that Corsi -- who has previously made inflammatory comments about Islam, Muslims, and Catholicism -- was reportedly scheduled to promote The Obama Nation on the August 17 edition of The Political Cesspool Radio Show, a program described by its own producers as representing “a philosophy that is pro-White.” Corsi had appeared on the program in the past, but did not appear on August 17.

Since the release of The Obama Nation, Corsi has promulgated (without evidence) several conspiracy theories regarding Obama -- for example, suggesting that the true purpose of Obama's pre-election trip to Hawaii was not to visit his ailing grandmother, but to address rumors -- widely debunked -- that he had failed to produce a valid U.S. birth certificate.

  • Jill Stanek

As Media Matters noted, Hannity was one of many media figures to cite anti-abortion activist and WorldNetDaily columnist Jill Stanek's criticism of Obama's opposition to certain bills amending the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 while he was in the Illinois state Senate -- without noting facts that undermine her credibility. Stanek has suggested that domestic violence is acceptable against women who have abortions; supported billboards in Tanzania that say “Faithful Condom Users” in English and Swahili next to a photo of a skeleton; and credulously cited a report that “aborted fetuses are much sought after delicacies” in China. Hannity interviewed Stanek on the August 20 edition of Hannity & Colmes, during which Stanek claimed that Obama attempted to “lure” Illinois state senators into “vot[ing] to endorse infanticide.” She also repeated her allegation that at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, where she worked as a nurse, “a little baby boy who had been aborted alive” was taken to a “soiled utility room to die because his parents didn't want to hold him.” According to the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn, however, an Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson said that the agency conducted an investigation into Stanek's allegations about Christ Hospital and concluded that they could not be substantiated.

Exit “balance”...

In early October, it was reported that Hannity had signed a new contract with Fox News “that will keep him at the network through the next presidential election in 2012.” In late November, Alan Colmes announced that he was leaving Hannity & Colmes at the end of 2008, leaving unresolved whether another liberal would be brought in to “balance” Hannity. On December 11, that question was answered:

Fox News host Sean Hannity, who is losing his liberal counterpart Alan Colmes at the end of the year, will not be getting a new on-air partner. Instead, the conservative commentator will headline his own show, called simply “Hannity,” beginning Jan. 12, the network announced today.

The program -- running in the same 6 p.m. Pacific time slot -- will include several segments in which three guests from across the political spectrum, dubbed the “Great American Panel,” will weigh in on the topics of the day. The show will also include regular commentary and interviews by Hannity, as well as a feature called “Hate Hannity Hotline” that will highlight the critical comments he receives from listeners of his syndicated radio show.