Sean Hannity is not just the president of the Michael Cohen Fan Club — he’s also a client. That’s right, it turns out that one of President Trump’s top cheerleaders on Fox News is the previously unnamed third client of Trump’s attorney, whose offices were raided by the FBI last week.
Irresponsibly, Hannity didn’t tell his viewers this. But the dirty secret is, his viewers just don’t care — which reveals a far deeper problem in our nation.
It’s unclear what Hannity’s exact relationship to Cohen is. According to Cohen’s attorneys, he is a client, whose identity, if publicly revealed, was “likely to be embarrassing or detrimental” to him.
According to Hannity, Cohen was merely a friend who happened to be a lawyer. “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”
Putting aside this contradiction, whether Hannity is in any legal jeopardy regarding the Cohen investigation remains to be seen. As someone who knows and likes him, I certainly hope not.
But what we can say for certain is, if he respects his sizable audience, he should have disclosed this relationship to them.
This seems obvious on its face. It’s a clear conflict of interest for Hannity to regularly defend Cohen and his star client without revealing one of the reasons he might be doing so.
But his defenders say, not so fast. As Hannity has long insisted, he’s not “a journalist”; he’s an opinion commentator. And so he believes the standard ethical bar involving full disclosure doesn’t apply.
Also, he’s made his support of Trump well-known, and can therefore, he claims, operate with the understanding that his interests and biases have been made clear.
Another line of defense? His privacy. “Sean Hannity is a talk show host,” says fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “He’s not under investigation by anyone for anything. Who he hires as a lawyer, and why, is nobody’s business.”
But the Hannity-Cohen revelation exposes the bigger issue for Fox News: It is increasingly becoming untethered from the standard preconceptions of what “news” is or should be.
To call Fox “infotainment” is not new. Nor do I think it’s particularly pejorative. Like other cable news channels, the network offers a mélange of colorful personalities, ideological outrage and, yes, good reporting, too.
Opinion infiltrated cable news long ago; that’s not the new part. It’s that even with opinion, there used to be an expectation by both broadcaster and viewer that opinions would be rooted in facts.
This orthodoxy has eroded over the past couple of decades, as media outlets started giving platforms to conspiracy theories like birtherism and 9/11 trutherism.
Increasingly, and especially at Fox, opinion is not rooted in fact. Instead, alarmingly, it is sometimes rooted in flat-out fiction — and more often than not, in feelings.
Hannity’s macabre obsession with former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — whom he suggested, without evidence, was murdered by Democrats — is just one disturbing but glaring example.
Other items are far more mundane and harder to spot, like his claim in March that there were 642,000 crimes recently committed against Texans by illegal immigrants, or late last year, that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is “the most overturned court in the country,” both of which were deemed “False” by Politifact. And those are only the start: Viewers are not always getting facts along with his opinion.
But the uncomfortable truth, if his blockbuster ratings are any evidence, is that they do not seem to care.
In this sense, Fox News’ “We report, you decide” is actually instructive. “You,” the viewers, have indeed decided: For something to be meaningful, it doesn’t necessarily have to be true.
This has been Trump’s most significant contribution to American politics so far. As long as he can make you feel like something is true — illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, for example — who cares if it’s actually, statistically true?
In fact, Trump’s neatest trick was in turning things like the truth, facts, statistics, polls and studies into the privileged concerns of the “establishment” elite. “If you feel under siege,” he seemed to tell voters, “then you are.”
So, of course Hannity should have disclosed whatever relationship he has with the president’s attorney, whom Hannity defends regularly on his program.
But even as we wring our hands about this, pound our fists and wag our fingers, outside of academic and journalism circles, most Americans really don’t care. Trump knows this. Fox knows this. And Hannity knows this. Because, like it or not, in America today, feelings trump facts.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.
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