Opinion | New round of text messages exposes Fox News propagandist Sean Hannity

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It’s a common point of curiosity among sane people who follow the bonkers hosts on Fox News: Do they actually believe the harmful nonsense that they spew on air? Or do they spew it for ratings, job security and multimillion-dollar contracts?

In the case of Fox News host Sean Hannity, we recently got some insight on this question, thanks to the Hannity text messages unearthed by CNN. “I’ve had my team digging into the numbers,” Hannity texted to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in November 2020, as Trump allies were contesting the results of the presidential election. “There is no way Biden got these numbers. Just mathematically impossible. It’s so sad for this country they can pull this off in 2020. We need a major breakthrough, a video, something.”

There was nothing original in that text. Right-wing commentators were burning up social media with notions that there were anomalies in Joe Biden’s numbers — data glitches that couldn’t be explained without massive fraud. Data-driven analyses debunked all such notions. No offense to Hannity’s crack team of quants, of course.

As this blog has previously argued, Hannity represents this country’s No. 2 threat to democracy, based solely upon his on-air work advancing Donald Trump’s scheme to cheat American voters. No fraud-allegation reed was too thin for him to grasp, no Trump lawsuit too baseless for him to hype. “This is a big case — this has to be considered, right?” Hannity said on his program in December 2020 about a Pennsylvania case rejected the next day by the Supreme Court. But key states that broke for Trump, Hannity declared on Nov. 13 that year, “did a great job on election night. They should be commended.”

With comments such as those, Hannity positioned himself squarely on the election-denialist fringe. Yet in his text messages to Meadows, he recoils at various unspecified and unsavory members of his own cohort. After Meadows mentions his work “fighting” for Trump’s election challenge, Hannity replies, “You fighting is fine. The [expletive] lunatics is NOT fine. They are NOT helping him. I’m fed up with those people.”

The Hannity texts could help journalism professors across the land explain journalism ethics, or at least violations thereof. He takes orders from Meadows on what to tell his radio listeners (violation of “act independently,” under the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics); he tells Meadows that the movement needs “a major breakthrough, a video, something” (violation of “avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility”); he references a plan to do “NC Real estate” with Meadows and another prospective partner (violation of “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived”).

To hear Hannity tell it, however, he’s not bound by those rules. On his show last Friday night, he said, “I go out of my way to explain what my job is, because a lot of people in the media mob do not understand what we do. Yes, I’m a member of the press. … I’m on the Fox News Channel — which is a news channel — but I don’t claim to be a journalist.”

Sorry, Sean. As long as the logo at the bottom of the screen includes the word “News,” you’re posing as a journalist. And not as a “talk host,” the terminology favored by the host to duck accountability for his transgressions.

Remember: In 2019, Hannity’s line-crossing text messages to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort surfaced as part of the latter’s federal criminal case. They showed the same Hannity we see in the Meadows messages: A rah-rah political operative getting paid millions of dollars to work at a “news” network. The Manafort exchanges were embarrassing enough that Hannity had to issue a statement: “My view of the Special Counsel investigation and the treatment of Paul Manafort were made clear every day to anyone who listens to my radio show or watches my TV show,” he said.

At most news organizations, repeat offenders of Hannity’s sort would be subject to some sort of discipline. We asked Fox News if Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media, had ever taken action against him. The network declined to comment on the record, though Scott told the Hollywood Reporter last year, “I have a regular cadence of conversations with a wide variety of talent here, including our prime-time talent. I will never discuss those conversations. That’s not who I am. I am loyal first.”

There’s such a thing as loyalty to principles.

If Scott did scold Hannity for his previous conduct, it didn’t do much good. After all, the popular host’s text messages with Meadows coincide with one of the most troublesome periods in U.S. history. A less committed propagandist might have kept his thumbs off his device.

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