Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Just when you thought Sean Hannity couldn't sink any lower ... enter the Michael Cohen conflict

I ran out of adjectives to voice my contempt for Fox News host Sean Hannity back in 2008 when he slavishly continued to worship GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin long after even many of the most ardent Republicans came to understand how unqualified she was for the job.

But I started tasting some of the old Hannity bile in the back of my throat again Monday after it came out in federal court that the Fox News host and staunch defender of President Donald Trump was one of three clients of the president’s attorney and self-described fixer, Michael Cohen.

Conflict of interest and failure to disclose don’t come near describing the sins of a show host on a channel with the word “news” in its title behaving as Hannity did in his handling of stories involving his secret lawyer.

Take for example, Hannity’s characterization of the April 9 raid by the FBI on Cohen’s home, office and hotel room.

“All right, tonight, we have an explosive new chapter in Mueller’s partisan witch hunt,” Hannity began that night, using the president’s rhetoric to reference special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election. (The FBI raid was initiated by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, based on information Mueller passed on to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.)

“We have now entered a dangerous new phase, and there’s no turning back,” Hannity continued ominously. “It is clear, as I have been warning, Mueller is out to get the president and, it appears, at any cost.”

As Hannity made this unsubstantiated claim, a headline appeared onscreen saying: “Runaway Investigation.” It appeared under pictures of Mueller and Rosenstein.

“Now understand,” Hannity continued, “Cohen was never part of the Trump administration, or the Trump campaign. This is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States. Mueller and Rosenstein have declared a legal war on the president, and a source close to the president is telling Fox News tonight that Mueller’s investigation is way out of control.”

Gee, I wonder if that source could have been the same guy Hannity and the president share as an attorney.

After demanding that Mueller show his “evidence” or “end this partisan investigation,” Hannity pointed his finger at the camera as if addressing Mueller, and angrily said, “The country is hanging by a thread tonight, and you don’t seem to care.”

After more mad-dog rhetoric from the host, viewers were shown videotape of Trump calling the raid a “break-in” and describing Mueller’s probe as a (guess what) “partisan witch hunt.”

This is beyond shared talking points; this is a right-wing echo chamber running from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to prime-time on Fox News. Think about that.

What’s dangerous to this country is not a legal investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, it’s media outlets like Fox News and prominent hosts like Hannity working secretly with members of Trump’s inner circle like Cohen — and hiding such relationships from the public.

If there was nothing wrong with the relationship between Hannity and Cohen, why did Cohen and his attorney ask the judge Monday if they could keep from naming the Fox host as a client in open court? Cohen wanted to write Hannity’s name on a piece of paper, put it in a sealed envelope and hand it to the judge for her eyes only.

Judge Kimba Wood denied Cohen’s request Monday and forced Hannity to be named in open court. Bless her for that. She also rejected a request for a temporary restraining order that would have kept federal prosecutors from reading the information they seized last week.

The big question: If there was nothing to hide, why didn’t Hannity tell his audience that Cohen was his attorney?

Hannity tried to downplay the relationship on Twitter Monday.

“Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter,” he wrote. “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.”

In another tweet he added: “I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”

That “third party” reference came in the wake of social-media speculation that since Cohen was representing his other two clients, Trump and Republican National Committee deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy, in negotiations involving women with whom they allegedly had relationships, maybe he was doing the same for Hannity.

At the end of his show Monday, Hannity re-iterated his Twitter claim that Cohen never represented him. He said he merely asked the attorney for advice — usually about real estate. And then, he criticized mainstream media for covering the story so intensely.

But just as Hannity tried to say on Monday that he wasn’t really a client of Cohen’s, whenever he got caught in the past doing something unethical or sleazy, he always stressed that he wasn’t a journalist — so he shouldn’t be judged by journalistic standards.

He isn’t a journalist. But he serves a hugely important journalistic function five nights a week on a channel that brands itself as news.

Prime-time hosts on cable news channels help shape the civic conversation of the nation in much the same way editorial and op-ed pages do in newspapers. They tell their audiences what they should be thinking and talking about as nation. In that sense, they help shape the national agenda itself.

That’s a huge responsibility, which Hannity has repeatedly betrayed in favor of propaganda on behalf of politicians like Palin and Trump and vicious attacks on their opponents. Shame on him and double shame on Fox News. One of reasons we are so incapable as a nation today of thinking straight about major issues is the misinformation some cable TV hosts peddle every night.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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