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

Washington Post offers clarity, Hannity brings confusion to Roy Moore coverage

The saga of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has been a sordid one. But there is one uplifting media story line in it that needs to be celebrated: the power of fact-based journalism to provide clarity, change minds and shape events, even in the sea of spin that pollutes our media ecosystem today.

And then, there’s Sean Hannity and the confusion generated by his nightly coverage on Fox News

I watched Hannity every night since Nov. 9 when The Washington Post broke its story alleging Moore had preyed on teen girls. By the time Hannity bailed at the end of his show Wednesday on a 24-hour ultimatum he had given Moore the night before, I was nothing but confused about where he stood and what he thinks the facts are amid mounting allegations of Moore having inappropriate sexual relations with girls as young as 14 when he was a 32-year-old district attorney in Alabama.

There is a lesson here for all of us about where we can go to get the information we need to make informed choices as citizens in a democracy. If you feel confused, manipulated and even addled about highly politicized stories like this one, as readers often tell me they are, maybe it’s time to rethink where you are getting most of your news.

On the plus side, despite a president who hardly lets a day go by without using his office to try to diminish the press and a sea of new business models that value grab-off-the-web content over spending the money to produce in-depth original reporting, The Post has scored a decisive victory for old-school, legacy values. One well-written story blew straight through all the charges of “fake news” and “liberal bias” initially hurled its way to reverse the arc of Moore’s candidacy in a matter of days.

The Post article, which was written by Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites, is a model of fact-based reporting with its tone of precision established in the opening sentences: “Leigh Corfman says she was 14 years old when an older man approached her outside a courtroom in Etowah County, Ala. She was sitting on a wooden bench with her mother, they both recall, when the man introduced himself as Roy Moore.”

Moore got the girl’s phone number in that initial meeting after her mother went into a courtroom for a hearing, according to the Post account. He used it to contact her for subsequent meetings in which he kissed her and took off her clothes. He also touched her sexually and guided her hand to touch him, the Post reporters wrote.

The wealth of specific details, powerful on-the-record quotes and direct language make for a crystal-clear sense of the allegations while providing the facts and context to judge them. Ultimately, through the statements of Moore’s alleged victims and corroborating details and facts, what The Post provides is the portrait of a sexual predator in his 30s who used his office as a district attorney to groom, stalk and assault teenage girls.

While Corfman’s testimony was especially credible and compelling to many readers, Hannity’s initial reaction was more skeptical.

“How do we ascertain what happened 38 years ago?” he asked on his show Nov. 9.

The next day, Hannity scored the first in-depth interview with Moore for his radio show, which he played that night on TV. It ran 15 minutes and 48 seconds, which is long even for cable TV. And while Hannity was praised by some for pressing Moore on specifics as to whether he remembers dating teenage girls during the 1970s, I saw it more as Hannity playing a defense attorney who was trying to rehabilitate his client point by point against damning charges and evidence in the Post story.

At the three-minute mark, Hannity asks, “What about Gloria Thacker Deason who says she was an 18-year-old cheerleader when you began taking her on dates that included bottles of Mateus Rosé wine? She’s 18 at the time, the legal drinking age in Alabama is 19. Did that ever happen?”

“No,” Moore says, “because in this county, it’s a dry county. We never would have had liquor. … That just never happened. I never supplied alcohol, beer or intoxicating liquors to a minor.”

That’s how a defense attorney walks a client through charges. I wrote about Hannity doing it with Sarah Palin as far back at the 2008 election. She would say something on the campaign trail and get ripped for it, and then come on his show and try to clean it up or rebut the critics with him walking her through it.

Moore’s “dry county” response sounded pretty convincing until The Post rebutted his rebuttal with facts that next day.

“Alcohol sales began in Etowah County in 1972, years before the alleged encounter, and The Post confirmed that wine was for sale at the time at the pizzeria where Deason remembered Moore taking her when she was under the legal drinking age of 19,” the paper reported on Nov. 11.

So much for the “dry county” answer.

And that was Moore’s best moment during the interview. The defense strategy was a loser for Moore because he was such a bad witness, contradicting himself at least twice as to whether he remembered dating the girls named in the Post story.

Typical of his answers on whether he dated any teenage girls when he was in his 30s: “If I did, I’m not going to dispute these things, but I don’t remember anything like that.”

By Monday, as the evidence was mounting against Moore and the inconsistencies in his answers were impossible to ignore, Hannity started spinning the interview as a hard-hitting effort on his part from the start.

Adding to the confusion, Hannity brought loose cannons like Fox weekend host and Trump confidant Jeanine Pirro to discuss Moore.

On her Nov. 11 show “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” Pirro had sounded the same skeptical notes as Hannity about the women’s claims.

But two nights later after Beverly Young Nelson came forward to say she was sexually assaulted as a teenager by Moore, Pirro said she reached a “tipping point.”

“Now, this fifth person and the statement she gave is compelling evidence, and there was no question based upon what I read in that statement that this 32-year-old district attorney was grooming this young girl,” Pirro told Hannity on his Monday show.

Hannity was taking the same turn and by the end of his Tuesday show issued what he called an ultimatum to Moore: “For me, the judge has 24 hours. He must immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for your inconsistencies. ... You must remove any doubt. If he can’t do that, then Judge Moore needs to get out of this race.”

But 24 hours came and went, and Hannity did not tell Moore to get out of the race. At the end of his Wednesday show, Hannity took a knee and said the decision should be made by the citizens of Alabama, not him: "I am very confident that when everything comes out, they will make the best decision for their state.”

So much for the ultimatum.

By the time this is published, he will probably have shifted his position again.

But my frustration at getting played by Hannity helped me realize that the right-wing host was merely imitating the media manipulator he so slavishly serves each night on his show: Trump. While many of us are appalled by the thought of a man who is alleged to have sexually exploited teen girls might soon be sitting in the U.S. Senate, to Hannity this is just television and politics.

The 24-hour ultimatum is a trope right out of reality TV. (“Tune in tomorrow night at this time to see what happens.”) It certainly got him a lot of publicity.

As for politics, Hannity has enough hard-core right-wing influence that a demand by him for Moore to get out of the race could cost the Republicans that all-important swing seat. Can’t let that happen no matter how despicable a creature Moore might be.

If you like cliffhangers and hyped-up drama, keep watching prime-time cable shows like “Hannity” as your core source of political news. But don’t expect to find any clarity there.

If you want that, you’re going to have to break the bank and buy a subscription to a legacy news site. They start as low as 99 cents a month. But maybe being an informed participant in a functioning democracy isn’t worth that to you. It’s easier and cheaper to be a stooge.

Fox News declined to comment for this column.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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