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

Zurawik: Fox News used to hold Sean Hannity to some semblance of journalistic standards. Not anymore.

If it seems like standards have declined in the last decade when it comes to prime-time, cable TV news hosts, it’s because they have.

The outing of Sean Hannity as a client of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s belligerent and embattled attorney Monday, provides a clear snapshot of that arc.

Eight years ago to the week, Hannity was preparing to headline a tea-party, anti-tax-day protest against President Barack Obama at the University of Cincinnati. It was the second year in a row that Hannity had taken his show on the road on April 15 to lead tea party protests against the Democrat in the White House.

“Look, I'll not pre-judge the show,” I wrote on April 15, 2010, the morning of the planned telecast. “Providing a forum for voices of dissent is one thing. Indeed, I have argued it is a good thing. … But for Fox News to let Hannity take his show on the road and use it as a political tool to help mount dissent and fan the flames of protest is another thing altogether. … Hannity and Fox News are playing a dangerous political game by putting the program in league with such tea party roadshows.”

Hannity wasn’t reporting on the news or commenting on it. He was participating in it, and at the time, that was a bridge too far for Fox News. That afternoon, the network canceled Hannity’s appearance at the tea party event in Cincinnati and ordered him back to New York to do his show in-studio that night — a highly public reprimand.

“Fox News never agreed to allow the Cincinnati Tea Party organizers to use Sean Hannity’s television program to profit from broadcasting his show from the event," Bill Shine,then executive vice president of programming for Fox News, said in a statement emailed to The Sun that afternoon. "When senior executives in New York were made aware of this, we changed our plans for tonight’s show.”

Compare that with the response from Fox News Tuesday to Hannity being revealed as Cohen’s mystery client No. 3. Despite an avalanche of criticism of Hannity for repeatedly attacking a raid on Cohen’s office by federal authorities without disclosing that he was a client of the attorney’s and thus had a clear conflict of interest, Fox stood firmly behind its prime-time host.

“While Fox News was unaware of Sean Hannity's informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support," the corporate statement said.

No problem here, nothing to see. Move on.

Back in 2010, I received emails at the time from a senior Fox News executive asking me privately not to judge the channel by the actions of Hannity. I had no way of knowing if any part of that correspondence was true or sincere, but I remember thinking at the time, “At least, they care enough about how their channel is perceived in terms of journalistic standards to offer a humiliating trip to the woodshed for Hannity and some lip service to traditional standards.”

Eight years later, it’s a different story. And not just on Fox.

Yes, that network has led the way in arguing since its earliest days in the late 1990s that prime-time hosts should not be judged by the traditional standards of news reporting, which emphasize facts, verification, proportionality and balance. But its competitors at MSNBC and CNN have also taken the stance that shows airing during the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m. are opinion shows. The hosts are there to voice opinions, not be objective, the argument goes. They are not journalists.

Think of the shows, I have been told time and again by cable executives, as the editorial and op-ed pages of your newspaper. They love this argument.

Fox led the way in selling this line of thinking to justify the outrageous attacks launched by Bill O’Reilly who called his opponents “pinheads” and those he agreed with “patriots.”

MSNBC still uses a form of this logic in defending such hosts as Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, who clearly are not journalists. CNN doesn’t use it as much these days, but I certainly heard it from executives there in 2010 when they were launching a show with Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York who resigned amid a prostitution scandal.

There are gaping holes in this argument.

In TV, talent rules, especially in cable where the profit margins, productions expenses and audiences are generally smaller than network. O’Reilly ran his show, not the producers. There was no one except Roger Ailes big enough to rein him in at Fox. So, his attacks and diatribes went straight to air whether they had any basis in fact or not.

Newspaper editorial and op-ed pages, on the other hand, are generally controlled by the most seasoned editors on a paper. And there is always more than one such editor making the major decisions, even on regional publications. Ask any politician who has met with a newspaper’s editorial board in hopes of gaining an endorsement how many people that can involve.

More importantly, even if you agree that prime-time hosts are not objective journalists, that does not mean the hosts and shows get a free pass on all standards and responsibilities connected to journalism. They don’t at newspapers; opinion writers may not hold themselves to standards of objectivity, but they do draw the line at becoming involved in the subjects they cover. Conflict of interest is thought of as cardinal sin in journalism — as it is in law, public service, academia and so on. But apparently not at Fox News.

Prime-time hosts on cable news channels help shape the civic conversation of the nation. Their interviews and discussions tell their audiences what they should be thinking and talking about in their own lives. In that sense, shows like “Hannity” help shape the national agenda itself. That’s a huge journalistic responsibility in a democracy, especially at a time like this when our information ecosystem is under assault from disinformation, propaganda and false conspiracies at home and abroad. Instead of taking that responsibility seriously, Fox News has allowed its prime-time hosts to be used as political tools or even weapons since Trump’s election.

There’s precedent for such bad behavior in the media, but not much. That’s another indication of how standards have fallen.

In the 1950s, Jack O’Brian, a nationally-syndicated TV critic for Hearst’s New York Journal American, used his column to attack some media figures whom Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy labeled Communists. You can see a dramatized version of a suicide by one of his targets, CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck, in the George Clooney film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” an account of the price paid by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow for taking on McCarthy.

For the record, McCarthy’s attorney on his infamous Communist-hunting Senate committee was Roy Cohn, the same Roy Cohn who mentored a young Donald Trump, according to the president himself.

That’s the rock under which I believe people who use their media platforms as political weapons dwell.

You want my hardcore, unvarnished opinion: That’s where Hannity now lives. And Fox says he has its “full support.”

As much as expectations and standards have declined, we have to expect — and demand — better than that.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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