True story: Yesterday, a few hours before Trump’s campaign stop in Cape Girardeau, we received a polite email from Fox News PR asking us to amend this Headline item. That item linked to a story from The Hill claiming that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would be joining Trump as his “special guests” at an election-eve rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. (That’s Rush’s hometown.) Incorrect, said Fox, which provided this statement from Sean:
In spite of reports, I will be doing a live show from Cape Girardeau and interviewing President Trump before the rally. To be clear, I will not be on stage campaigning with the President. I am covering final rally for my show. Something I have done in every election in the past.
He reprinted that statement on his Twitter account. He’d be at the rally, not onstage at the rally firing up Republican voters. There’s nothing wrong with journalists, or, ahem, “advocacy journalists,” attending a presidential event to cover it. Other media outlets do it every day.
And then, a few hours later…
The fact that the first words out of his mouth were to call the media people in the back “fake news” hours after he swore publicly that he wouldn’t be onstage was the cherry on the sundae. (There were Fox reporters among the “fake news” crowd in the back too, noted CNN afterward.) Ed Morrissey, who received yesterday’s email from Fox, sent a polite note back this morning asking them if they cared to comment on the strange discrepancy between his earlier statement and his actions. They did:
FOX News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events. We have an extraordinary team of journalists helming our coverage tonight and we are extremely proud of their work. This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.
Here’s an interesting claim from last night as the rally was happening. I wasn’t watching FNC at the time so I can’t confirm it myself:
Fox News hosts are now stumping for Trump on stage. Fox News is not carrying it live.
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) November 6, 2018
It’s odd that POTUS’s final midterm rally, which featured not just Hannity but fellow Fox host Jeanine Pirro and of course Fox-viewer favorite Limbaugh (the NYT described last night’s event as “Fox & Friend”), wouldn’t be carried on Fox’s own feed. Any theories why?
Did the satellite transmission fail by chance at the least opportune moment, maybe? Because that would be tragic.
My guess last night after his cameo onstage was that Hannity would blame Trump. “When the president calls you to the mic, you have no choice but to accept the invitation,” etc. You do have a choice if you’re there as an “advocacy journalist,” though, and surely you have a choice in what you say even if you accept the invite. And now here’s Hannity, addressing the controversy today:
These sporadic “Hannity once again blatantly shows he’s in the tank for Trump” mini-scandals are fun but there’s no jury that’s still out about it, is there? Everyone understands the situation. They’re friends and phone-chat buddies; the guy has been described in print as Trump’s “shadow chief of staff,” for fark’s sake. He runs a full hour of Trump talking points nightly. There’s no facade of objectivity that’s suddenly and dramatically been dropped. To the extent that last night was noteworthy it was noteworthy for two reasons, one of which was the blatant contradiction about not appearing onstage. Hannity was one of the few people keeping up the pretense, however halfheartedly, that there’s some meaningful distinction between what he does every day on FNC and actively campaigning for the president and evidently he was prepared to stay offstage to maintain it. Then Trump blew that up. So now even he’s let the pretense go.
Which brings us to the other noteworthy part. Per Fox PR’s email yesterday, it’s likely that management was keen to keep Hannity nominally in his “reporter” role at the rally. There have been tensions even inside FNC, after all, about Fox’s opinion line-up being a bit too … opinionated on the president’s behalf. The fact that Hannity would sandbag his own superiors by going onstage after they put out that statement on his behalf is newsy insofar as it shows you to whom he feels he owes his utmost loyalty. Politico reporter Eliana Johnson thinks it’s an Ailes thing:
*2010* Tea Party rally https://t.co/v2AH2Dl10u
— Eliana Johnson (@elianayjohnson) November 6, 2018
That’s too easy but there’s truth to it. Ailes hired Hannity originally and stuck with him for 20 years, turning him into one of the biggest names in conservative media. If Ailes had laid down the law about staying offstage Hannity might have held back, not just because Ailes ruled Fox like an emperor but because they were friends. Once Ailes was forced out and Hannity’s pal, Bill Shine, went to work for Trump, there may have been no one left at the top capable of putting the fear of God into him when he let the mask of “advocacy journalism” slip a bit too much to reveal the pure partisanship underneath.
But it’s not just an Ailes thing. Remember when Hannity got wrist-slapped for cutting a little impromptu campaign ad for Trump in September 2016? Ailes had already left the network in July of that year. The reason Fox management felt it could scold him at the time was probably because he was just one of three star anchors they had in primetime. Bill O’Reilly, not Hannity, had the highest ratings in cable news and Megyn Kelly looked like she’d be the face of the news side of the network for years to come. If Hannity stepped out of line and Fox suddenly needed a new 10 p.m. guy, hey — they still had Bill and Megyn.
Fast-forward a year and O’Reilly and Kelly are both gone. Hannity, the new president’s pal, is now the face of the network and commands the biggest ratings in cable news. (Sometimes. Sometimes it’s Maddow.) If Fox scared him away now due to a dispute over his partisanship, they’d have a giant hole in primetime to patch after having just patched two more giant holes. He’s one of the few Fox personalities left who’s been there since the start, part of the network’s DNA. They can’t lose him now and they know it. That’s why management shrugged it off when it was revealed a few months ago that Hannity had interviewed his own lawyer, Michael Cohen, repeatedly on his show without disclosing their business relationship. If Hannity worked for Fox News before 2017, since 2017 it’s more the case that Fox News works for him.
But maybe that would be true even if Ailes were still in charge and O’Reilly and Kelly remained in the 8 and 9 p.m. slots. The other factor in all of this, after all, is Trump. He won the election; Fox’s viewers seem to love him unconditionally. And seemingly no one at Fox is closer to him personally than Hannity is. The network might have had no choice but to indulge Hannity in whatever lines he wanted to cross on Trump’s behalf since (a) he has direct access to a sitting president to a degree that few media people in American history have enjoyed and (b) when push comes to shove Fox’s viewers are themselves more loyal to the president than they are to the network. They’re “Fox fans” to the extent that Fox serves Trump. That is, if it’s true that Fox now works for Hannity, it’s also true that both of them effectively work for the president. So if Trump calls to him and says to hop up onstage to rally the troops, who are Fox executives to say no? The new emperor gave the order. The election is tomorrow. Winning is the mission, not an “unfortunate distraction” to whatever Fox is claiming its actual mission is. All Trump did last night was remind network management who’s really in charge.