You’ll find the Hannity bit in Trump’s new eight-minute ad at exactly 6:00 of the clip below. Fox is upset, but it’s not clear why.
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Fox News whether Hannity had to secure permission from Fox News to participate in the ad, whether other opinionators at Fox News could do likewise and whether Hannity wrote his talking points or read a script provided by the Trump campaign. We haven’t yet heard back. That said, Hannity has been more transparent than many of his peers in cable TV of late, giving interviews to this blog and BuzzFeed as well as answering queries on Twitter.
“We had no knowledge that Sean Hannity was participating in this,” says a Fox News spokesperson, “and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election.”
The eternal defense of Hannity’s shilling for Trump is that he’s not a journalist and makes no bones about his preferences. It’s not unethical for him to be partial because he’s not claiming impartiality to begin with. At what point, though, does partiality metastasize into a conflict of interest? Sometimes spotting conflicts of interest are easy: For instance, CNN contributor Corey Lewandowski is still drawing “severance” pay from the Trump campaign even though he was let go months ago. He’s also still in regular contact with Trump and some of his staff about the campaign, per this report. If that “severance” is really just a lightly disguised regular paycheck for ongoing campaign work then there’s a conflict of interest. CNN is warranting to its viewers that Lewandowski is giving his honest and uninfluenced, if unabashedly pro-Trump, opinion. If Lewandowski has a continuing financial interest in Trump’s success then that opinion isn’t honest and uninfluenced. The media, which has donated billions to Trump in the form of an in-kind contribution via its saturation coverage, would now be taking the next step of putting Trump staffers on its own payroll. Lewandowski’s “commentary” would be pure paid propaganda by the Trump campaign.
But what if the severance stops and Lewandowski goes on pushing Trump talking points, knowing full well that a Trump victory in the fall might create a very exciting White House job opportunity for him next year? The financial incentive would still be there, but there’d be no ongoing payments now. Is that still a conflict of interest? Is it a conflict of interest if, job opportunities aside, Lewandowski is so personally loyal to Trump that he simply won’t allow himself to say a discouraging word about his campaign despite CNN’s warranty of “honest” commentary? To put all of this another way, can you have a conflict of interest in which a news outlet employee is effectively working for a candidate even if he’s not being paid? That’s essentially the situation Fox News is in with Hannity. Hannity has been informally advising Trump for months; he’s now taken the extra step of cutting a campaign promo for him. If Trump asked him to stand on a corner in Manhattan and hand out campaign literature for him, there’s every reason to believe he would. He’s invariably the first guy everyone mentions when the idea of potential hires for a post-election “Trump TV” cable news network is discussed. He is, in other words, an unpaid volunteer for the Trump campaign in all but name, a de facto employee but one who lacks the financial interest that makes Lewandowski a comparatively easier case. Is that a conflict of interest? If you say no because Hannity’s not getting paid, you’re essentially saying that someone who’s fabulously rich and can afford not to accept compensation for his services cannot, by definition, be guilty of a conflict. Even if he’s doing the very thing that’s troubling in the Lewandowski case, suppressing his honest opinion on some matters because his ultimate loyalty is to a candidate, not to his network’s viewing audience.
Fox does seem to see a distinction here. They’ve always been fine with Hannity being partial but appearing in a campaign commercial for Trump apparently crosses the line — despite the fact that his Fox show is an hourlong campaign commercial for Trump every night. I’ll bet Hannity is confused by that, and I don’t blame him. If it’s okay for him to campaign for Trump on Fox, why isn’t it okay for him to campaign for Trump for 30 seconds in a Trump commercial? He can be a de facto Trump volunteer on Fox’s airwaves but not on Trump’s? Huh? And why is Hannity becoming an outright Trump propagandist any more troubling than, say, Paul Begala doing Clinton propaganda as an “honest” commentator on CNN, an arrangement the public has accepted for years? The problem with cable news trying to enforce ethics on its partisans now is that it normally rewards them for extreme partisanship. The red/blue American-gladiators format requires it. Begala’s job is to propagandize for the left because he’s inevitably pitted against someone on the right, who falls into their own propaganda role. So here’s Hannity taking that dynamic to its logical conclusion, actually campaigning for his preferred candidate, and suddenly Fox is shocked, shocked to find gambling going on here.