The Sean Hannity-Michael Cohen state of affairs is interesting because it raises questions about journalistic ethics and how honest hosts should be with their bosses and viewers. Let’s say Hannity is being completely honest about only talking to Cohen about a few real estate issues and the Vanity Fair piece AP mentioned last night isn’t accurate. It makes the fact Hannity had a conversation or three with Cohen really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. People ask questions to lawyers all the time, and probably don’t expect the fact they had a conversation to become public disclosure, and fodder for pretty much everyone.
Hannity did fail in not telling his viewers he had some kind of relationship with Cohen. He didn’t have to say, “I’ve asked legal questions of him,” but Hannity could have said he was friends with Cohen to cover pretty much all the bases. Hosts should have a duty to be honest with their audiences or at least more open than not. I’ve always found it interesting when The Texas Tribune or Reason have admitted to getting money from somewhere when the outlets cover a certain person or organization. They’re just showing good ethics by admitting to having a relationship with the article subject, even if the relationship has been over for years. Baloo once said to Kit Cloudkicker in the old Disney cartoon TaleSpin how honesty was the best the policy and he’s right. I’m not going to go “head on fire” over this, but it would have been nice to know there was some kind of relationship between Hannity and Cohen, especially due to the former’s criticism of the FBI raid on the latter’s office. His failure to do so is leaving him up for ridicule and unfair criticism (more on that later). It’s bad optics and does color any sort of specific opinion he has on the Cohen case.
The consequences of Hannity’s misstep will be interesting. Democrats are calling for his head, or at least half of his head in hopes of getting him suspended. They’re probably just hoping to score points with their Fox News-despising base and get a campaign donation or five to show they’re “speaking truth to power.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see someone organize a new boycott (maybe that’s the one David Hogg is planning on announcing at some point), start a hashtag, or some sort of publicity campaign. After all, one never lets a good crisis go to waste.
I don’t think Hannity should be fired, or even suspended, although the ball is certainly in Fox News’ court. Fox could certainly come down harder on Hannity if it turns out he’s lying about just talking to Cohen on real estate stuff, but it really depends on the subject. It also depends on whether he ran afoul of any of Fox’s ethics policies and guidelines, which is probably unlikely, but you never know. MSNBC did suspend Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann for political donations they made, so who knows if Hannity will have a similar fate. Fox could enact a new policy saying, “You have to disclose if you have a relationship with someone you’re about to talk about,” but it would depend on the language of the disclaimer. It’s something other cable outlets might want to consider too.
The real consequences may just be embarrassment for Hannity and a deluge of unwanted publicity. He looks a bit foolish for going nuts over the FBI raid on Cohen’s office given the fact Hannity didn’t disclose the relationship with Cohen. Hannity didn’t have to say he was a client of Cohen’s because it’s possible the dude is just conflating who he considered a client and who he didn’t (three clients are better than two, I suppose). It would have been nice for Hannity to admit he was at least friends with Cohen because it at least puts a lens on his commentary.