The Fox News host is under attack as never before because many Americans are now forced to take what he says seriously for the first time.
(The article was first published in May 2017)
As Sean Hannity hyped a conspiracy theory about the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer last week, touting it with the zeal of a true believer without citing evidence that justified that belief, the combative Fox News host declared himself under fire and in need of backup. Lashing out at what he called “Twitter snowflakes” and “the liberal effort to silence me,” he took particular umbrage at a campaign by the progressive group Media Matters for America to pressure his advertisers, an effort he called liberal fascism. “They hope to get me fired,” he wrote. “Rush, O’Reilly, Beck, Imus, & now me.”
He may succeed in rallying his fans. But Hannity’s angry claims elide the fact that the progressives at Media Matters have sought the scalps of conservatives like him for more than a decade. The Media Matters website has 3,488 items tagged “Hannity” dating back to 2006. Its latest push isn’t the reason his position is as precarious as it has ever been (nor did Media Matters stop Bill O’Reilly, who was sunk by multiple “falafel talk” allegations, or Rush Limbaugh, who is still on the air).
What’s different today are the growing number of people on the right doing what they’ve seldom if ever done before: taking Hannity and his ilk seriously enough to criticize them.
For decades, most movement conservatives either liked Fox News and right-wing talk radio, or persuaded themselves that their excesses and pathologies didn’t matter. Populist talkers were there to energize the GOP’s base. Insofar as they did so with dishonest rhetoric, it would only benefit more sober politicians and intellectuals.
If that self-serving story was ever plausible—I long argued that misleading the base about the truth would have terrible costs—it should not have survived the Bush administration, when the GOP limped from crisis to crisis, utterly failing to govern effectively. But even as the Tea Party rebelled, its members all but forget that talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh were as complicit in Bush administration failures as anyone. Back in 2000, Limbaugh helped make the case for a legacy-admissions president. Then he indulged in the magical thinking that got so many Americans killed in Iraq. He kept carrying water for a Republican Congress through the worst of its corruption. And his dishonesty helped delay the moment when his listeners would see reality.
No matter. Most movement conservatives not only ignored talk-radio’s failures, but kept abiding the most vile populist commentary as the Obama administration began. As if that weren’t bad enough, the right even embraced Glenn Beck’s rise on Fox News, where a typical show included manic, semi-coherent monologues and vast, sinister conspiracy theories presented for credulous viewers on giant chalkboards. Roger Ailes proved himself a deeply unethical man by broadcasting that show.
Beck has since apologized for his role in bringing the country to its present state of dysfunction. At the time, the few voices who spoke up against his behavior were told to relax by well-meaning beneficiaries of the status quo like Jonah Goldberg, who wrote:
Many conservatives believe Beck is undermining conservatism with his often goofy style and his sometimes outlandish and paranoia-tinged diatribes. In an ode to conservatives such as William F. Buckley, my friend Charles Murray writes, “Don’t tell me that we have to put up with the Glenn Becks of the world to be successful. Within living memory, the right was successful. The right changed the country for the better—through good arguments made by fine men.” Murray is nostalgic for conservative leaders who were, like Murray himself, soft-spoken intellectuals.
There are problems with such nostalgia. First, there has always been a populist front on the right, even during the “glory days” when Buckley was saying he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard. Moreover, whatever Beck or Limbaugh’s faults, they are more cheerful––and more responsible—warriors than the populist right-wingers of yesteryear. The Tea Partiers may be rowdy and ideologically diffuse, but their goals, like Beck’s, are indisputably libertarian. And from a conservative perspective, popular libertarian uprisings should be preferable to the sort of statist populism so often celebrated on the left.
As it turned out, the statist Donald Trump easily seized control of Republican populism, exploiting the fact that it was fueled by outlandish, paranoia-tinged diatribes, which are much easier to redirect than principled cases for a positive agenda. Having done so little to protect respect for facts or norms against bad behavior, anti-Trump conservatives couldn’t stop Trump from exploiting their absence.
That brings us back to Sean Hannity.
For most of the 15 years that I occasionally dipped into his syndicated radio show and his Fox News programs, I seldom wrote about his oeuvre, even as I published right-leaning criticism of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Ann Coulter. He seemed less hateful than they were; and while he frequently misinformed his audience, he was somehow less indecent—he mostly didn’t seem to be speaking in bad faith, if only because he didn’t know any better than the simplistic boilerplate he regurgitated. The misinformation that he spread was occasionally worth refuting, even as there always seemed to be more malign personalities to take on directly.
Today, two things have changed. Most obviously, Hannity’s coverage of the DNC staffer’s murder has been prominent and appalling. David French put itwell at National Review:
It’s a dramatic and lurid misdirection, one that even the writers of House of Cards would find far-fetched, and it has the benefit of tricking gullible Trump supporters into further mistrusting the media. After all, the real story is over at Gateway Pundit or at Breitbart or Drudge, or on Fox News at 10:00 p.m. The true facts are known only to those who can perceive the pure evil of the Clintons, the deep state, and the rest of the establishment media.
Every time Hannity and his allies hyped this story, they disrespected their conservative audience, they hurt a grieving family, and they violated their own professional obligations to carefully check facts rather than engage in wild speculation. Decent people fell for this con. Decent people even spread it online. It’s time for Hannity and his allies to stand down, permanently, and relegate this story to the place where it belongs — right next to UFO documentaries, flat-earth videos, and “proof” that NASA faked the moon landing.
But again, this is hardly the first time that Hannity has disrespected his conservative audience by failing to carefully check facts and engaging in wild speculation, thresholds that never used to trigger criticism of right-wing commentators in National Review.
The more important factor is the realization that right-wing infotainment’s flaws matter. Some on the right are explicitly acknowledging their change in attitude. Here’s neoconservative writer Max Boot tracing the arc of his attitudes toward Fox News:
Although Ailes had been pushed out of Fox News by the time of his death due to a raft of sexual harassment scandals and had no hand in the latest Seth Rich hoax, this is nevertheless the unfortunate culmination of his efforts to create an alternative news source. It was an ambition that I and many other conservatives sympathized with when Fox News went on the air in 1996. We had long chafed under what we viewed as the stifling liberal orthodoxy propagated by the major broadcast and print outlets. While not exactly “fair and balanced” — Ailes always meant the channel’s slogan to be taken with a wink and a nod — Fox was supposed to provide some ideological balance within the larger media universe. That was a laudable ambition, but what Fox has become is far from laudable.
Not only is it a toxic workplace where the harassment of women is rampant; it is also a no-fact zone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact found that nearly 60 percent of the statements it checked on Fox News were either mostly or entirely false. Another 19 percent were only half true. Only Fox News viewers are likely to believe that climate change is a hoax, that there is a “war on Christmas,” that Obamacare would create “death panels,” that there is an epidemic of crime committed by immigrants (they actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans), that President Barack Obama forged his birth certificate and wiretapped Trump with the aid of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, and that the accusations bedeviling Trump are a product of “Russophobia.” FNC might as well stand for Fake News Channel, and its myths have had a pernicious, indeed debilitating, effect on U.S. politics.
Others on the right just started taking aim at right-wing misinformation as never before, perhaps having seen that it can have consequences, like a man with a gun demanding to search the non-existent basement of a much harassed Washington, D.C. pizzeria that was falsely accused of running a pedophilia ring for Democratic Party bigwigs out of its basement; or the elevation of a corrupt, serial liar to the presidency of the United States.
And there is one final wrinkle.
In a recent article on cable news pundits, James Poulos traced their rise alongside the 24-hour-news-cycle, where “reporters could be trusted to supply the raw data, but only the daily pundits could slap on a filter and supply ever more sorely needed context.”
But now, he argued, the Internet is “flooded with takes of varying temperatures,” and it is less and less necessary to have a Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, or Bill O’Reilly “to tell us What It All Means every night at 8.” True, O’Reilly would still be drawing millions of nightly viewers but for the sexual harassment allegations against him. However, many of those viewers would be uncomfortable using a computer.
Still, even if Hannity turns out to be on his last legs, even if Fox News stays in third place among the major cable-news channels and wanes into irrelevance within the decade, it will remain the case that Hannity and Fox matter more today than they ever have for an unprecedented reason: a geriatric audience of one hangs on their words.
And he is the president of the United States.
If you have elderly, Fox-News watching relatives you’re probably familiar with the way a bit of scaremongering from Sean Hannity can change the tenor of an evening, causing grandpa to become agitated or anxious at what is clearly misinformation.
Grandpa Trump watches television an average of five hours every day.
And Bloomberg reports that the longer his presidency has gone on, the more he has shifted to watching Fox News. Sean Hannity is the main beneficiary of his evening viewing. A conspiracy theory aired on that show might be repeated by the president on Twitter, or even determine irreversible actions that he takes in his official capacity.
The stakes could not be higher.
So it no longer matters whether one thinks Hannity is a decent person or a bad person; an earnest broadcaster or a liar; or a figure who helps or harms the Republican base. Insofar as he spreads misinformation, he risks doing harm to the United States. And while that was arguably always true, it’s easier to see the import of a man’s words when a gullible president seems ready to credulously receive them.
At the unlikely climax of his career, Hannity’s job is under attack because the most powerful man in the world trusts his words in a way no similarly powerful man ever has––and with that great responsibility, with that opportunity to inform the president about any matter in the world, Hannity indulges in half-baked conspiracies.
Love of country is a sound reason to hope he retires.
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CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic,where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.