How Sean Hannity’s Relationship With Michael Cohen Reveals Fox News’ Vulnerability

6 minute read

Near the start of his Monday evening broadcast, Fox News opinion host Sean Hannity asked why “fake news CNN, conspiracy-TV MSNBC today” weren’t covering the U.S. strike on Syria that had taken place three nights prior. “Why isn’t it front-page news everywhere?” he asked.

As Hannity well knew, the days-old military action had been pre-empted—even, briefly, on Fox News—by scandal around the host himself. Sean Hannity had been named in federal court as a secret client of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. This was a story that, like so many of recent vintage, combined soap-opera shock with legitimate news-value. It also raises a number of questions, chief among them Fox News’s ability to fairly cover an embattled lawyer with a previously undisclosed connection to one of their hosts.

Sean Hannity used his broadcast to complain about the media’s obsession with him. His comments were likely unwise—existing as statements pertaining, if tangentially, to an ongoing investigation—and were certainly as hypocritical as spectators have come to expect. Hannity has made a career of hounding public figures, some of whom are now private citizens; Hillary Clinton and James Comey are unlikely to hold office ever again. So Hannity promoting the idea that a public person should be able to keep an essential fact private is surprising, especially for someone whose Javert-like pursuit of Hillary Clinton continued through Monday’s broadcast. Sean Hannity is arguing for his right to keep his relationship with Cohen private even as he’s relentlessly pushing himself forward as an expert voice on Cohen, among other topics. It’s hard not to wonder how much this provocateur really minds being the center of attention—even as it represents a threat to him, and indicates the precarious position his network occupies in this unchartered era.

The Hannity story was revealed on Fox News during anchor Shepard Smith’s daytime broadcast by correspondent Laura Ingle, who said Hannity’s name then half-sighed, half-laughed, “So moving on to the rest of what’s happening today…” The institutional discomfort was understandable; Smith called Hannity’s being named in court “for us, the elephant in the room.” Smith has been navigating complications caused by Fox News’s freewheeling opinion hosts for some time: He told Time in an interview earlier this year that his colleagues at Fox News’s opinion desk “don’t really have rules… They can say whatever they want,” earning a harsh critique from Hannity in return. For Fox News, a network who before President Donald Trump’s election had neatly proscribed boundaries within which to operate, making waves is nothing new. But genuinely making the news is an uncomfortable thing indeed.

During his broadcast, Hannity briefly mentioned his connection to Michael Cohen a few times, reveling in giving “a special shout-out” to members of the media and liberals watching to see what he’d say. He insisted on keeping viewers in suspense as he relitigated older stories. Guest Alan Dershowitz, brought on to discuss a day-old interview of James Comey on ABC, had other ideas. “First of all, Sean,” he said after being asked about Comey, “I do want to say that I really think that you should have disclosed your relationship with Cohen when you talked about him on this show.”

It was a rare moment of real, unplanned dissent on a show that generally stages fights, and one that Hannity squashed with maximum efficacy and minimal graciousness. “I have the right to privacy, I do,” he said, talking over Dershowitz, a regular Fox News guest who was in the process of conceding Hannity was in “a complex situation.” Then they moved on to James Comey. Hannity’s delaying his take on Cohen’s day in court until show’s end seemed to provide a tour of fixations and distractions—stories days or, in Clinton’s case, years old, all ones that rile up the blood of a true believer but leave someone interested in Hannity’s own fate bored, frustrated, or perhaps with a better understanding of how he thinks the rules apply.

Hannity finally got to his own story after he’d plumbed Comey—and his perceived unfair treatment of Trump as opposed to the villainous Clinton—for as long as he could. “Let me set the record straight,” Hannity said. “Here’s the truth.” Cohen never, he said, represented Hannity, and the host never paid the lawyer, seeking instead “occasional, brief conversations… about legal questions I had,” mainly focused on real estate.

It was the worst thing for Fox News, a TV network focused on verve: a forced anticlimax, the challenging moment in which viewers of a network whose opinion coverage works to raise the blood pressure were being told not to worry about something. So Hannity attempted to add a critique: “Predictably, without knowing all, or frankly, any of the facts,” he intoned, “the media went absolutely insane. Wall-to-wall, hour-by-hour coverage of yours truly.”

It’s an odd complaint to make that one is being discussed too much when one has worked as assiduously as has Hannity to sit at the center of the conversation. Certainly he can’t be happy to be exposed in this manner, whatever the nature of his connection to Cohen. But it’s hard to believe he can’t see why this story might be the subject of interest, given his obsession in sniffing out conspiracy and bad dealing elsewhere.

At the end of the broadcast, a montage flew by of various cable news hosts repeating “Sean Hannity” with limited context—we didn’t hear much of the words before or after the name, just a repeated cadence that began to bend beyond meaning. I know Hannity was trying to prove that the media has an unhealthy media obsession with him. But the degree to which Fox News has always tried to stay away from becoming the story made it sound like a bill coming due. Hannity’s inability to resist placing himself at the center of that story, self-aggrandizingly speaking when silence might have been advisable, made me wonder if to him, the repetition of his name sounded like music.

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