Sean Hannity has wavered over the years on whether he is a journalist or conservative activist, but ethics specialists say that whichever hat the Fox News host was wearing last week when he condemned the FBI raid on attorney Michael Cohen’s office, he should have disclosed that he’s a client of Cohen’s.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a newspaper reporter or an opinion journalist,” said Indira Lakshmanan, the journalism ethics chair at the Poynter Institute. “If you want to maintain credibility with an audience, and be honest with them, you have to disclose all facts.”
Just hours after the raid on the office of Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Hannity inveighed that special counsel Robert Mueller had “declared war against the President of the United States.” But Hannity didn’t disclose that he, too, had received legal advice from Cohen. Hannity’s relationship with the embattled attorney was revealed during Monday’s hearing over materials gathered during the raid -- and only after a judge pressed Cohen’s attorney the identity of a previously unnamed third client.
The omission raised questions about whether Hannity had violated journalistic ethics – or whether he was a journalist at all.
Hannity has shifted in recent years on that point. “I never claimed to be a journalist,” Hannity told The New York Times in 2016 when asked about his informal advising of then-candidate Trump. The next year, Hannity referred to himself in a Times Magazine profile as an “opinion journalist” or “advocacy journalist.” He said last month that his show “breaks news daily” in response to colleague Shep Smith characterizing Fox News’s primetime line-up as entertainment.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said you don’t “move out of the realm of ethics when we move into the realm of opinion.” She said commentators should still be expected to maintain independence from subjects their covering and disclose relevant ties.
“This is not a small matter,” she said. “We’re talking about one of the most important new stories of this time and he did not disclose his connection to it while commenting on it. His audience deserves to know when he has connections that may be affecting that commentary.”
Bartzen Culver added that “an organization needs to have standards for the people who do its reporting or commenting.”
Hannity, the top rated Fox News host and an especially influential voice in the Trump era, appears to have few constraints at the network. He immediately began discussing the Cohen situation on his afternoon radio show and tweeted responses to the controversy.
A Fox News spokesperson did not directly respond to a question about Hannity not disclosing his relationship to Cohen, but provided a statement from the host.
"Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees,” Hannity said. “I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective. I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party."
On Twitter, Hannity disputed reporting by Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman that he brought in Cohen last year when facing an advertiser boycott spurred by progressive groups over his fueling of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. “What part of Michael and I never discussed anything that involved any third party is so hard to understand?” Hannity tweeted.
On Fox News’s “The Five,” Juan Williams said there was no evidence Cohen was involved in any third party disputes on Hannity’s behalf, as was the case with Trump and RNC deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy. Cohen arranged to pay $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels for her silence over an alleged affair with Trump and reportedly negotiated a $1.6 million payment to a former Playboy model who claimed Broidy impregnated her.
But Williams questioned why Hannity “didn't disclose this earlier.”
"Why when Sean was on the air, strongly an advocate for President Trump, not saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a relationship with the lawyer?’” Williams asked. “I think that’s a question.”