The Fox News Channel said on Tuesday that it was as surprised as anyone to learn that Sean Hannity shared a lawyer with US President Donald Trump, but that its popular prime-time host “continues to have our full support”.
Mr Hannity is a hot topic for journalism ethics experts and comedians alike after his relationship with attorney Michael Cohen was reluctantly revealed in a court hearing Monday on material seized from the lawyer as part of the probe on Mr Trump’s Russian contacts. Fox said on Tuesday that it had reviewed their employee’s “informal relationship” with Mr Cohen and talked with him about it.
Mr Hannity has described his personal dealings with Mr Cohen as centred on real-estate advice, and said that it “never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions”.
The prime-time host is both the president’s biggest defender in the media and Fox’s most popular personality. Usually, either Mr Hannity or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has the biggest audience in cable news.
For a traditional journalist, having a professional relationship with a figure he or she frequently reports on is considered unethical, even more so when that relationship is not disclosed to viewers or readers. For that figure not to inform bosses about it is often considered a firing offence.
Fox frequently makes a distinction between news programming during its daytime hours and opinion shows at night.
“I don’t think it’s enough to say that Sean Hannity was not a journalist,” said Indira Lakshmanan, a journalism ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. “He describes himself as a journalist when it suits him, and a commentator at other times. If you’re an opinion journalist, you’re still a journalist.”
The issue plays to his credibility, said Aly Colon, an ethics expert at Washington & Lee University. Mr Hannity frequently draws connections on his show between different people to suggest something nefarious is afoot – such as a "deep state" plot against president Trump – so it’s particularly damaging when he is revealed to have secret connections of his own to figures he supports, he said.
The whole situation put Fox in a bind, said television news consultant Andrew Tyndall.
Firing Mr Hannity would make Fox “seem craven to its ideological base of viewers in capitulating to professional norms and politically correct procedures”, he said. “The second option, namely to not punish [him], would strip away the last vestiges of its claims to be a news channel operating in the journalistic mainstream, leaving it with no defence whatsoever against charges that it is running a propaganda operation.”
History indicates that Fox takes action against its stars when its bottom line is threatened, Ms Lakshmanan said. For example, settlements were reached on sexual misconduct accusations against Bill O’Reilly without it affecting his job. But after they became publicly known and an advertiser boycott against him quickly caught momentum, Mr O’Reilly was fired.
Attempts by critics to foment an advertiser boycott against Mr Hannity in the past have failed, and there’s yet to be any indication that this latest news is starting a new one.
“I’m not sure it matters to his fans, but it should matter to a network that claims to be a legitimate news network,” Ms Lakshmanan said.
Before it became clear that Mr Hannity had not revealed his connection to Mr Cohen to his superiors, two people on Fox News both suggested on the air that he faced questions for not doing it. But on the Fox & Friends morning show on Tuesday, the hosts compared the relationship to a friendship where you would informally ask someone for advice.
“Apparently Sean regarded their relationship as something like that,” said Steve Doocy, one of the show’s co-hosts.
In addition to dismissing the revelation as nothing serious, Mr Hannity on his show on Tuesday blamed the “absolutely insane” media for attacking him.
Rival news personalities were quick to go after Hannity – “This is crazy town in the news business,” said MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski on Tuesday – and so did comedians. Ironically, one of the more subdued was ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel talking about “my pal”; he engaged in a bitter dispute with Mr Hannity just a week ago over a joke about Melania Trump.
“Jon Stewart, after the show, I’m going to come over and we’re just going to spoon,” Stephen Colbert said.
The funniest line may have come from CNN’s Jake Tapper in a tweet. “Go home 2018,” he wrote. “You’re drunk.”