Sean Hannity is apparently above the law at Fox News.
In recent months, Fox’s journalistic ethics have faced increased scrutiny as it courts 2020 Democratic candidates for town-hall events and interviews. The channel’s infamously far-right, Trump-boosting opinion programming is separate from its “hard news” division and, as Fox has claimed, both are subject to the network’s rigorous news standards.
But Hannity, who consistently dominates the ratings across all cable news outlets, brazenly ignores those supposed rules. And news-side employees who spoke to The Daily Beast believe it’s because no one at the network is willing to control the ratings-leading host.
A blaring example of that is Hannity’s treatment of claims from guests whose dubious “reporting” would never pass muster on Fox’s hard news shows. The most commonly cited example of this is Trump-boosting Fox News contributor Sara Carter, whose news credibility is so questionable that, as Mediaite reported in March, Fox News executives allegedly told Hannity to stop calling her an “investigative reporter” on his show.
“Fox News executives have asked Hannity to stop using this title on the grounds that Carter’s reporting is not vetted, and passes none of the network’s editorial guidelines,” the media news site reported. And even without any such dictate, Hannity’s hyping of “reporters” who don’t meet Fox’s news standards would be considered troublesome at any mainstream outlet.
Nevertheless, Hannity has persisted.
In fact, according to a review of Fox News transcripts, he has only gotten more defiant since he was reportedly scolded by executives. This year, Hannity has referred to Carter as an “investigative reporter” at least 18 times, two-thirds of which came after he was told to stop. In several of those instances, Hannity even slapped a network-wide stamp of approval on Carter, calling her a “Fox News investigative reporter.”
Carter has served as Hannity’s go-to “reporter” on the “Deep State” counter-narrative he has incessantly pushed since before the Mueller investigation began. She has been a Fox News contributor since late 2017 and has only ever appeared on the network’s opinion side, with the vast majority of her on-air hits coming on Hannity.
After leaving right-leaning Sinclair-owned news outlet Circa in November 2017, Carter’s reporting has appeared on her eponymous blog. While Hannity has regularly promoted her articles on-air and via his social-media accounts, Fox’s actual news division never uses her reporting.
“On the news side, we don’t take really anything Carter ‘reports’ seriously,” one Fox News employee, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, told The Daily Beast.
That intra-Fox conflict was underscored when Carter traveled to Central America last October to report on the migrant caravan, claiming she found “a number of” MS-13 gang members among the refugees. A network spokesperson confirmed at the time that Carter was down there independently and “wasn’t representing the network as a reporter.”
But that didn’t stop Fox’s opinion wing, led by Hannity, from credulously touting Carter’s unverified claims as fact. With the help of former Fox News commentator Sebastian Gorka, who has been banned from the network’s news programming, Hannity boosted her claims far and wide. The Five’s pro-Trump host Jesse Watters scolded his liberal co-host Juan Williams for not believing Carter’s “report.”
Carter isn’t the only Fox contributor Hannity has defiantly labeled an “investigative reporter” against better news judgment. He’s also given that questionable title to two other conservative pundits shunned by the network’s news side: right-wing commentator Lawrence Jones, a paid Fox contributor; and The Hill opinion writer John Solomon (who years ago wrote for Newsweek/The Daily Beast).
Jones, a former Glenn Beck employee, was hired by Fox News as a contributor in December 2018 after making frequent guest appearances across the network’s opinion programming. In recent months, Hannity has tapped Jones to do goofy topical man-on-the-street interviews in the vein of Jesse Watters’ career-making outings.
While his segments—including a much-hyped and highly mocked trip to the Mexican border—are relegated to Fox’s opinion shows and never used by the news division, Jones has been introduced this year by Hannity at least a dozen times as an “investigative reporter,” with a majority of those instances coming after the Fox host was reportedly asked to stop labeling Carter as such.
Solomon, meanwhile, isn’t a Fox News employee but has been a frequent guest of Hannity’s for several years. Prior to jumping to The Hill in June 2017 to serve as the site’s executive vice president of digital video, he worked with Carter at Circa, collaborating on a number of stories later touted by Hannity.
In May 2018, as scrutiny of his reporting—which Hannity often labeled “bombshells”—grew, The Hill staffers reportedly complained to management about his flimsy reportage. The Hill’s bosses apparently agreed: Shortly thereafter, the outlet announced that Solomon’s writing would henceforth be explicitly branded as opinion.
Nevertheless, Solomon has proven quite useful in Hannity’s quest to discredit criticism of President Trump via supposed investigative reporting. The Hill columnist, whose own outlet does not consider him a reporter, has been hyped by Hannity as an “investigative reporter” at least 12 times this year, including twice this week.
“It’s awfully convenient to have ‘reporters’ just report exactly what you want them to,” a Fox news division employee remarked to The Daily Beast.
That Hannity has openly flouted Fox’s reported news standards across its opinion and news divisions underscores a wider issue at the network: Seemingly no one can hold Hannity accountable for any of the ethical transgressions that reflect poorly on Fox’s hard-news reporters.
When the late Roger Ailes was still in charge at Fox News, prior to his ouster in 2016, Hannity wasn’t always allowed to skirt the rules. In 2010, for example, Ailes was reportedly furious over Hannity’s plans to appear at and film an episode from a ticketed Tea Party event in Cincinnati—so much so that the network pulled the plug on the show.
But since the departure of Ailes, the prime-time star has seemingly run wild.
During the final weeks of the 2016 election, Hannity personally appeared in a pro-Trump campaign video, leading the network to say they were “not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season.” But that didn’t stop the network from—several days later—allowing Hannity to moderate a town-hall event with the very man he publicly stumped for.
After years of boosting Michael Cohen on his show, it was revealed in April 2018 that Hannity was the former Trump fixer’s mysterious third client—something the Fox host never once disclosed during their friendly chats. Hannity dismissed this professional relationship as having maybe once “handed him 10 bucks [and said,] ‘I definitely want your attorney-client privilege on this.’” And the network gave Hannity a pass, announcing that he “continues to have our full support.”
And perhaps the most infamous example of Hannity openly disobeying and contradicting his Fox bosses came in the closing days of the 2018 midterm elections. Despite tweeting hours before a Trump campaign rally in Missouri that he would only be interviewing the president beforehand, Hannity (along with fellow Trump-cheerleading Fox host Jeanine Pirro) took the stage to address the rapturous crowd.
“All those people in the back are fake news,” Hannity said during his remarks, pointing to the reporters covering the rally, including Fox News journalists.
“Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” the network said in a statement. “We have an extraordinary team of journalists helming our coverage tonight and we are extremely proud of their work. This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.” Hannity continued to claim the on-stage appearance was “not planned,” but days earlier, the Trump campaign announced that both Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would appear as special guests.
Several network staffers, however, felt that Hannity engaging in political activism was “embarrassing,” and showed that he is “allowed to play by his own rules.” Additionally, Fox News employees told The Daily Beast at the time, the incident revealed that management “either can’t or won’t do anything about” Hannity’s actions, which “dealt a major blow to those who work in the news division.”
Reached for comment Thursday evening, a Fox News spokesperson told The Daily Beast: “Sean Hannity’s status as the most watched show in cable news is a testament to our audience’s overwhelming loyalty and passion for his opinion,” concluding with a reiteration of previous statements: “We value his unique perspective and he has our full support.”
—With additional reporting by Maxwell Tani.
This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect the chronology.