I hate going against the grain. (Actually, I love going against the grain.) I hate the condemnation I get when I do (actually, I love that, too) — particularly when it comes from colleagues who are stumbling all over themselves to criticize broadcaster Sean Hannity for not disclosing his lawyer-client relationship with Donald Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen.
I genuinely do hate defending Hannity. I’m among the multitudes who think he’s the worst of the many Fox News shills for Trump. Generally speaking, if Sean is for something, I’m opposed. As usual, I strongly disagreed with his virulent attacks on the feds for raiding Cohen’s properties, even before it was revealed that Hannity had his own dealings with Cohen. He decided not to disclose that association during his tirades, and when it was made known, the media lemmings piled on in full schadenfreude. “How could he?” they bleated; fie on Sean Hannity for not admitting that he and Cohen were a business item!
OK, fellow proud purveyors of fake news. This time, I believe your fake sanctimony is showing. How many of us go to various social events with newsmakers? How many are represented in contract negotiations by the people whose job it is to do that? These same lawyers, agents, etc., get involved in politics or have other clients whom we cover. To be ultra careful, if I’m calling someone I know personally, I’ll declare first thing whether it is social or business. But it would get unwieldy if I stopped to do a disclaimer each time I was reporting, particularly when the honor-among-Washington-thieves creed has it that friendship is set aside when coverage begins. That’s why Harry Truman said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Sean Hannity operates out of dog-eat-dog New York, but the same rule applies. Many of those who are now stomping Hannity should remember that.
Besides, how open must we be? Should play-by-play announcers who are total “homers” publicly admit that, in many cases, they serve at the pleasure of their team owners? Should newscasters point out that they’re doing a puff piece on an actor or actress because his or her show appears on their networks?
Frankly, we can carry this transparency shtick too far. Any time The Washington Post does a story on retail business versus online, the writer (in parentheses, of course) will declare that Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos also owns the Post. Enough already. I fully expect that the paper will report some story about Brazil with a parenthetical disclaimer that “the Amazon runs through Brazil, and speaking of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post, is the main man at Amazon, the online behemoth, not the river, but we just thought we had to say so.”
The real issue with Hannity is not whether he disclosed that Cohen was one of his lawyers, although he could have saved a lot of grief had he simply said so. It was defining what their attorney-client relationship was. Was it just peripheral, as Hannity claims, or was it grist to be ground through the investigatory mill? Cohen’s latest activities have included paying off various women to remain silent about their sexual relationships. Was there something dicey about Sean Hannity that required him to seek Michael Cohen’s intimidation tactics? Was somebody about to go public with accusations against Hannity? Once he was outed as a Cohen client, he immediately made a statement that whatever the legal work was, it “never involved any matter between me and a third party.”
Is that deceptive, or was all this merely schmoozing between show host and guest? Whatever it was, Hannity paid Cohen something and acknowledges now that he expected confidentiality. As far as we know, it appears relatively innocent, not something that really required an awkward disclosure, but that hasn’t stopped the self-serving second-guessing.