On a day when Fox News planned to shift focus away from conservative political opinion in favor of hard-news election coverage featuring the network’s journalists, Fox News Channel’s biggest star, Sean Hannity, sure managed to muddy things up.
Fox had spent days promoting tonight’s America’s Election HQ: 2018 Midterms coverage, anchored by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who both consider themselves just-the-facts reporters—and who both did media interviews Monday stressing that Tuesday was a night when the news came first, not the often-fiery opinion segments that fill prime time most weeknights.
But Hannity, who was in Missouri on Monday night for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Donald Trump on the eve of the critical midterm elections, stepped on the messaging—and reinforced critics’ suggestions that Fox News was nothing but “state-owned television” that works to support the president.
Trump was thanking people Monday night, including the radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the singer Lee Greenfield, when he told the cheering crowd: “While we’re talking about incredible people … I have a few people that are very special. They’ve done an incredible job for us, they’ve been with us from the beginning—Sean Hannity, come on up.”
You could be forgiven for hearing “done an incredible job for us” as Trump’s way of saying Hannity was part of the White House communications team. Hannity, who walked onstage to applause, made no effort to distance himself from that suggestion, opening his brief remarks standing at the lectern emblazoned with the presidential seal by pointing to the journalists at the back of the hall and saying, “By the way, all those people in back are fake news.”
Hannity considers himself a talk-show host and does not claim to be a journalist. In an exclusive interview in July, Hannity told me he’s not bothered by accusations that he uses his platform as the most-watched man in cable news to support Trump: “The amount of time I spend caring about it is zero. I don’t care.”
In Missouri on Monday night, Hannity repeated Trump’s “promises made, promises kept” slogan and recited a list of the president’s achievements before extending his hand to Trump and saying, “Mr. President, thank you.”
Executives at Fox News were not happy. A network spokesperson said Hannity was expected to anchor his show live from the rally but not to participate in any campaign events, adding: “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.”
The network on Tuesday afternoon declined to say how it had addressed the issue with its highest-rated star, who will appear in election coverage starting at 6 p.m. ET.
Hannity has previously fudged the line between cable news host and campaign asset, appearing in a 2016 campaign video for Trump. The network said at the time that it had not known about the video before its release. Another Fox News opinion host, Jeannine Pirro, was also at the rally in Missouri—and has also made no bones about how she thinks viewers should vote:
“If you like more money in your paycheck. If you like being able to find a job. If you like the direction this country is on, put the pedal to the medal and get you and everyone you know out to vote. Vote for the America that is great again.” My #OpeningStatement pic.twitter.com/HmdawHgKay
— Jeanine Pirro (@JudgeJeanine) November 4, 2018
For his part, Hannity said on Twitter on Tuesday that he had not expected to appear on stage during the rally.
“When the POTUS invited me on stage to give a few remarks last night, I was surprised, yet honored by the president’s request. This was NOT planned,” he wrote, adding in a second tweet: “And to be clear, I was not referring to my journalist colleagues at Fox News in those remarks. They do amazing work day in and day out in a fair and balanced way and it is an honor to work with such great professionals.”