Since news broke on April 16 of the attorney-client relationship between Fox News star Sean Hannity and Michael Cohen, the lawyer known as the personal “fixer” for President Donald J. Trump, stories questioning Hannity’s journalistic ethics proliferate.
In a moment of high courtroom drama, news of the Hannity-Cohen relationship was revealed during an appearance by Cohen before Judge Kimba Wood. Cohen’s court appearance resulted from an FBI raid on his office as part of an investigation by prosecutors for the Southern District of New York, who are zeroing in Cohen’s business dealings—particularly, it’s said, Cohen’s hush-money payment of $130,000 to an adult-film performer who says she had sexual relations with Trump.
Hannity, who has large audiences for both his nightly cable television program and his daily radio show, is among the president’s most ardent defenders and, more importantly, an on-air attacker of anyone perceived to be a threat to the Trump presidency. For months, Hannity has called for the end to the special counsel investigation of the Trump campaign’s relationship to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He has advanced a debunked conspiracy theory about the death of a staffer at the Democratic National Committee. He echoes Trump’s “fake news” accusations of any reporting that casts the president in an unfavorable light. He has featured Cohen on his television show in segments regarding Trump’s travails without revealing his attorney-client relationship with the fixer-in-chief.
Yes, this is all quite troubling, if not entirely surprising. The real problem, however, is much bigger than whether Hannity is in cahoots with the administration; it’s the total distortion of the media landscape by the big right-wing outlets: Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Breitbart News, all de facto propaganda arms of the White House. Although the structure of news media in the era of the internet and cable TV lends itself to the silo-ing of audiences with particular political leanings, that alone is not what has caused the distortion. Rather, the leveraging of that phenomenon into an authoritarian disinformation operation is the issue.
An insightful study by the Columbia Journalism Review examined the role of right-wing news sources during the presidential campaign in the realm of social media. CJR worked with Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for the Internet and Society, and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media to look at Facebook and Twitter shares of news stories during the presidential primary and general election campaigns. From the study:
Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.
During the 2016 presidential primaries, Breitbart became the primary source of campaign news for most consumers of right-wing news via social media, according to the CJR study, outpacing even Fox News.
Breitbart, the web-based juggernaut, was shaped into a Trump promotional machine by its erstwhile chief executive, Steve Bannon, also known as the erstwhile chief strategist of the Trump White House, as well as the campaign’s closing CEO. It was Breitbart that hammered the narrative about Trump opponent Hillary Clinton as corrupt, with the help of the Bannon-led the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit that published a book built around that notion. The noise generated around that topic in the right-wing mediasphere enticed mainstream outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post to amplify the claims in the book, Clinton Cash, even if the newspapers noted they were unproven.
When you consider that Bannon was also a principal in Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining firm now under scrutiny for having obtained the data profiles of 87 million Facebook users under false pretenses, and that the Trump campaign employed the services of Cambridge Analytica, you can see how a social media feedback loop advantageous to Trump was being assembled.
Before Bannon was ousted from Breitbart after disparaging remarks he made about the First Family were reported in Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, he was rumored to be exploring a partnership between Breitbart and Sinclair.
Sinclair could potentially be even more consequential than either Fox News or Breitbart in the future, since it reaches far beyond the “insular knowledge community” examined in the CJR study. As an owner of local television stations, Sinclair controls the local news for millions of Americans. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that local newscasters at Sinclair stations were made to read uniform statements amplifying Trump’s charge of “fake news” against mainstream news sources, via a devastating video by Deadspin.
The Trump administration is poised to make Sinclair an even bigger player on the media landscape. If a proposed merger with Tribune Media is allowed by the Federal Communications Commission, Sinclair will reach into the living rooms of 72 percent of the U.S. population.
Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has already indicated his friendly disposition toward Sinclair, with his visit, on the eve of the inauguration, to Sinclair’s WJLA studios for a meeting with company chairman David Smith. Soon thereafter, Pai did Sinclair a solid, relaxing restrictions on revenue- and resource-sharing among stations. Then he began to push for rules changes restricting the number of local stations a single owner can operate, changes needed to complete the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
Each of the stations is required to carry commentary segments by Boris Epshteyn, the former aide in the Trump White House who became famous for his pugilistic cable-news appearances during the campaign in defense of Trump. Now his pro-Trump message will reach a majority of American living rooms, if only Trump’s FCC chairman will get those dang ownership limits taken care of. (Pai is currently under investigation by the FCC inspector general for his Sinclair-friendly actions, but in a virtually lawless administration, it’s hard to see where that will have much impact.)
Taken together, two trends are distorting U.S. media in ways that make it an instrument, whether conscious or unwitting, of the sort of propaganda typically used by authoritarians: the major right-wing cable, broadcast television and web outlets as creators of an insular, news-averse community, and the carrying of that dynamic into the local-news sphere—right into the homes of people who may not have a high degree of political awareness. When the angry narratives spun on right-wing cable shows, news stations and websites become a din, mainstream media outlets feel compelled to address those narratives in their own pages and shows, further amplifying the disinformation.
AS HIGHLIGHTED BY The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent on Tuesday, former FBI Director James Comey made a startling admission in his interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep and Carrie Johnson. During the presidential campaign, Comey made the unprecedented decision to hold a press conference to scold Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for her use of private email server to conduct government business during her tenure as secretary of state even as he announced that no criminal charges would be made against her.
It was that decision by Comey that may have tipped the balance of the election in Trump’s favor, especially when coupled with Comey’s letter to Congress just days before the election announcing a reopening of the investigation based on the contents of the computer of Anthony Weiner, who was married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Asked by Inskeep why he decided to have that first, unprecedented press conference, Comey said that he considered what the cable news pundits would say about him and the FBI if they refused to comment on the investigation, per normal procedure.
The cable news pundits Comey most likely feared were those of Fox News, and the right-wing commentators who adorned every cable news set in more mainstream outlets, such as CNN, which shamelessly offered mostly “he said, she said” treatment of every campaign controversy.
When the director of the FBI is making possibly election-turning announcements based on his fear of how it will be presented in right-wing media, we have a problem. When Sean Hannity is interviewing Michael Cohen, the president’s fixer and Hannity’s own attorney, on his show without full disclosure, we have something that looks pretty much like one hand washing the other.
And when the FCC chairman is working hard to change rules so a propaganda-touting broadcasting network, whose news anchors are given scripts aimed to sow doubts about our political reality, the very real perils we face, you’ve got some quid pro quo.
Put it all together, and you’ve got one helluva machine.
This article has been updated.