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Fox News hosts advising Trump during Jan. 6 insurrection raises questions of current state of political journalism
Texts reveal Fox News hosts, including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, privately implored Trump to condemn the Capitol attack as they publicly downplayed it.
It's not out of the ordinary for journalists and politicians to have somewhat-regular communication. Journalists control whether politicians get what they want: fair coverage. Politicians control whether journalists get what they want: insider information. And both tend to get what they want as long as the relationship remains positive, but there are lines to be drawn, or else the relationship will implode.
By “implode,” I mean become a conflict of interest for both sides. Earlier this month, I wrote about CNN allowing Chris Cuomo to ignore the conflict of interest that was interviewing his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on national television. I focused on that specific case, but the ultra-friendliness that would unfold before the viewer’s eyes during those conversations isn't that uncommon.
The latest example is the lies that Fox News, including star hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, spread about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack in defense of former president Donald Trump. When on air, Hannity and Ingraham would absolve Trump of any responsibility for the insurrection, but newly-discovered texts -- which were read aloud in Congress by Representative Liz Cheney -- show the hosts sung a different tune privately. The texts demonstrated that Hannity and Ingraham informally advised Trump and urged him to encourage the rioters to go home. They didn't really think the rhetoric they spewed.
I am a journalist. I typically side with other journalists, simply because I know it can be an extremely complicated job. But I, first and foremost, pride myself in upholding the ideals of journalism: objectivity, honesty, integrity, and fairness. I am not objective in many of the topics I cover, but I'm open with my audience about how my stories are swayed. Total objectivity is impossible; we are consciously and subconsciously impacted by our experiences, but it's often about deception. Particularly on shows like “Hannity,” “The Ingraham Angle,” or even the disability-centered column I wrote for The NewsHouse, where opinion and analysis, not straight news, are mainstays, openness is extremely important. It's the simple obligation of telling the truth and respecting the Constitution and the right to free press.
Hannity and Ingraham were not open with their viewers. Their involvement in Trump matters violates even the loosest ethical standards. Their texts were actively advising Trump and his team as the insurrection unfolded. Ingraham texted Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and said, “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home.” Hannity texted, “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
But they quickly changed their mindsets for their shows later that night -- and in the days, weeks, and months that followed. Over and over, they lied and denied the insurrection. They lied and denied how they felt about the events of that day. They lied and denied how they were involved in what unfolded, instead accusing other outlets of overreacting. How inappropriate. How unethical. How, just, disrespectful to the journalism industry and profession as a whole. It was sneaky to deceive viewers, but it gives a breath of fresh air to anti-media ideologies. We're already in a time when journalists struggle to gain trust, and stories like this, in which two of the most famous journalists lied on air, don't help. Now, will avid fans stop watching Hannity and Ingraham because of these revelations? Probably not.
Just last week, Ingraham pointed the blame to other media outlets -- the “regime media,” -- which she said was “somehow trying to twist this message to try to tar me as a liar, a hypocrite who privately sounded the alarm on Jan. 6, but publicly downplayed it.” But the records prove her wrong. Ingraham, on her show that night, not only simplified the scenes in Washington, D.C. to being "chaotic," but also claimed the Capitol was "under siege by people who can only be described as antithetical to the MAGA movement." Ingraham went on: "Now, they were likely not all Trump supporters and there are some reports that Antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd.” The comments, which cited reports that were later proven false, echo Hannity’s efforts to spin the blame to far-left groups.
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The texts reveal a deeply problematic relationship between Fox News hosts and Trump. It would be easy to equate it with Chris Cuomo collaborating with Andrew Cuomo fending off sexual assault accusations, but I think it's deeper than that. At least he was helping his own brother -- I can't totally destroy somebody who was helping family. But Ingraham and Hannity were lying in support of a politician who they became too involved with by choice. They were misleading viewers when they knew better. For months. And even worse, they were advising Trump. I know there's only proof of collaboration between the parties from January 6, but I don't think it's unreasonable to wonder how the hosts have served as “informal advisers.”
I could write this, calling Hannity and Ingraham hypocrites -- beyond simply calling them out on their unethical behavior, -- but there's something more. As much as I wish they could be held accountable for assisting a politician in private, defending them on air night after night, and then blatantly denying any wrongdoing, I sit and wonder about where journalism is going. In reality, this is nothing new; both politics and journalism are largely relationship-oriented industries and always have been; the difference is that the digitalization and switch to profit-oriented approach in media has led to political divides among networks, whether real or perceived. Efforts to dominate the 24/7 news cycle and maximize page views, ratings, and audience -- to always have something to talk about and seemingly appeal to an ideological bent -- have led the relationships between politicians and journalists to grow complex.
Relatedly, these developments have complicated the role of the journalist. In journalism school, I learned that the two most important parts of journalism were the obligations to tell the complete truth and to report fairly and objectively. But the lines are blurred in a time when media outlets -- particularly TV networks -- have their own ideological motive and journalists can communicate with politicians directly and are a text away from insider information. The resulting connections and trust, or lack thereof, begins a seemingly-never-ending cycle of partisanship, where, for example, Republicans only trust Fox News and One America News Network and Democrats only trust CNN and MSNBC.
In the end, it's about politicians deciding who gets access to exclusive information, and more broadly, their trust, and that's where this stemmed from. Fox News had rebranded itself as the go-to network for those enraged by the mainstream media’s coverage of Trump, and it -- mainly its top hosts -- proved unwilling to lay the facts out in fear of losing part of its audience and the trust of the former president himself. Had Hannity and Ingraham publicly held Trump accountable, the then-president would have questioned their credibility, and chances are millions of his followers -- their most avid viewers -- would have, too. And considering ongoing speculation that Trump may run for president again in 2024, Hannity and Ingraham see all the reason to maintain the relationship and appease him.
It's the perfect example of why journalists don't cover family and friends, and why it's so important to maintain professional relationships with sources. If they get too involved and connected to politicians, then it's impossible to maintain ethics. It goes back to drawing lines, thin as they may be. Journalism and politics are connected through accountability, and if journalists don't hold politicians accountable, our democracy will dwindle. The two parties cannot be actively supporting one another in schemes to avoid responsibility. I said it about Chris Cuomo, and I'm saying it here. I can understand that Ingraham and Hannity may have faced pressure to carry on with the pro-Trump rhetoric from their bosses, but them communicating with the Administration during a intense moment is simply irresponsible. There was no reason for it.
It makes me wonder: if the faces of the network that calls itself the leader in cable news are privately advising politicians while using their platform to tell lies -- and tell the public the exact opposite -- then what does that mean for journalism as a watchdog for the government?