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Coverage of the Trump presidency has continuously focused on palace intrigue and controversies surrounding aides and cabinet members, turning people in positions that don’t traditionally draw much attention into household names. But the past week has seen the lens turn to a Trump advisor outside the White House who needs no introduction.
Sean Hannity, already facing scrutiny for his public cheerleading and private consultations with President Trump, was revealed in court last week as a client of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer. Criticized for a lack of transparency, the Fox News host defended his public support for Cohen by arguing that he had merely asked Cohen’s advice on real estate matters. The Guardian’s Jon Swaine investigated Hannity’s real estate holdings, finding records that “link Hannity to a group of shell companies that spent at least $90m on more than 870 homes in seven states over the past decade.” Swaine also found that Hannity “amassed part of his property collection with support from the US Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a fact he did not disclose when praising Ben Carson, the Hud secretary, on his television show last year.”
Update: After publication of this newsletter, Fox News PR emailed a statement from Sean Hannity: “It is ironic that I am being attacked for investing my personal money in communities that badly need such investment and in which, I am sure, those attacking me have not invested their money. The fact is, these are investments that I do not individually select, control, or know the details about; except that obviously I believe in putting my money to work in communities that otherwise struggle to receive such support.
“I have never discussed with anybody at HUD the original loans that were obtained in the Obama years, nor the subsequent refinance of such loans, as they are a private matter. I had no role in, or responsibility for, any HUD involvement in any of these investments. I can say that every rigorous process and strict standard of improvement requirements were followed; all were met, fulfilled and inspected.”
The intensifying spotlight on Hannity places Fox News in the difficult position of backing a host with ties to a man at the center of a probe stretching from law offices in New York all the way to the West Wing. Cohen, of course, saw his office and hotel room raided by federal agents earlier this month after receiving a referral from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller. Hannity’s bellicose criticism of that action takes on a new dimension with the revelation of his ties to Cohen.
At one point on Sunday morning, CNN and Fox were running simultaneous chyrons on Hannity’s problems. “Should Hannity be worried about seized Cohen docs?” read the script under Brian Stelter’s interview with Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. On Fox, Howard Kurtz spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Shelby Holiday above a banner proclaiming “Hannity vs Mainstream Media.” Avenatti told Stelter that “the relationship [with Cohen] is going to be far more extensive than Mr. Hannity has led people to believe.”
Hannity’s value to Fox News is hard to overstate. In the wake of Bill O’Reilly’s exit last year, he has become the face of the network’s evening opinion programming, and has emerged as Donald Trump’s chief television defender. Long criticized by journalists for his conspiracy-mongering and open cheerleading, he has built a huge following that includes his daily radio show. Last week, Fox said that Hannity had the network’s full support, but as the case against Cohen unfolds, Hannity’s relationship with Trump and his embattled fixer are sure to remain a focus on media interest.
Below, more on Hannity’s deepening problems.
- A lack of transparency: New York’s Margaret Hartmann focuses on the role that HUD played in helping Hannity build his real estate empire, arguing that the host’s lack of transparency deserves more scrutiny, but that Fox probably won’t provide it.
- From Fox host’s lips to Trump’s ears: CNN producer Lee Alexander put together a compilation of President Trump echoing arguments presented by Fox hosts. There’s plenty of Hannity in the clip.
- Hannity and Cohen: The New York Times’s Michael Gold looked at Hannity’s public defense of Cohen before their ties were revealed. Copious use of Trump’s favorite phrase, “witch hunt,” highlights those remarks. Meanwhile, Gold’s colleagues Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin reported on Fox’s backing of the host, which they write signifies “the new realities at Trump-era Fox News.”
- Focus on Fox: Even before The Guardian revealed the extent of Hannity’s real estate holdings, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argued that Fox News should be facing more pressure to investigate its host. “As important as Hannity’s explanations may be, the word of his employer matters far more,” Wemple writes.
- Too big to fail?: The Guardian’s Swaine and Dominic Rushe write that Hannity’s omission concerning his relationship to Cohen “just doesn’t matter to Fox.” Earlier this month, I looked at Fox’s continued ratings dominance even as controversy continues to dog some of the network’s personalities. Fox executives downplayed the tension between opinionators like Hannity and the hard news side of the company, but recent news surely won’t help mend that divide.
Remembering Joan Konner
Friends and family gathered on Friday to celebrate the life of Joan Konner, an essential friend and supporter of CJR. Konner was a former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, as well as a former publisher of CJR, where she remained on the Board of Overseers. She arrived at Columbia after a storied career in broadcasting. She is the winner of 13 Emmy awards and was executive producer of Bill Moyers Journal. Speaking at the memorial service, Moyers remembered Konner as both a pioneer—she was the first woman documentary producer at NBC News—and as a defender of core journalistic values. “Good journalists look for the right questions,” Moyers said, in describing her view of the craft. “People respond overwhelmingly when what we cover illuminates their lives.” Konner is the author of three books, including The Book of I: An Illustrious Collection of Self Reflections, and is survived by her husband, Al Perlmutter and her daughter, Rosemary Steinbaum.
Other notable stories
- Donald Trump’s most effective messengers aren’t on Fox News; they’re on Christian television, writes Ruth Graham for Politico Magazine. “In the past two years, largely out of view of the coastal media and the Washington establishment, a transformation has taken place,” Graham writes. “As Christian networks have become more comfortable with politics, the Trump administration has turned them into a new pipeline for its message.”
- Former Sinclair journalist Suri Crowe tells BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg about her battles with management over “balance” in her reporting. She provides documents to back up her claims, including an example of pushback she received on a story about climate change that was criticized for lacking context from “the side that questions the science behind such claims.”
- CJR’s Kelsey Ables has a great piece on Columbia Journalism School student Mariel Padilla, who found out she had won a Pulitzer while sitting in class. Padilla was an intern for The Cincinnati Enquirer last summer, tasked with visiting the county jail each morning to sort through hundreds of paper arrest slips and flag opioid mentions. When the Enquirer won the local reporting prize, Padilla began receiving texts. “I was in shock,” she told Ables. “My eyes just went so wide and I’m pretty sure my mouth was open. Obviously, I couldn’t make noise or anything because my professor was still talking.”
- For Denver Post journalists who recently lost their jobs in another round of layoffs, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is offering a lifeline. CJR’s Corey Hutchins reports that the journalism nonprofit focused on income inequality is setting up a $10,000 fund specifically for ex-Denver Post journalists.
- Back in January, CJR’s Jon Allsop predicted that new tariffs on Canadian newsprint could impact the bottom line at papers around the US. Now, CNN’s Jill Disis writes, those fears have become reality. She focuses on the Tampa Bay Times, where 50 jobs are being cut in response to increased expenses due to the tariffs. “In some cases tariffs are supposed to protect American jobs,” Times Publisher Paul Tash tells Disis. “In this case, not only at our company but around the American newspaper business, I believe these tariffs will cost jobs.”
- Campbell Brown, the head of news partnerships at Facebook, gets a Sunday Business section front-page profile in The New York Times. The Times’s Nellie Bowles writes that Brown “has long had to grapple with questions about whether she really has influence at the social network,” but that she has emerged “as a fiery negotiator for her vision of Facebook as a publishing platform.” In other Facebook news, the Times’s Amanda Taub and Max Fisher report from Sri Lanka, where “Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing” in recent violence in the country.
Morning Mediawire: Finding the practical in the local, a new tool to fight online harassment, how 4/20 began
Nearly two weeks ago, Hungary’s far-right governing party, Fidesz, won a crushing victory in national elections, further strengthening Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tight grip on power. Orbán has gradually eroded Hungary’s independent press since he took office in 2010. His latest win is all but a death knell.
Orbán accelerated a longstanding anti-media campaign a few years back, going on TV to encourage key allies to buy or begin news outlets. In late 2016, then Austrian-owned company Mediaworks shuttered the country’s largest opposition daily, then sold its remaining properties to government-friendly owners. Since this month’s election, other critical voices have fallen silent. When the English-language Budapest Beacon closed last week, its managing editor lamented that pro-Orbán consolidation has made it impossible to source reliable information in Hungary. The country’s last remaining opposition daily, Magyar Nemzet, and Lanchid radio station also both shut down after their owner Lajos Simicska—a tycoon who fell out with Orbán in 2015—decided he would no longer finance them.
Speaking with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, former Magyar Nemzet reporter Flora Garamvolgyi blamed the government’s monopoly on advertising for squeezing them out. “What happened is obviously a personal tragedy because I lost my job,” she added. “But people have been made to consume racist, xenophobic, anti-immigration propaganda all over the news, like, daily. So it’s a much bigger issue than just a newspaper shutting down.”
Orbán’s recent election campaign was predicated on extreme rhetoric on immigration, intertwined with relentless attacks on Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. Soros is a worldwide lightning rod for fringe anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing, but in Hungary, attacking him has a more mainstream resonance. Escalating a familiar smear campaign, pro-Orbán paper Figyelo last week published a list of more than 200 pro-Soros “speculators,” including staffers with Amnesty International and other NGOs, and investigative journalists like Andras Petho.
— andras petho (@andraspe) April 12, 2018
Orbán has launched a full-court press against his country’s media, chipping away at independent ownership, publicly attacking critical journalists, and channeling his agenda through friendly outlets—whistleblowers at the state-funded MTVA network told The Guardian last week that editors parrot nativist propaganda dictated by the government. Hungary is a European Union country, and so, at least in theory, is tied to minimum standards of democracy and press freedom. And yet EU leaders have too often been timid in holding Orbán to account. They should now—along with the international community at large—rally urgently to save Hungary’s free press. There’s a chance they’re already too late.
Below, more on the crisis gripping Hungarian journalism:
- Meet the puppetmaster: Before the election, Politico’s Lili Bayer and Joanna Plucinska profiled Orbán media fixer Antal Rogán. (The piece also contains a useful graphic mapping Orbán’s personal ties to major media owners.)
- “Would you like the guards to escort you out of the room?”: In a short film and accompanying first-person essay, Al Jazeera’s Dan Nolan digs into Orbán’s war on the press, and describes the threat he felt when he questioned it.
- More-than-creeping authoritarianism: The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project calls for the international community to support Hungarian journalism, denouncing “an attempt to intimidate independent voices [that] mimics similar attacks by other fascist or extreme governments who have created lists of ‘enemies of the state.’”
- Some international context: You can read Reporters Without Borders’s Hungary fact file here. In 2017, it ranked 71st out of 180 countries worldwide for press freedom.
Other notable stories:
- CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald reports that local media in Charlottesville, Virginia, failed to contextualize coverage of an online survey to change two Confederacy-linked local park names. “Anyone with internet access—from local residents to Confederate apologists and white supremacists around the country—had a chance to choose what names they desired for [the] parks,” Fitzgerald writes. “With few exceptions, it was impossible to tell who had voted for what name, and where those votes might have come from.”
- David Pecker’s American Media Inc., the parent company of The National Enquirer, hasn’t experienced a “Trump Bump.” Despite its relentlessly sycophantic coverage of the president, The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reports, it’s “weighed down by ballooning debt, falling revenue and shrinking newsstand sales.” Relatedly, AMI freed former Playboy model Karen McDougal from a contract that had prevented her from talking openly about her alleged affair with Trump.
- The latest Time 100 list of influential people is out. Sean Hannity is listed under “leaders,” as are Today show hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb. Freshly minted Pulitzer winners Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow are now also Time “icons” for their work exposing Harvey Weinstein and others. And Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is a “titan,” which likely won’t please our Time–obsessed titan-in-chief.
- For The Hollywood Reporter, Glynnis MacNicol takes on a fraught topic in journalism: the burgeoning generational gap in newsrooms. “While some dismiss them as the ‘woke’ vanguard of creeping political correctness, the new generation of media leaders, few familiar to anyone older than 40, bring with them differing views on transparency, egalitarianism and social justice—and are far more outspoken about their beliefs,” MacNicol writes.
- Under-pressure Trump lawyer Michael Cohen withdrew his lawsuit against BuzzFeed, which he says defamed him when it published the infamous Steele dossier on Trump’s alleged Russia ties last year. Cohen stands by the allegation, but is dropping the suit because of last week’s FBI raid on his premises, according to his attorney.
- Yesterday was a good day all round at BuzzFeed, whose UK investigative team may have solicited one of the all-time great government PR quotes. When it asked British tax authorities if they’d refused to investigate a telecoms firm because it donated money to the governing Conservative party, a senior spokesperson replied, “This is the United Kingdom for God’s sake, not some third world banana republic where the organs of state are in hock to some sort of kleptocracy.” The authorities changed their tune after verifying BuzzFeed’s evidence, calling it “regrettable.”