And Then There Was Hannity
Bill O’Reilly. Roger Ailes. Megyn Kelly. One by one, the biggest personalities at Fox News have left the building.
During commercial breaks on his Fox News program, Sean Hannity likes to wing around a football with anyone in the vicinity of his desk. At roughly 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and a substantial noggin reminiscent of late-empire Roman statuary, Hannity, 55, is a sporty guy. Like many middle-aged men, though, he’s prone to pack on the pounds. During a round of golf in 2012, a friend took a picture. “I looked four months pregnant,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I had man boobs.” He started dieting and working out with a martial arts instructor. “My trainer will attack me, try and put me down, and I’ll grapple and throw him,” Hannity said. “Take any scenario: Come up to me from behind, put me in a chokehold, put a gun to my head, threaten me with a knife, and I know how to get out of it.”
With big personalities, eight-figure salaries, and zero-sum competition for airtime, cable news is particularly well-suited to braggadocio—and in Hannity’s case, it can go a bit past bragging. In the Fox News studio one evening in October, after taping a debate with liberal commentator Juan Williams, Hannity pulled out a gun. He pointed the weapon at Williams, flicking on its laser sight and dancing its red dot across Williams’s body. (CNN’s Dylan Byers broke the news of the incident.) Hannity, Williams, and Fox News Network LLC put out statements downplaying the incident. Hannity referred to Williams as “my good friend” and noted that the gun, for which he had a conceal-carry permit, wasn’t loaded. Williams said that “it was clear Sean put my safety and security above all else.” Fox News said an internal investigation had concluded that “no one was put in any danger.”
Around the same time, there was another jocular moment involving Hannity and a colleague that lit up the gossip lines within the network. Hannity and his co-workers were unwinding with some after-work drinks at Langan’s, an Irish pub in Midtown Manhattan popular with staffers at Fox News and the New York Post. At one point, Porter Berry, Hannity’s executive producer, playfully taunted Hannity to give him his best shot, Mr. Ninja Guy. In a flash, Hannity took Berry down using one of his martial arts moves. Berry, on the ground, lunged back and bit Hannity on the arm.
“I didn’t even realize what was happening,” Berry recalls. “I go down, and I literally snapped at him. I bit him.” There were no hard feelings, though. “It was just two guys, giving each other a hard time after work, when you’re out having fun,” he says. “He’s like an older brother to me. I’ve worked at Fox News since 2004. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever worked with.” Hannity’s drink of choice is often vodka and pineapple juice, says Berry. But also beer, he hastens to add. “He’s not a big drinker. He just likes being out with his people.” (Hannity declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Internal jockeying, playful and otherwise, has been good for Hannity lately. As for the rest of Fox News, the past year or so has been ... chaos. On the one hand, ratings have never been better. On the other, the network has been blasted by a relentless squall of litigation from current and former employees, bitter departures of top personnel, and scathing headlines. Beginning last summer, when several women accused Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, Fox News has faced one lawsuit after another over sexual misconduct and racial bias. Then the bomb dropped: Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s biggest star, was in trouble. On April 1 the New York Times published a front-page story reporting that the network and O’Reilly had paid a total of $13 million to five women for agreeing not to sue or talk about their allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior on the part of O’Reilly. (Through a spokesperson, O’Reilly denies the allegations; in a statement to the Times, he said that in more than 20 years at the network no one had ever filed a complaint against him with the human resources department.)
Protesters congregated outside Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters to demand that O’Reilly be fired. Dozens of advertisers pulled their spots from The O’Reilly Factor—the show generated $147 million in ad revenue last year, according to Kantar Media. With pressure mounting and a new explosive charge seeming to go off every day, the Murdoch family, which controls 21st Century Fox Inc., the parent company of Fox News, considered what to do about their crucial asset. The ad situation grew worse. On April 19, with O’Reilly on vacation in Italy, the Murdochs announced they were letting him go.
It was a risky decision, and it hasn’t stopped the flow of lawsuits—the network was hit with a racial-discrimination class-action suit on April 25. But if anyone has come out a winner, it’s Hannity. According to Nielsen Holdings Plc, from Dec. 26 to March 26, his show averaged more than 2.8 million viewers—a 47 percent increase from the same period a year before. Viewers spent 18.4 million hours watching him in the first 15 weeks of 2017, up 41 percent, according to Pivotal Research Group LLC. And Hannity’s importance to the network goes beyond ratings. He bet early on Donald Trump’s campaign for president and defended him at his worst moments; and now, President Trump himself is an avid fan who sometimes seems to act after getting ideas from the broadcast.
O’Reilly’s abrupt departure followed those of two other Fox News stars, Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, who had their own internecine reasons for leaving. Hannity has outlasted them all, meaning the longtime vice pundit of cable news is now effectively its commander-in-chief. Fox News is betting that fresh-faced, neo-preppy provocateur Tucker Carlson, who took over O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. hour on April 24, will be a key part of the network’s future. But at a time when the company badly needs someone to steady the organization, Hannity, with his mind-meld connection to the White House and his deep, abiding connection to the Fox News brand, is the alpha anchor right now. “Hannity’s experiencing a renaissance,” says Brian Rosenwald, a media historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s his network now.”
Hannity rose to the top of conservative media over the past 30 years through a combination of hard work, good luck, charm, stamina, and party loyalty. He grew up on New York’s Long Island and graduated from a Catholic high school. He dropped out of a series of colleges, never earning a degree. In the late 1980s, Hannity got his first job in radio, hosting a show for no pay at a college station in Santa Barbara, Calif. At one point, he insulted a lesbian mother he was interviewing, telling her he felt sorry for her child. A boycott ensued, and Hannity lost his job. But he kept at it, jumping to stations in the Huntsville, Ala., area and then Atlanta.
In the early ’90s, Neal Boortz, a libertarian talk radio host, faced off in drive time against Hannity. Boortz says Hannity stood out in the shock-jock morning radio culture because of his squeaky-clean on-air persona. “I used to call him Baby Jesus, but he got upset with that.”
For years, Boortz watched in frustration as Hannity out-hustled him on the unglamorous business end of radio. “In those days, if he wasn’t on the air, he’d go into his office, and the schmooze machine got turned on,” Boortz says. “When Hannity was on a radio station, whether it was in Taylor, Texas, or New York City, he knew the name of the general manager. And he knew the name of the program director. And he knew their wives’ names, and their children’s names, and their birthdays. He was constantly calling people: ‘How am I doing? Is there anything I can do for you?’ He was just marvelous at that.”
While Hannity was on the air in Atlanta, he started making connections at a new and short-lived cable channel called NewsTalk Television, which was headquartered in Manhattan. One of the network’s shows, Prime Time Edition, had a nightly segment with dueling dispatches about the hot political story of the day. Hannity would frequently call in from Atlanta to chainsaw the Clintons. Alan Colmes, a radio host in New York, often played defense for the Democrats. Hannity eventually befriended the producer of the show, Darla Shine, as well as her husband, Bill, who was also a producer at the network and who, like Hannity, was an Irish Catholic from Long Island.
In 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired Ailes to start a cable news channel to snap the suspenders of Ted Turner’s CNN. Among other hires, Ailes brought in Hannity and Colmes, who were paired up in a left-vs.-right debate show. On Hannity’s recommendation, Bill Shine was hired as producer. Hannity & Colmes premiered in 1996. The two radio personalities were far from polished TV talent. “I was awful,” Hannity later told Broadcasting & Cable magazine. Even so, Hannity & Colmes grew into a staple of Fox News’s nightly lineup, as the network’s expanding audience of right-leaning viewers tuned in to watch Hannity, the square-jawed, tough-talking conservative, steamroll the leftist Colmes.
The family-values-proclaiming Hannity was sometimes put off by O’Reilly. In August 2002, O’Reilly had the porn star Jenna Jameson on his show. “What about you becoming a millionaire by having sex with strangers?” O’Reilly asked. “Does that give you pause?” Producers would later add spicy B-roll to the taped segment, including a clip of Jameson in tight shorts running her hand down her bare midriff. Did Jameson feel responsible, O’Reilly pressed, if a young viewer watched one of her movies and decided to “go have sex with three guys at one time?”
Hannity was watching on a monitor nearby. Patrick Halpin, a liberal Democratic personality, was filling in for Colmes that day. “Hannity turned to me, shook his head, and said something like, ‘Can you believe this guy?’ ” Halpin recalls. “He just looked totally disgusted.”
Hannity has never stopped doing radio, hosting three hours of programming a day in addition to his TV show, and over time he began cultivating politicians the way he once befriended station managers. Rosenwald, the media historian, says Hannity grew out of the conservative talk radio culture of the ’90s, where hosts became de facto local party leaders. They emceed events, championed candidates, and encouraged listeners to donate money. As Hannity’s stature grew, he took the act national. “What I’ve heard over and over again is that he is more of a team player than a lot of the hosts now,” Rosenwald says. “If you need a big-time person to help put a fire out, maybe do a sympathetic interview, Sean is more likely to be your guy than some of the others. He’s more willing to do people favors. He’s a strong party loyalist.”
Hannity keeps friendly even with former rivals. Boortz says they own vacation properties near each other on the west coast of Florida and get together from time to time. “He comes down here, and he’ll call me, ‘Hey, Boortz, want to meet at dinner somewhere?’ I know to ask, ‘How many people are going to be there, Sean?’ ‘Oh, about 20.’ The last time, I arrived, and there’s Dana Perino, there’s Geraldo Rivera, there’s Bill Shine, there’s Bo Dietl. Sean is treating all of them to a trip to Florida, buying them all dinner.”
In December 2007, Ailes finally gave Hannity his own show, an hourlong program on Sunday nights called Hannity’s America. According to a source who worked on the pilot, the show was seen internally as a kind of test run—a way of prepping Hannity for a future on TV unsaddled by Colmes. Less than a year later, Fox News announced that Colmes would indeed step aside, letting Hannity fly solo in prime time. That move came a few months after ABC Radio and Premiere Radio Networks announced they would co-syndicate Hannity’s radio program for five years—a deal that, according to the Wall Street Journal, paid him $20 million annually. (Colmes died in February at age 66.)
Hannity’s courting of politicians occasionally raised hackles inside Fox. Critics see the network as comprehensively partisan, but insiders have long insisted there’s an internal division between opinion makers such as O’Reilly and Hannity and anchors like Bret Baier and Shepard Smith, who play by more traditional journalistic rules. In spring 2010, Hannity planned to host his nightly broadcast at a conservative rally in Cincinnati, the proceeds of which would benefit the local Tea Party organization. The prospect of a Fox News show headlining an event to raise money for a political movement that the straight news division was attempting to cover, however, apparently ran afoul of Ailes’s distinctions. Fox executives intervened, and Hannity was forced to pull out.
In 2012, Hannity supported Mitt Romney, periodically encouraging the candidate to be tougher on President Obama. “You know who I’m really happy with? Donald Trump,” Hannity said on his show that May. “Donald Trump is telling Republicans, ‘Take the gloves off and start fighting.’ ” After Romney’s loss, Hannity embraced a “pathway to citizenship” for those in the country illegally, defended the occasional embattled Duck Dynasty star, questioned Pope Francis’s views on capitalism, decried the “war on police in America,” and hammered the Obama administration on Benghazi—all while keeping an eye out for any promising newcomer who might finally win back the White House for Republicans in 2017.
Then, in the summer of 2016, Ailes’s reign came to a startling end. On July 6 former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit alleging that she’d been the victim of sustained sexual harassment from the Fox News chief and that her career at the network had been damaged when she refused his advances. Ailes issued a statement calling the allegations false, and Hannity jumped to his boss’s defense. “I have spoken to many women who work at Fox that have the most amazing stories of how kind Roger is to them,” he wrote on Twitter. But subsequently, several women went public with accounts similar to Carlson’s accusations. On July 21, 21st Century Fox announced that Ailes was being let go and that Murdoch himself would step in to run the network. Fox eventually paid $20 million to settle Carlson’s suit. Ailes got $40 million in severance.
In August, Murdoch promoted Bill Shine—Hannity’s friend and former executive producer—to co-president of Fox News. As the presidential campaign entered its final stretch, Shine would oversee not only the network’s opinionated hosts but the news division as well.
While the network’s traditional news members were trying to report on every twist in the campaign, Hannity was doing his best to tip it in Trump’s favor. Early on, he threw his support behind the real estate mogul. He hosted town hall-style interviews with Trump that gave the candidate invaluable airtime to convey his undiluted message. And he hammered Republicans he deemed insufficiently pro-Trump: “If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain,” Hannity said on his radio show in early August. Trump has long sent love in Hannity’s direction, too. “Watched Sean Hannity last night—a great guy,” he tweeted in 2011. “Sean is terrific,” he wrote the following year. “Congratulations to [Hannity] on his tremendous increase in television ratings,” Trump tweeted during the campaign. “Speaking of ratings, I will be on his show tonight.” During his first debate with Hillary Clinton, when the moderator challenged Trump’s assertion that he’d opposed the war in Iraq, Trump invoked Hannity as a character witness: “Nobody calls Sean Hannity,” he said, bewildered.
In September, Van Susteren, who anchored the network’s 7 p.m. hour, announced she was leaving after more than a decade. Rather than picking a straight news personality to fill the void, Murdoch chose Tucker Carlson, the Clinton-mocking, Trump-friendly provocateur. Hannity also feuded with Kelly, perhaps the network’s star with the broadest crossover appeal. In 2013, Ailes had given Kelly her own prime-time show at 9 p.m., bumping Hannity back an hour to 10 p.m. But she sparred publicly with Trump and cast aspersions on Hannity. “Donald Trump—with all due respect to my friend at 10 o’clock—will go on Hannity and pretty much only Hannity and will not venture out to the unsafe spaces these days,” she said on air in October. On Twitter, Hannity accused Kelly of harboring a bias for Clinton: “Clearly you support her.” The following night, Kelly and Hannity simultaneously tweeted a photo of themselves standing together, along with a message of détente. “We’re Irish,” Kelly wrote. “It’s complicated.”
Throughout the fall, with polling suggesting that Clinton would win handily, there were widespread rumors that Trump would team up with Ailes to create a Fox News alternative called Trump TV, poaching several of his former stars and leaving Kelly as the face of a more news-driven network. “There will be a bloodbath at Fox,” an unnamed host told New York magazine. “Hannity will go to Trump TV.” But when Trump won, it was Kelly who walked away, taking a job at NBC News. Her departure left many members of the news division feeling deeply dispirited, according to a person at Fox News. Straight news was not ascendant. Team Hannity was.
A few days after taking office, Trump granted his first cable news interview as president, and it was to Hannity. Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, Hannity sat across from the president in the White House and for an hour discussed everything from Trump’s plans for “extreme vetting” of immigrants to the pathetic state of the news media.
“They’re very dishonest people,” Trump said.
“I’ve said journalism is dead,” responded Hannity. “So we agree.”
In reality, Trump’s presidency has been a major boon for the news business, driving up newspaper subscriptions, web traffic, and cable news ratings. Nielsen recently estimated that consumption of TV, radio, and digital news grew by 11.2 billion minutes per week in 2016 from the previous year. During the first quarter of 2017, Fox News drew the highest 24-hour ratings of any network in cable news history, averaging 1.7 million viewers. During prime time, Fox News was the most watched channel in all of pay television, trouncing the runner-up, ESPN.
Since Hannity embraced Trump, his daily radio show, long the second-most popular in the country, trailing only Rush Limbaugh’s, has also surged in popularity. “Hannity is more important than he’s ever been in his career,” says Michael Harrison, the founder of Talkers Magazine. “He’s neck and neck with Rush Limbaugh at the top of the talk radio mountain.” Hannity uses his radio show, TV perch, and Twitter to take a crack at anyone who criticizes one of his friends, political allies, or the president. Among other insults, Hannity has called CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter a “pipsqueak”; David Simon, the creator of The Wire, a “malicious asshole”; Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN, a “stenographer”; and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough an “elitist snob.”
Hannity, who for years was diminished in comparison with O’Reilly on-camera, began to benefit from comparisons with O’Reilly off-camera. On April 3 attorney Lisa Bloom held a press conference in which Wendy Walsh, a former Fox News commentator, alleged that O’Reilly had propositioned her romantically and then ostracized her from the network after she turned him down. At one point, a reporter asked about O’Reilly’s suggestion that anyone in his position is an easy target. “It’s simply not true,” Bloom said. “Other successful, wealthy cable news hosts have not been the subject of public sexual harassment claims. I haven’t seen any against Sean Hannity, for example. I don’t agree with the guy on anything. But he’s got a great reputation as a family man.”
On April 21, during an interview on KFAQ, a commercial AM radio station in Tulsa, Debbie Schlussel, a former Fox News guest, accused Hannity of twice asking her back to his hotel following an event in Detroit more than a decade ago. Afterward, according to Schlussel, he stopped inviting her on his show. Hannity responded in a statement that her comments were “100 percent false.” By April 24, Schlussel, a lawyer by training, appeared to be downplaying the accusations, saying in an interview with the website LawNewz.com that she would never accuse Hannity of sexual harassment in the legal sense. That night on Fox News, Hannity furrowed his formidable, load-bearing brow and unleashed on Schlussel and the media outlets that had hyped her “ridiculous, completely untrue claims,” suggesting it was part of a broader plot by “liberal fascists” to silence “every outspoken conservative in this country.”
With Trump now controlling not only the White House but also its TV remote controls, Hannity’s TV show has entered a new phase of influence—not just interpreting the administration’s daily message, but also, at times, appearing to shape it. One night in March, Hannity called for Trump to “purge” the government of “saboteurs” left over from the Obama administration. The next day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignations of 46 Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys.
On April 11, Trump granted an interview to Maria Bartiromo, an anchor at Fox News’s sibling channel, Fox Business Network. That night, about eight hours before the interview would air in full, Bartiromo appeared on Hannity’s show. Hannity showed off the top highlights of the interview while putting a positive spin on the president’s message. He showed a clip of Trump telling Bartiromo that he’d ordered a missile strike against Syria while eating dessert with the president of China at Mar-a-Lago. “We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen,” Trump said. Soon the cake clip was ricocheting through the media, appearing everywhere on TV, radio, and the internet. Fox News and Hannity, the hardest-working Trump supporter on TV, had it first. —With Anousha Sakoui