Margaret Sullivan: Fox News must take tough action on Sean Hannity’s ethical failure, but don’t hold your breath

Based on everything we know about Fox, and how it handles issues involving ethics, the chances that the network will do the right thing are small.

FILE - In this April 12, 2018, file photo, Fox News personality Sean Hannity attends The Hollywood Reporter's annual 35 Most Powerful People in Media event in New York. Hannity is President Donald Trump's most vocal defender on television, and a week ago he was on the air criticizing the FBI raid on the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen as evidence that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" against the president has become a runaway train. It was revealed in a court hearing Monday, April 16, that Cohen also represented Hannity. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Does Fox News deserve the second part of its name? Does it deserve to call itself a news organization?

If so — a big if — the cable channel’s brass must discipline its biggest ratings star and apologize to viewers for Sean Hannity’s appalling and undisclosed conflict of interest revealed Monday.

Based on everything we know about Fox, and how it handles issues involving ethics, the chances that the network will do the right thing are small.

To recap: Hannity has, for months, campaigned on his nightly show against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump.

When an offshoot of that investigation led to a government raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, Hannity went ballistic, ranting about attorney-client privilege and abuse of power.

But as of Monday afternoon, we know that Cohen’s much-discussed secret third client was Hannity himself.

You don’t need to be an ethics expert to know that this amounts to a conflict of interest, one that clearly required disclosure to Fox viewers. That never happened.

Fox should do the right thing now: It should address the ethical breach in a public statement, apologize to viewers and discipline Hannity.

At any other major news organization, this would be a fireable offense. (Recall, for comparison, that just months ago, CNN forced out three of its journalists for bypassing editorial processes in publishing an article that the network said was flawed.)

But knowing what we do about Fox News, it’s no surprise that Fox stood behind Hannity on Tuesday.

“While Fox News was unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support,” the network said in a statement.

For one thing, it’s against Fox’s business interest to back down. Its viewers see it as a champion against the Swamp and the Deep State, and they neither understand nor expect the need for objectivity. In fact, this chapter may help Fox to continue pandering to its ratings base.

Second, consider the recent past. This is the network that for years countenanced huge payoffs by its former star host Bill O’Reilly to settle sexual misconduct claims. It’s the network founded by Roger Ailes, who went down in flames after a sexual harassment lawsuit by former Fox host Gretchen Carlson after years of network stonewalling.

Remember, too, Fox’s handling of the story about Seth Rich, the young Democratic aide whose unsolved slaying on the streets of Washington, D.C., became the topic of unfounded conspiracy theories; that unfounded reporting depicted Rich as the leaker of internal Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The lies were meant to suggest that the Clinton campaign had a hand in his killing.

Hannity fanned the flames hard.

Fox eventually retracted the story, saying it did not meet network standards. But the damage was done. Rich’s parents are suing the network, claiming lasting hurt from “extreme and outrageous” misdeeds.

With O’Reilly forced out, Hannity is the biggest star on Fox. He has long had the highest-rated show among the cable news networks, although MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has crept up on him in recent weeks.

On Monday, Hannity downplayed the relationship with Cohen, saying he never retained him but merely asked him for legal advice. He also wavers on whether he is a journalist, at times saying he isn’t one and at others calling himself an opinion journalist.

That shouldn’t matter. As Trump’s biggest cheerleader, Hannity is a major media figure with the power and the platform to shape public opinion.

His relentless efforts to disparage the Mueller investigation are immensely helpful to the president. And, as I wrote earlier this week, Hannity is plowing the ground for public acceptance if Trump should decide to flout the rule of law and to fire top Justice Department officials.

Fox News doesn’t play by the same rules as most media organizations, often taking remedial action only when forced to by advertiser pressure or other bottom-line considerations.

If that’s the case this time, too, it will finally be time — past time — to drop the second word from the Fox News name.

| Courtesy Margaret Sullivan, op-ed mug shot.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.