Sean Hannity More Dangerous than Dan Rather?

Telis Demos argues in TNR that Dan Rather is less of a threat to journalism than Sean Hannity. His rationale is rather strained.

[N]ot all bad journalism is created equal. Dan Rather may have indeed been duped, but even if that is the case, his mistake was far less problematic than the offenses against journalism perpetrated daily by Fox News and other unabashedly conservative media outlets. CBS News may be many things, but it is not the left-wing equivalent of Fox News. And we ought to be much more concerned about the willful journalistic contortions of the latter than the alleged sloppiness of the former.

His evidence?

In February 2004, for instance, Fox News broadcasters Brit Hume, Sean Hannity, and John Gibson all showed a photo of John Kerry standing next to Jane Fonda on a podium at an anti-Vietnam War rally in the 1970s. It turns out the photo was fake. Did hordes of media critics demand retractions from Hume, Hannity, and Gibson? Of course not. As a result, it seems likely that plenty of voters continue to believe the picture was real. Another example: Hannity, on May 18, said, “The only thing [John Kerry has] been consistent about in his entire career is raising taxes, because he supported tax increases 350 times.” Hannity was using a number produced by the Bush campaign that was arrived at by allowing votes against tax cuts to count as support of a tax increase, and by double-, triple-, or quadruple-counting tax votes in budget bills with multiple parts. Hannity, of course, declined to present this contextual information.

The Kerry-Fonda photo was shown pretty much everywhere, so it’s hardly the equivalent of Dan Rather’s “scoop” on “60 Minutes.” Further, Brit Hume didn’t continue to insist that the photo was real after a mountain of evidence indicated otherwise. And Hannity is a conservative pundit; he doesn’t pretend to be an unbiased newscaster. Telios anticipates that response:

And that’s why Fox’s particular brand of bias is so much more dangerous than Rather’s: The (unfortunate) conventions of opinion journalism don’t demand that they stick scrupulously to truth; nor are they expected to apologize when they report blatant falsehoods. And so the record as reported by Fox News goes uncorrected in the public’s mind, and talking points enter our discourse with a pretense of truth. Let’s concede, for argument’s sake, that most Fox viewers know they are watching opinion journalism. Does this really lessen their expectation that the opinions presented will be based on evidence that is basically true? Of course not. Viewers watching “60 Minutes,” of course, also expect that the reporting they see is true. The difference is that viewers of “60 Minutes” may soon hear a correction. And even if CBS doesn’t offer a correction, media critics will let Americans know if they were entitled to one.

Rather’s critics might say that his transgressions are worse than Hannity’s because CBS presents itself as practicing news journalism, while Hannity does not. But Rather didn’t offer on-air opinions. He presented possibly forged documents–and presenting forged documents is unacceptable whether you’re a news journalist or an opinion journalist. In fact it’s equally unacceptable in both cases.

Well, no. Opinions aren’t falsifiable; factual assertions are. One can debate the methodology by which the “Kerry supported tax increases 350 times” statistic was derived but it is simply a fact that, using that methodology, he did. Hannity didn’t rely on forged documents to arrive at that number. And, again, the reason the Rather memos are controversial isn’t so much the shoddy journalism that allowed them to be aired but the fact that CBS is sticking to its guns well after everyone else has judged them to be false.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Indeed, as I recall, once the photo was indentifed as false, Hume retracted on air.

  2. McGehee says:

    Well, that only makes Fox News even more dangerous! By giving the unwashed masses the idea that mistakes can simply be owned up to and apologized for, they’ve created an unrealistic expectation of what they can expect from their media masters!


  3. HH says:

    Actually the entire TNR piece is a fraud. Hume never presented the photos as real, neither did Hannity and neither did Gibson, as far as anyone can see from Lexis Nexis.

    Obviously this is TNR satirically showing the danger of those defending CBS by pulling off a CBS-esque fraud.