The one unforgivable sin of Sean Hannity and Fox News, according to the gospel of Roger Ailes

Deciding not to report.
Deciding not to report.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Were he alive to see it, Roger Ailes would be appalled by what his creation Sean Hannity has wrought these days.

Amid the crumbling of the castle Ailes willed into US cable-news dominance, the last-man-standing face of Fox News has been dancing as fast as he can. Following the departure of Megyn Kelly and the demise of Bill O’Reilly, Hannity became arguably the biggest name in Fox’s weeknight lineup.

But instead of capitalizing on his newfound status, Hannity has spent the past few weeks going down a rabbit hole of innuendo so dark even some conservative outlets began to question his endgame. Of course, Ailes—the conqueror of liberals who died May 18—could conceivably get past any concerns about the politics of this kind of mess. Small potatoes.

This week, Hannity stepped away from the abyss. With reports of fellow Fox News staffers upset over his fixation on the murder of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, Hannity said Tuesday (May 23) he would back off—for now.

An appeal from the slain man’s family, asking Hannity’s executive producer to find the “decency and kindness” to put an end to the host’s perpetuation of conspiracy theories, seemed to do the trick. Despite a report saying he faced management pressure, Hannity told the HuffPost no one at Fox told him to drop the Rich story: “I did it out of my own heart. Nobody tells me what to say on my show. They never have and frankly they never will. I’m not that type of person you can say, ‘Go on air and say this.’ That’s been the beauty of Fox News all these years. They leave me alone.”

Let’s see what happens. Hannity will be taking off  today and tomorrow (May 25-26) ahead of the US holiday weekend. Fox says he will be back on May 30. A few advertisers already have fled. In the end, a much larger exodus did in O’Reilly.

Still, Hannity’s unrelenting coverage of the Rich investigation, such as it is, served as a mere sideshow to the real story: Among the most-coveted viewers—those aged 25 to 54—Fox News spent the week of May 15 in last place among the three major cable-news networks during primetime. As CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter pointed out, “The last time Fox found itself in that ditch, Bill Clinton was president of the United States, Gladiator was in theaters, and Jesse Watters was in college.”

(Full disclosure: In 2008, I was ambushed by Watters, then chief henchman for O’Reilly, after O’Reilly’s feathers were ruffled by an op-ed piece published by the newspaper where I was editor.)

As 2017 grinds on, Fox News perhaps has lost its nerve. It is certainly making bad television, and the nighttime audience is confirming it. To Ailes, that last crime would represent the network’s most terrible sin.

What propelled Fox News to the top

Ailes built Fox News into a ratings powerhouse by pushing back against what he saw as a mainstream media in the clutches of America’s liberal elite. Despite his ferocious championing of conservative causes, however, Ailes long asserted that the basis of his channel’s victory was TV professionalism, not politics.

A consummate showman, Ailes insisted Fox’s commercial success was a product of his organization’s superiority in story selection, visual flair, and technical prowess: “I think we do better television than the other guys, and no matter how we do it, they don’t seem to catch up,” he told the Associated Press in 2011. “We seem to out-invent them and think ahead of them, and have better story ideas, better graphics, better on-air talent. We just are better television producers.”

Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes
The founding chief of Fox News, Roger Ailes
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser

But the 2016 presidential election seems to have put an end to Fox’s monopoly on “better television.” Its ideas well has run dry when it comes to how to cover Donald Trump.

To be fair and balanced, Hannity—even as the channel’s most-determined Trump advocate—cannot alone be blamed for Fox’s stumble. Some observers, like columnist James Poulos of The Week, say cable punditry is all but dead, overtaken by the internet’s vast supply of freely available opinion. In any case, Fox News kept its grip on ratings superiority with eight years of intense criticism of Barack Obama and everything he represented. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Fox was able to provide viewers with an unending supply of red-state red meat: hating on Hillary Clinton. But Trump’s win, and the ensuing chaos of his administration, has largely stumped Fox producers and personalities. 

A wrong turn on Trump

Exclusive access aside, muting its coverage of Trump’s nearly daily debacles has proven to be a big misstep. And one of Ailes’ guiding principles—give the people what they want—has become the foundation of its competitors’ recent upswing. 

Believe for one addled moment that the special prosecutor’s probe of illicit Team Trump ties to Russia is merely the “witch hunt” the president proclaims. The answer for Fox can’t be to routinely ignore the whole story. If recent ratings are to be believed, even Trump supporters want to know how he is dealing with his troubles. 

In contrast, the lefty Rachel Maddow’s nightly MSNBC hour powers a top-rated lineup of hosts who uniformly express outrage over the Trump presidency. CNN offers wall-to-wall dissections of each new revelation and administration leak. Remember, it is CNN—and not Fox—paying controversial conservative commentator Jeffery Lord to constantly make the case for Trump, no matter how badly Anderson Cooper treats him.

Battered by the sex scandals that forced out O’Reilly and Ailes—its leading on- and off-air personalities—and undone by the triumph of the candidate it championed, the Fox News we see today is a far cry from its historically confident self.

When the once-upstart channel was celebrating the run-up to its 10th anniversary in the summer of 2006, the Los Angeles Times recounted how Fox News touted its dominance with a video montage for touring TV critics. The presentation closed with this on-screen message: “Can’t wait to see what people say about us in the next 10 years.”

Well, now the wait is over. Somewhere—Hannity’s tweeted assertion notwithstanding—Roger Ailes is not smiling.