Not even Fox News knew that conservative commentator Sean Hannity was a client of President Donald Trump‘s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, until it was revealed in court Monday — and media ethics experts across the political spectrum are calling foul.
Hannity is the host of a primetime opinion show on Fox News, as well as a conservative talk radio show. He regularly discusses the president’s legal affairs, and has often defended Cohen amid his mounting legal conflicts, particularly in the wake of an April 9 raid on the lawyer’s office and residence.
Hannity, an outspoken Trump supporter who has a warm relationship with the president, never disclosed on air that he received legal services from Cohen.
Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School specializing in media ethics, said Hannity’s omission was “clearly an ethical violation.”
“It’s so blatant, it’s not even a hard call,” Freedman said, adding that he thinks Fox should cut ties with Hannity over the potential conflict of interest.
“I don’t think they’ll do it, but I think they should fire him,” Freedman said. “This is a major breach. This isn’t even a hard call.”
It appeared to be a moot point Tuesday, however. Fox News said it still backed Hannity despite learning about his dealings with Cohen on Monday.
“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 cable channel said in a statement.
When CNBC told Freedman that Fox News said it would continue supporting Hannity, he said it was “totally unsurprising.”
The connection between Hannity and Cohen was uncovered at a federal court hearing on Monday, in which Cohen’s lawyer was forced to reveal a recent Cohen client who had not been identified in an earlier court filing.
Cohen had three clients between 2017 and 2018, according to the filing, but only two were named. One was Trump, whose lawyer, Joanna Hendon, also attended the hearing. The other was Elliott Broidy, a former Republican National Committee official who resigned following reports that Cohen brokered a nondisclosure deal worth $1.6 million with an ex-Playboy model who said she was impregnated by Broidy.
Lawyers for Cohen were unable to provide a list of Cohen’s clients in a hearing on Friday, but refused to name a third client in the Monday filing, saying it was “likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client.”
Judge Kimba Wood ordered Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, to disclose the name in court on Monday. Ryan reportedly drew audible gasps from the courtroom audience when he revealed that the third client was Hannity.
It remains unclear whether Fox or iHeartMedia, which broadcasts Hannity’s radio show, were aware that Hannity was Cohen’s client prior to the courtroom admission. Representatives of iHeartMedia declined to comment on the news.
The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. Hannity could not be reached for comment.
In a series of statements on Monday, Hannity said Cohen never represented him “in any matter,” though he “occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”
Hannity later added that he “did not ask Michael Cohen to bring this proceeding on my behalf, I have no personal interest in this proceeding, and, in fact, asked that my de minimis discussions with Michael Cohen, which dealt almost exclusively about real estate, not be made a part of this proceeding.”
On his radio show that day, however, Hannity said “I might have handed him 10 bucks” in order to grant attorney-client protection for certain matters.
Had Hannity told Fox about his business relationship with Cohen, Freedman said the media company should have either stopped him from commenting on anything to do with Cohen — which would preclude a wide swath of material Hannity regularly discusses on his programs — or ordered him to disclose the relationship to his viewers.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, former ombudsman for National Public Radio, said Hannity should face consequences from Fox.
“In any other news organization that prides itself on its reputation with its audience, Hannity should be suspended immediately,” said Dvorkin, who is now the director of the University of Toronto’s journalism program.
Dvorkin said the relationship should precipitate an investigation into whether Hannity misled his managers about his connection to Cohen.
Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group, agreed that Hannity erred by failing to publicly state a potential conflict of interest.
“He probably should have disclosed that,” said Don Irvine, the group’s publisher.
“If you’re going to be reporting on these stories,” he said, “your listeners have a right to know.”
Irvine said that, depending on what is revealed about Hannity’s conduct in the matter, Fox might “feel like they have to placate somebody and let Sean take a couple days off the air.”