Sean Hannity’s current advertiser drama is obviously reminiscent of what his Fox News colleague Bill O’Reilly went through recently, but it’s also a lot like what Donald Trump is going through right now.
To bring you up to speed, in case you’ve only vaguely been paying attention:
Trump booster Hannity, on his Fox News show “Hannity,” has been deep-diving down a rabbit hole by pursuing the conspiracy theory that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered (a hit, presumably, ordered by Hillary Clinton) for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks. The theory is catnip to Trump supporters because if a DNC staffer did the WikiLeaking, rather than the Russians, then, in Hannity’s words, “the entire Russia collusion narrative is hanging by a thread.”
The only problem is that the origin of the Rich-was-murdered theory is something of a hall of mirrors involving Fox News itself. On May 16, FoxNews.com and D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG quoted an investigator and Fox News contributor, Rod Wheeler, who claimed Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks. But when CNN contacted him, he admitted he had no evidence and that “I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News.” (Local Washington, D.C., police investigating the murder think it was the result of a robbery gone wrong.)
Fox News retracted the story, issuing a statement saying that its article “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” Sean Hannity, being Sean Hannity, shortly thereafter said on his radio show, “I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com, I retracted nothing.”
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed reported last Wednesday afternoon that marketers including Cars.com, mattress brands Casper and Leesa Sleep, cycling studio Peloton and video doorbell maker Ring were pulling their ads off of “Hannity.” Hannity’s response to all this: Late Wednesday night, he tweeted, “Uh oh My ANNUAL Memorial Day long weekend starts NOW. Destroy Trump/Conservative media breathless coverage starts! Did Hannity do last show?”
That “Did Hannity do last show?” line is, of course, a reference to the fact that last month “The O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly left for vacation amid the firestorm surrounding revelations about multimillion-dollar settlements for sexual harassment allegations made against him over the years — and while he was away, Fox News decided he wasn’t coming back.
It’s perhaps too easy to speculate that Hannity could face the same fate. As Joe Flint noted in a Wall Street Journal post, Hannity has lost his two most important protectors: Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who was forced out last year over sexual harassment allegations (and died May 18), and former co-president Bill Shine. Flint notes, “When rumors were swirling that Mr. Shine was going to be pushed out, Mr. Hannity tweeted that if that was the case it is ‘the total end of Fox News Channel as we know it.’ Four days later, Mr. Shine resigned amid accusations that he didn’t do enough to stop a culture at Fox News that was hostile to women.”
You could argue that the total end of Fox News as we know it would actually be signaled by the departure of Hannity himself. And so the network has attempted to quash the Hannity MIA speculation by issuing a snippy statement: “Like the rest of the country, Sean Hannity is taking a vacation for Memorial Day weekend and will be back on Tuesday. Those who suggest otherwise are going to look foolish.”
But look back at the text of the Hannity tweet above. The most telling phrase is “Destroy Trump/Conservative media breathless coverage starts!” — i.e., Hannity equates critical coverage of the president with criticism of conservative media (though there is no shortage of conservative media that’s been blisteringly critical of Trump). Like Trump, Hannity is playing the victim — of the media (read: liberal media) that wants to bring him down.
Beyond that victim subtext, though, it makes sense for Hannity to group himself with Trump and O’Reilly. All three are rich white alpha males who are used to getting to say whatever they want, no matter how outlandish, and getting away with absolutely anything and everything. Remember Trump’s campaign-trail declaration that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”? (A variant of that theory was put to the test on Thursday when Trump-backed GOP candidate Greg Gianforte, a multimillionaire businessman, won a special election for Montana’s House seat despite facing assault charges for body-slamming a reporter who dared question him the day before about the GOP healthcare bill.)
Back in 2015 in a New Republic essay, Jeet Heer wrote, “Rather than a populist, Trump is the voice of aggrieved privilege — of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women. … Far from being a defender of the little people against the elites, Trump plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors.”
When Trump, the ultimate RWAM, took the White House, it was supposed to mean rising boats (er, yachts) for all RWAMs — especially the RWAMs who are attitudinally just like Trump (e.g., O’Reilly and Hannity). But it hasn’t quite been working out that way, has it? That’s because there are larger forces — demographic forces — at play in American culture that continue to erode the RWAM system regardless of the quirks of the Electoral College and the curious loyalty of Trump’s PWAM (poor white alpha male) base.
And so Trump flails — shoving and lurching his way through his first overseas trip, leaving a trail of scorn and resentment in his wake, as his agenda at home continues to stall, and his media champions, including O’Reilly and Hannity, get slapped down.
The rich white alpha male shtick worked brilliantly for RWAMs in a world in which RWAMs controlled most media. It was a world of little or no consequences for these guys — whether they were grabbing women “by the pussy” or pushing crackpot conspiracy theories.
Imagine the searing existential pain of feeling that sort of privilege — a sort of gold-plated “Get Out of Jail Free” card — getting yanked away.
I almost — almost — want to tell Hannity, O’Reilly and Trump, “I feel your pain.”
Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.