“I’m a journalist who interviews people who I disagree with all the time.”
– Sean Hannity, 2008
“I never claimed to be a journalist.”
– Sean Hannity, 2016
WASHINGTON – Not since lawmakers diagnosed Terri Schiavo’s condition from the Senate floor has there been such medical quackery in the political realm.
Last week, Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald reported that a letter attesting to Donald Trump’s magnificent health (he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”) was not from an internist but from a gastroenterologist. This belly doctor boasted that “Mr. Trump has had a recent complete medical examination that showed only positive results.” Like for giardia?
That followed a segment on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News Channel in which the host elicited speculation about Hillary Clinton’s neurological health from … a urologist. The urinary-tract specialist, part of a “Fox News Medical A-Team,” speculated for Hannity that a photo of the Democratic presidential nominee being assisted by her Secret Service detail while climbing stairs could indicate dehydration, arthritis, back pain or a fall. (The original photo caption said she merely stumbled and was caught by her agents.)
I’m not a doctor, but my brother is a urologist, and I went to night school for bartending. By current standards, therefore, I am qualified to diagnose Hannity as having professional dissociative identity disorder: He can’t decide whether he’s a journalist or a Trump operative.
In Monday’s New York Times, the prime-time TV news host admitted to media columnist Jim Rutenberg that he has been privately advising Trump. Hannity, who, according to CNN, paid for a private jet last month to fly Newt Gingrich to meet with Trump, told Rutenberg that his unabashed promotion of Trump isn’t a problem because he “never claimed to be a journalist.” Except that he had. And he plays a journalist on television for an hour each weeknight.
The affliction is common, apparently. Stephen Bannon, the head of Breitbart News, has become the chief executive of Trump’s campaign. Fox News founder Roger Ailes, just ousted, is advising the campaign, too.
The overt campaigning for Trump by the likes of Hannity, Ailes and Bannon does no favors for conservatism. And Hannity’s collusion with the candidate and his peddling of conspiracy theories in support of Trump undermine the many serious journalists at Fox News.
But the network has been here before. Remember Glenn Beck? “I tell you all the time: I’m not a journalist,” the self-proclaimed “rodeo clown” liked to tell his Fox News audience.
Instead of journalism, Beck gave viewers paranoia – helping to create the fear and loathing in the electorate that gave rise to Trump. Before Fox finally showed him the door in 2011, Beck urged viewers to hoard food in their homes, spun endless conspiracy theories, and played with anti-Semitic stereotypes and violent imagery.
Now Trump has run with Beck’s apocalyptic themes – alarming even Beck, who has become a fierce critic of Trump. When Beck said recently that the Trump campaign’s then-chairman, Paul Manafort, had been illegally soliciting foreign money, Hannity’s Fox News colleague Bill O’Reilly, another Trump booster, cautioned Beck that he could “end up in jail” for disparaging Manafort.
“That’s my point,” Beck replied, adding: “Donald Trump has people chanting, ‘Put them in jail, put them in jail,’ about the press. When is someone’s opinion on a public figure something that is jail-worthy and not First Amendment protected?”
Such a question might have troubled Hannity during those occasions when he fancied himself a journalist over the years. Instead, he has gone full Grassy Knoll, in a manner reminiscent of Beck. In recent days, he has floated the theories that Clinton’s Secret Service agents carried a syringe to administer anti-seizure medicine to her (the “syringe” turned out to be a flashlight) and that a video showing what Hannity claimed were “violent, out-of-control movements” of Clinton’s head was evidence of a seizure (she had been joking with reporters).
While we’re doing conspiracy theories, here’s another: Could the highly unpopular Trump have won the GOP nomination if he hadn’t had so much help from Fox News – and, in particular, from Hannity?
A tally in April by the liberal ThinkProgress blog found that Trump appeared on Hannity’s show 41 times in the first 10 months of his campaign. Hannity talked up Trump’s poll numbers, defended Trump against accusations and asked him questions such as “Is it time for all American politicians to get rid of political correctness?”
Now that Hannity acknowledges advising Trump, he needs only a title to make his role official. Maybe he could be Trump’s personal physician?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.