Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives in National Harbor, Md., in March.

Has Sean Hannity's Trump support crossed the line?

Conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity has been a vocal supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, but critics, and now the Fox News network, say he’s overstepped the bounds of his position.

Fox News host Sean Hannity pledged his support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump months ago, but the extent to which he shows it could become a problem with his network.

This markedly divisive election cycle has emboldened many commentators to take a more public political stance than in past elections. NPR commentator Cokie Roberts' column outlining her opposition to Mr. Trump drew ire from conservatives and prompted NPR to issue a clarification of her role at the company as a commentator, not a journalist. Mr. Hannity is also considered a commentator and therefore free to voice his opinion. His appearance in an advertisement for the Trump campaign, however, appears to have crossed a line for Fox executives, and could spell legal trouble for the network, some political scientists say.

Appearing for a 30-second spot in an eight-minute-long ad titled “#HEARTLAND4TRUMP,” uploaded to the candidate's YouTube channel on Sunday, Mr. Hannity detailed why he supports Mr. Trump.

One of the reasons I’m supporting Donald Trump this year is, number one, he’s going to put originalists on the Supreme Court, people that believe in fidelity to the Constitution, separation of powers, co-equal branches of government. He’s a guy that will vet refugees to keep Americans safe. And, of course, he’s gonna build that wall. He says he’s gonna have Mexico pay for it. That’s fine, as long as we secure the country and, of course, we don’t want people competing for jobs. He said he will eliminate Obamacare, make us energy-independent. And as somebody who’s been a marksman since I’m 11 years old, protecting our Second Amendment rights are paramount to me.

But it’s possible that Hannity, who openly expressed his support for Donald Trump with a public Twitter endorsement in May, may have gone too far by appearing in the ad. Many see Fox News as an outlet for conservative views, with its primetime hosts like Hannity, in particular, serving roles as commentators first and reporters second, but that doesn’t mean the network was thrilled to see one of its hosts blatantly advocating for a candidate.

We were not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement to Politico.

While Hannity has responded to criticism of bias by declaring that he “never claimed to be a journalist,” but rather an opinionated show host, his position of power on a network that dubs itself a journalistic outlet raises questions about where the limits on Hannity’s involvement with Trump’s campaign should lie.

It is not the popular host's first brush with news ethics. In 2010, Roger Ailes, then the chairman and chief executive of Fox, stopped Hannity from taping his show at a Tea Party fundraiser that required paid tickets in Cincinnati, Ohio. During the current campaign, the host told The New York Times he has advised Trump's team, although "I don't say anything privately that I don't say publicly."

But now, “He has crossed a line,” David D’Alessio, an associate professor of communications at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “He allowed the campaign to have a more or less unfettered channel to the public. His behavior is literally ethically inappropriate.”

In the ad, Hannity espouses Trump by acknowledging how the candidate’s proposed policies fall in line with his personal views. That’s different from his appearances on the network, where he quotes the candidate.

“When he’s on the network, he’s saying ‘Trump said.’ He can attribute the statements,” says Dr. D’Alessio, the author of "Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, 1948-2008." But Hannity using his own words' influence to support the candidate is “a whole separate category of ethical violation,” he says.

If Hannity takes his explicit advocacy of Trump from the ad to the network, Fox and its host could become ensnared in a legal issue. Were the host to continue to advocate for Trump and predominantly showcase the candidate over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton on his show, that could violate the equal-time rule, a provision under the Federal Communications Commission that TV and radio outlets must provide an equivalent opportunity for airtime to any opposing candidates who request it.

And if Fox News switches lanes from reporting on the campaign to advocating for Trump's election, airtime given to the Republican candidate could fall under the umbrella of in-kind contributions, which include a donation of supplies, resources, or anything of value, to a candidate. 

Such legal action being taken is unlikely, but Fox could be acting out of precaution for such a scenario, Dan Cassino, Dan Cassino, an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., tells the Monitor.

“If you give an in-kind contribution, you have to report that to the IRS,” he says. “You have to put a value on it. For the Trump campaign, you’re now giving contributions from Fox News. They [Fox News] don’t necessarily want that.”

Fox’s insistence that Hannity cease his involvement with political advertising could stem from not just a push to preserve journalistic ethics, but also to avoid a legal dilemma. 

“Fox News has fairly studiously maintained that they are not advocating any candidate,” Dr. Cassino says. “If [Hannity] is simply speaking as a commentator, that’s really no different than a newspaper saying that they endorse this candidate. Part of the difference there is that the candidate isn’t involved with that at all.”

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