Sean Hannity’s prominence as a national pundit is a testament to the persistence of racism in America. With his own impressive record of racist episodes (One People’s Project, 9/24/11), Hannity also plays an important role as a champion of racists.
His television and radio shows feature a parade of pundit grotesques who join the host in condemning African-Americans, the group that receives the brunt of his bigotry. In this capacity, Hannity also acts as a sort of one-man fire brigade, rushing to extinguish accusations of anti-black racism, and defending, exonerating or rehabilitating the racists behind the words and deeds.
Routinely casting black people as villains, even in stories in which they are obviously victims, Hannity just as regularly casts people who have victimized African-Americans as hapless, persecuted victims themselves. Black people who have been clearly wronged are virtually nonexistent in Hannity’s world.
Hannity has been all in for George Zimmerman since the story of his killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin broke. Before Zimmerman had even been arrested, Hannity oddly claimed that there had been a “rush to judgment” in the case (Hannity, 3/27/12).
Hannity’s Fox News show has featured more than 50 segments on the story, including extended, separate and friendly interviews with George Zimmerman and his father. Hannity has hosted Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara several times, even allowing him to pitch for contributions to his client’s defense fund (Hannity, 2/5/13).
“There is a mountain of evidence supporting George Zimmerman not being a racist,” Hannity declared (7/23/13) of the man who once called 911 to report the “suspicious activity” of a black child under the age of 10 (Daily Beast, 3/22/13). As a sample of this mountain, Hannity (NewsHounds, 7/15/13) has offered, “Didn’t George Zimmerman date a black woman, take one to the prom?”
Perennial Hannity guest Ann Coulter—who has called the president “Flavor Flav” (Huffington Post, 2/10/12) and argued that Martin was killed because he attempted to mug Zimmerman (7/17/13)—joined Hannity (7/11/13) in agreeing that George Zimmerman’s mistreatment was analogous to the three white Duke University students falsely accused of rape by a black woman in 2006. Neither let the little problem of the actual dead teenager spoil their analogy.
Nor, despite the fact that they were in a studio 11 blocks from Central Park at the time, did either mention the Central Park Five: five black and Latino teens who served prison time for a rape and assault they didn’t commit.
Hannity and company’s concern for the “wronged” virtually never extends to black people. Extra! couldn’t find a single segment in which Hannity addressed the growing number of inmates freed from prison, in many cases from death row, because of emerging exculpatory evidence, including DNA analysis—a disproportionate number of whom are men of color. It’s a pattern that puts the lie to Hannity’s concern-trolling over murder victims in Chicago, a talking point raised by the host in six of his last 10 segments about the Martin killing (e.g., Hannity, 7/22/13, 7/19/13).
During several segments about Martin’s killing, Hannity has maintained that his death was a sort of tragic accident (e.g., 7/19/12, 7/17/13), even if he generally refrained from calling Martin a victim. But on his radio show (Huffington Post, 7/19/13) after Barack Obama remarked that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Hannity went off, dropping all pretense and ignoring Obama’s obvious point about the profiling of black males to indulge in racist stereotypes:
Now the president’s saying, “Trayvon could’ve been me 35 years ago.” This is a particularly helpful comment. Is the president admitting that, I guess because he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow—I’m not sure how to interpret, because we know that Trayvon had been smoking pot that night.
Actually, “we” do not know that Martin had been smoking marijuana the night he died. Traces of THC were found in his blood, but at levels so low they indicated that Martin had probably not been smoking marijuana in the previous 24 hours (New York Times, 7/11/13).
Racism has been an enduring theme on Hannity’s shows because the host surrounds himself with racists. Take ’70s rocker Ted Nugent, whom Hannity calls a “friend and frequent guest on the program.” When Nugent said on Hannity (10/13/08) that he’d like to kill undocumented immigrants he claims are armed and “invading” the U.S.—“I’d like to shoot them dead”—Hannity never blinked.
Nugent describes “real” Americans as “working-hard, playing-hard, white motherfucking shit-kickers who are independent” (Media Matters, 10/1/12); denounces Obama voters as “pimps, whores and welfare brats” (Rolling Stone, 11/7/12); and says Trayvon Martin was a “17-year-old dope-smoking, racist gangsta wannabe” (Huffington Post, 7/15/13). Nugent wrote in a column (Rare, 7/18/13) that “the only racism perpetrated that night was by Trayvon Martin, and everyone knows it.”
In 2007, Nugent took machine guns on stage, ranting that Barack Obama was “a piece of shit” who should suck on his gun and that Hillary Clinton was a “worthless bitch” who should ride his gun “into the sunset” (Rolling Stone, 8/24/07). When Fox News liberal Bob Beckel pressed Hannity to distance himself from Nugent, he responded: “No, I like Ted Nugent. He’s a friend of mine.”
A few years later, when the rapper Common was invited to the Obama White House for a poetry event, Hannity (5/10/11) played the prig, expressing outrage that Common’s violent and profane lyrics might sully White House decorum and be heard by children: “This is not a good message for our kids. This is not the guy that you invite to the White House for poetry reading. This is the guy that we don’t want our kids to listen to.”
Hannity was also shocked at Common’s use of the word “nigger” in lyrics—which is odd, because another Hannity friend and frequent guest is Mark Fuhrman, who gained notoriety because of his profligate use of the same word (Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/14/96). Fuhrman, a former detective, was convicted of felony perjury for lying under oath during the O.J. Simpson trial about his routine use of the word “nigger.”
Hannity had Fuhrman on shortly before the Zimmerman verdict (Hannity, 7/16/13) to discuss whether black people would riot in the case of a not guilty verdict (Extra!, 8/13, p. 4). “Mark, it seems to me like it’s going to be a dangerous scenario for the cities where this is going to occur,” said Hannity. Fuhrman replied, “I think you’re right, Sean,” and discussed how protesters might misbehave, concluding, “You know, assaulting people, assaulting officers, so when you cross that line, it’s pretty obvious, and, you know, this is completely drawn on racial lines now.”
Hannity’s most bizarre go-to guest on racism is Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a reactionary black minister from Southern California who has said that “one of the greatest mistakes America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote”; he says he is thankful for slavery, particularly to “the white man, for going there and getting us and bringing us here” (NewsHounds, 3/11/12, 3/15/12). Peterson maintains that “most black people today are racist” (Media Matters, 10/21/08).
In a 2005 World Net Daily column (9/21/05), Peterson blamed Katrina deaths on black people, and boasted how he’d once told a National Association of Black Journalists convention that “if whites were to just leave the United States and let blacks run the country, they would turn America into a ghetto within 10 years.” But, Peterson wrote, “I gave blacks too much credit, it took a mere three days for blacks to turn the Superdome and the convention center into ghettos, rampant with theft, rape and murder.” (Besides the racism, Peterson’s description of the Superdome as rampant with violent crime has been soundly debunked—Extra!, 11/05.)
In one Hannity appearance (10/21/09), Peterson called Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “racist poverty pimps.” In another (8/6/08), discussing a 2009 Tennessee Democratic primary race, he told Hannity that most African-Americans in Tennessee, particularly in the Memphis area, “are still living in the ’50s and ’60s. They are so racist that they don’t even realize that white Americans have moved on.” On Barack Obama’s election, Peterson told Hannity (2/3/09) that “Obama was elected mostly by black racists and white guilty people.” Hannity is “a proud board member” of BOND, Peterson’s not-for-profit group (Hannity, 10/21/10).
It’s easy to understand the value Hannity sees in being able to turn to Peterson and a larger stable of only slightly less demented black reactionaries when he needs someone to trash African-Americans. But if Hannity thinks these guests inoculate him against charges of racism, he may be underestimating the intelligence of those living outside his Fox News bubble.
Regular viewers of Fox can lose perspective on just how off-kilter the channel is, as a recent CNN appearance by Peterson helped demonstrate. On Piers Morgan’s show (7/18/13), Peterson recklessly attacked Trayvon Martin:
This notion that Trayvon Martin was some little innocent kid tiptoeing through the tulips.... It’s an absolute lie.... Trayvon Martin was a thug. His parents know that. You know that. I know that.
When Morgan demanded Peterson produce evidence of Martin’s thuggery, Peterson pointed to pictures on Martin’s Facebook page where Martin was “holding on to a gun” and had “pot in front of him.” This seemed to pique Morgan’s anger:
How do you know what he was like? How do you know? I mean, you’re saying everyone in America that has ever taken cannabis or ever been pictured with a gun is a thug—is that your conclusion?... Well, the problem is, Reverend Peterson, that you’re basically reacting the same way that George Zimmerman did. We don’t know that he was racially motivated. We do know that he looked at Trayvon Martin and started talking about A-holes and f-ing punks getting away with it. That’s how he saw Trayvon Martin. That’s exactly how you see Trayvon Martin. You saw him as a horrible nasty thug who got what was coming to him. There is no evidence that that is the case.
Though CNN has had its own bigoted moments (Extra!, 8/13, 11/08), Morgan’s response would have seemed out of place on Fox News. The segment concluded with the two other guests, Central Park Five member Raymond Santana and Rev. Liz Walker, a black pastor from Boston, shaking their heads in puzzlement over Peterson, with Rev. Walker wondering: “Who is this man? Where did you get this man from?”
It’s impossible to know George Zimmerman’s state of mind the night he killed Trayvon Martin. But there are several clear cases in which Hannity has come to the aid of flagrant racists and those who have attacked and slurred black people.
In 1997, when Haitian immigrant Abner Louima accused NYPD officers of sodomizing and badly injuring him with a wooden rod after falsely accusing him of assaulting a white police officer Hannity brought the full power of his radio show to the defense of the accused officers and mounted a vicious counter-offensive. The father of chief defendant Justin Volpe appeared on Hannity’s show throughout the 1999 trial, where the host and guests aired rumors that Louima’s injuries resulted, not from police brutality, but from a “gay sex act.”
Playing on the homosexual rumor and inconsistencies in Louima’s story, Hannity and his producer sang a parody of Lionel Richie’s song “Three Times a Lady,” changing the words to “you’re once, twice, three times a liar.” Hannity only stopped calling the victim “Lying Louima” after Volpe confessed to sodomizing Louima with the help of another officer (Extra!, 11/03).
Hannity’s “friend” Don Imus (Hannity, 4/16/10) made a radio career of racist remarks (FAIR Action Alert, 4/19/07). Imus once told 60 Minutes he’d hired sidekick Bernard McGuirk to write “nigger jokes” for his show. (McGuirk is currently a regular panelist on Hannity.) But Imus didn’t get in real trouble until he called the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” at which point CBS dropped him (Imus in the Morning, 4/4/07; Media Matters, 4/4/07).
Hannity came to his friend’s rescue, painting Imus as a free speech martyr (Hannity & Colmes, 4/13/07), wondering if he might “only be the first victim of a new movement to control what broadcasters say on the airwaves.” Next, Hannity trained his sights on Imus critics, changing the subject to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton: “The people that are leading the charge to get him fired...have controversial backgrounds.... They really are not the people with the moral authority to be leading the charge.”
Indeed, when a prominent white person is in trouble for racist remarks, particularly if they are a friend of Hannity’s—a disturbingly common occurrence—one of the host’s key tactics is changing the subject to black racism. This usually means resurrecting years- or even decades-old remarks, long since apologized for, by civil rights activists, including Sharpton and Jackson. In Hannity’s world, as Nugent and Peterson attest, the racists are black people.
Take the case of Duane “Dog” Chapman, the star of the A&E’s now-defunct Dog the Bounty Hunter, who got in trouble for a phone message in which he demanded his son break up with his black girlfriend (National Enquirer, 6/6/07):
I don’t care if she’s a Mexican, a whore or whatever. It’s not because she’s black, it’s because we use the word “nigger” sometimes here. I’m not gonna take a chance ever in life of losing everything I’ve worked for for 30 years because some fucking nigger heard us say nigger and turned us in to the Enquirer magazine.
Chapman’s pathetic effort to say that he and his co-workers weren’t racists—later in the message, he said, “We don’t mean you fucking scum niggers without a soul”—was enough for Hannity. “He’s on the street. He uses salty language,” said Hannity (11/2/07; NewsHounds, 11/4/07). “He admits it. And this is part of that language, and he wanted everybody to know, it is the equivalent to him of cursing, not an insult to people based on race.”
A few days later (11/6/07), Hannity devoted his entire show to an interview with Chapman; a week later (12/14/07), with Chapman on the show again, Hannity provided his guest with a leading question:
Is there context and texture to people that are in a street environment where they use the A-, B-, C-, D-, E-, F-, G-, all the way down to the N-word? Is this context and texture in terms of somebody using that word but doesn’t mean it in a racial context?
Among the prerogatives of white privilege is apparently the right to determine who is and isn’t a racist, and when and if they are to be penalized or redeemed. When the news broke that Food Network star Paula Deen had admitted to routinely using the word “nigger” and fantasizing about hosting a slavery-themed wedding for her brother, Hannity (6/24/13) introduced a segment about her firing like this: “Chef Paula Deen is fired after admitting that she used a racial slur. Many of her fans are outraged and believed the Food Network overreacted. We’ll debate that controversial topic.”
Deen may have lost her job, but the story is not over. With one workplace discrimination lawsuit in the pipeline and several other black former Deen employees pondering suits, bets are open for how many segments Hannity will devote to the trial, if it comes to that, and which Deen family members will join the Fox News host to talk about who the real racists are.