30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years: Sean Hannity

By A.J. Katz Comment

To mark the 15th anniversary of TVNewser this month, Adweek honored the 30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years, spotlighting the personalities and execs who were instrumental in the industry’s incredible decade-and-a-half evolution. TVNewser will be presenting expanded versions of each honoree’s interview.

Sean Hannity

  • Job now: Host, Hannity, Fox News Channel
  • Job 15 years ago: Host, Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel

Adweek: What were you doing 15 years ago (in January 2004)?
Hannity: I was preparing to help with the re-election of George Bush. I knew that was going to be a tough re-elect, and my passion is politics. I’m not even a Republican, I’m a registered Conservative but I felt that in the years after 9/11, those were tough years and we faced a lot of challenges. I don’t think any of us will ever be the same again after we lived through that, covered that, and lost friends that day. I lost friends that day. It’s hard. I thought that the issues at hand were paramount. That was my main focus at that time, and keeping that in place. I never really believed John Kerry had the strength to deal with what was the aftermath of the biggest attack in U.S. history and on U.S. soil.

What’s your favorite professional moment of the past 15 years?
I thought I did a very thorough job vetting President Obama when no one would go near it or touch it. I think I was proven to be right, if you look at his 8 years –millions more Americans on food stamps, millions more in poverty, and rise in the national debt. The lowest home ownership rate in 51 years. I think I was right in really getting to know his background, and that would be from Frank Marshall Davis, to Saul Alinsky, to Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn; things on one else was ever asking him. I think I had him pegged early as a rigid and radical ideologue. I thought Bill Clinton grew more in the job than President Obama.

I’ve had some big moments. I emceed the event the night that Newt Gingrich became Speaker, I was a local host in Atlanta.

I also think the work we did in the last year in a half on the “Deep State,” and the corruption and abuse of power is important. We have exposed a lot of corruption, a lot of abuse of power that everyone else ignores, so generally speaking, I cover issues that others don’t, and that’s how we separate ourselves and do our own thing.

What is the biggest way that TV news has changed over the past 15 years?
Well, I would say that network news is done; when they decide to pull the trigger and say, “forget it, it’s not worth it.” And I also believe that journalism in the traditional sense… and I don’t care if you want to go back to [David] Brinkley for crying out loud, or [Tim] Russert. I actually think Russert was a great journalist. Peter Jennings slanted a little “left,” [Tom] Brokaw slanted a little “left,” but these guys were pros. But I think that especially with cable, everything is now “opinion.” But they won’t identify themselves as “opinion.”

If you ask me what I do for a living, I will tell you I’m a talk show host, and I do straight news reporting on plenty of topics very often, on radio and TV; straight up covering a hurricane; straight up covering a war. That’s reporting. I’m also going to do investigative reporting. I also do strong “opinion.” I do other things as well, like sports sometimes, pop culture issues. The analogy I use is: I’m a newspaper, and I’m telling you upfront that I’m going to do reporting, investigative reporting, “opinion,” and I think everyone is trying to sell themselves as journalists, and they’re not. They are “opinion people” who pose as journalists. There has been a massive shift in the lines in terms of what people call journalism and what that used to represent.

I think I’m more honest than they are. I’m upfront about who I am, what I do. It’s very clear demarcation if I’m just doing news that night and asking important questions that any good reporter would ask, then I’m giving an opening monologue full of my opinions that are based on facts and information. Everything I do gets checked.

Who have you learned the most from in your career? What did they teach you?
My formative years for news were really the late night hours I spent listening to talk radio. Guys like Barry Farber, Barry Gray. Then, in later years it would be Jerry Williams, Gene Burns, David Brudnoy, Bob Grant, Rush Limbaugh. They all had different, unique special personalities and points of view. I came up in that school. I don’t really watch these other shows. I usually like to watch news in the morning, but after that I have 3 or 4 channels on at once, but the sound is down as I’m doing a 3-hour radio program so I don’t have much time to watch anybody.

Who are some competitors you most admire?
Again, I think they’re all “opinion people,” and that’s especially true in cable. They’re all claiming that they’re not, and it’s a joke. I don’t even think deep down in their heart they believe that they’re journalists anymore.

I’ll be honest, I have a collegial, friendly relationship with everybody, but I don’t really watch their shows. I don’t want to watch their shows. I don’t want to be influenced by what other people do. Now, my staff spends a lot of time – I’ll have them watch shows for me and we pick out the craziest sh*t they say, and I’m glad to play it because it shows how nuts they are; and we have fun with it, but that’s the extent of my viewing, to be honest. I wish them all the best. Life’s not predicated on somebody else’s failure.

If you ask me who my competitors are, I’m going to tell you, Monday Night Football. I’ll tell you, The World Series. Any shows that become a phenomenon – Regis Philbin and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Now THAT was heavy competition. Or when American Idol started. And you would really see a direct result. I don’t think there’s any news competitor that is a direct competitor to me in terms of what I do. I don’t believe their success or my success is predicated on anything but what the news might be and how you deliver it; the show you present. And maybe some of these other events that might pull my audience away, sporting events, like Monday Night Football, which always has gotten good ratings and that always gives you a little bit of a hit.

What do you know now about the business that you didn’t 15 years ago?
I came to this as a novice, and I was very lucky to get in on the ground floor because in this day and age, you’re going to get a show, and that show’s first-night ratings are going to be everywhere. That wasn’t the case when we first went on the air, and I had the time to grow. Credit to Roger [Ailes], who gave me the opportunity to develop. I often asked him: ‘Why didn’t you fire me? I was terrible!’ He said, ‘Because I knew you’d get there.’ Having that time to get there doesn’t exist anymore, which is tough for younger people that are coming in.

What has been your toughest professional challenge during the past 15 years, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve done four on-air hours a day since October 1996. For me, it’s to stay disciplined and to accept and absorb the grind of all of it. The news comes at us faster than the speed of light today. The toughest challenge is sustaining that daily momentum and not allowing yourself to get distracted. I never get too high or too low. I’m a real believer in: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And you have to build a great show.

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