Efforts to get Fox News to fire commentator Sean Hannity have intensified in recent days, amid allegations that the network collaborated with the White House in promulgating a conspiracy theory that sought to cast blame on Democratic operatives for the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was killed while walking home from a bar in Washington, D.C.
A lawsuit filed by private investigator Rod Wheeler alleges that Fox News and the Trump administration effectively used him to legitimate the theory that Rich was killed for providing DNC emails to WikiLeaks. In his complaint, Wheeler says the intended effect was to ameliorate the growing pressure of the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.
Hannity used his prime time program to push the Rich conspiracy theory, even as no evidence materialized that the slain 24-year-old had contact with WikiLeaks. At the time, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America launched an online campaign to pressure advertisers into dropping sponsorship of Hannity’s program. A similar campaign against Hannity’s prime time colleague Bill O’Reilly proved successful earlier this year, leading at least in part to his departure from the network.
The rising prominence of the site Fire Hannity suggests a redoubling of those efforts—this time independent of Media Matters, though using similar tactics. The site was founded by the Democratic Coalition, whose executive director, Nate Lerner, on Thursday told me flatly of Hannity’s coverage of the Rich murder: “I absolutely believe he knowingly used false info and quotes to enhance his story.”
Although FoxNews.com retracted the online story that was the basis of Hannity’s reporting—and that is at the center of Wheeler’s lawsuit—network executives have denied charges of quote fabrication. They have also stood by Hannity, who has not reported on the Rich murder since late May, despite promising his viewers “updates” on the case.
Fire Hannity, which launched in July and more recently had a social media “relaunch,” is adopting the playbook used to depose O’Reilly last spring, as allegations about his sexual misconduct accrued into a damning narrative of longstanding impropriety. “Our goal is for Hannity to meet the same fate as O’Reilly,” Lerner says. He intends to reach that goal with a comprehensive list of Hannity’s advertisers, including contact information and social media handles, thereby facilitating the kind of grassroots campaign that, the activist hopes, will pressure those advertisers into fleeing Hannity.
A spokesperson for Fox News did not answer a request for comment regarding the advertising boycott campaign. A potential departure of advertisers aside, Hannity has been losing in the nightly ratings battle to liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, according to AdWeek.
Traffic to Fire Hannity is relatively meager, with 100,000 visitors since mid-June, when the site launched. But traffic to the site has tripled to 6,000 visitors per day in August, suggesting renewed interest in a boycott concomitant with Wheeler’s lawsuit. Far more important than website traffic, though, is social media visibility, including a succesful effort to make #FireHannity a trending topic on Twitter earlier this week. Lerner says that Fire Hannity did not pay to promote any of its tweets on Twitter, and that the trending of #FireHannity was “entirely organic.” It helps, of course, that some of the most prominent anti-Trump voices on Twitter, including Scott Dworkin and Jon Cooper, happen to be members of the Democratic Coalition.
Lerner estimates that the combined efforts of Media Matters and Fire Hannity have resulted in Hannity losing perhaps 14 of his 150 advertisers since spring. He says his goal is to target “familiar” brand names that continue to sponsor Hannity's program, including Nissan, Capital One and DirectTV, among others.
I asked Lerner about the potential accusation that he was using a heckler’s veto to silence Hannity. He disputed that characterization of his efforts.
“Sean Hannity and Fox News have the right to say whatever they want,” Lerner says, “but that doesn’t entitle them to support and money from advertisers. We are holding Hannity, Fox News and their advertisers accountable for their actions and words.”