In case you missed it, Fox News’ (so-called) Sean Hannity provided some excellent moral instruction in his recent abusive “interview” with Ward Churchill, who appeared with David Horowitz on Hannity and Colmes (April 6, 2006) following the pair’s George Washington University debate on the place of politics in the classroom.
Hannity launched his assault on Churchill by breaking his word. Churchill had accepted an invitation to appear on the show on the condition that it would focus on the debate with Horowitz. And Churchill had explicitly declined Hannity’s previous invitations to appear and talk about the former’s post-9/11 essay, in which he argued the obvious fact that America is not an innocent actor, an innocent superpower, on the world’s stage.
Hannity immediately abandoned his promise to discuss the debate and launched instead into an absurdly a-contextual, ad hominem attack on Churchill, prodding and taunting him to recant statements he made about 9/11 victims shortly after the attacks, and shrilly, preposterously, accusing him of having no soul.
When Churchill, showing remarkable restraint and grace under fire, reminded Hannity of their agreement to focus on the topic of the George Washington debate, and assuring him that he would mind his own soul, Hannity simply ignored his objection and pressed on. Putting aside the question of whether Sean Hannity is fit to pass judgment on anyone else’s soul, he certainly illuminated for his audience the very essence of dishonorable, failing fundamentally to keep his word-as in “word of honor.” The dishonorable content of Hannity’s character was clear to anyone watching the show, especially as he upbraided Churchill for his reluctance to engage in a conversation that Hannity himself had promised would not take place.
A couple of year as ago, I happened to see Bill O’Reilly pull the same bait and switch trick on Angela Davis, whom he had invited on to the fair and balanced O’ Reilly Factor on the false pretense to discuss her views on America’s prison system, only to mount a loud, bullying attack on Davis’s curriculum vitae, repeatedly spitting out the word “professor” with derision, in the same way Hannity pronounced when addressing Churchill–as an insult rather than a professional title. Like Churchill, Davis objected to O’Reilly’s deception, his dishonorable behavior, but O’Reilly ignored her, as well. When neither the fact nor reason is on your side, attack the person, especially when you can interrupt and cut that person, your guest, off at will. (What lovely hosts our right wing media personalities make.)
As Hannity badgered Churchill incessantly for the duration of the segment, he ignored his other guest so entirely that sidekick Alan Colmes felt compelled to apologize to Horowitz. I can’t be sure, and maybe Horowitz himself will say, but one got the feeling that even the dditor of FrontPage was embarrassed by Hannity’s dishonorable, uncivilized treatment of Churchill, with whom we know Horowitz fundamentally disagrees. Could this may have been a difficult moment for Horowitz, who effectively played, in this instance, Prospero to Hannity’s Caliban, to find himself so closely cozied up to the far right. Clear to all watching, Hannity could not have cared less that Horowitz was standing right next to Churchill, even though both were his “guests.”
But the instructive spectacle of Hannity’s ad hominem sucker-punch to Churchill, whose own somewhat difficult personality seemed charming in contrast, was just the warm-up to Hannity’s primary lesson on character.
His main point-the most important thing we can learn from Hannity about character-was deftly conveyed in his method, through his behavior. Like all great teachers, Hannity does not tell us how we should never behave or what behavior we should fear above all other: he models it for us.
In his attack on Churchill, he demonstrated every content of character that we hope will be absent in our friends, our leaders, and ourselves: he was deceptive, he bullied, he didn’t listen, he manipulated the data, he took the other’s words out of context, he was excessively domineering, and he assumed an absolute moral high ground. Where in the world, one might wonder, did Hannity learn that such content of character can in the United States take you right to the top? What famous teacher has he studied under?
Thanks, Sean Hannity, for reminding this “professor” (spitting out the title like snake venom) how not to behave in class, or anywhere else, and for helping us all see that Ward Churchill, despite his questionable rhetorical choices post-9/11, is at core a thoughtful, ethical human being who evidently feels deeply and profoundly for all victims of violence in the world.
TOM KERR teaches Rhetoric and Writing at Ithaca College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org