Sean Hannity Wants To “Hannitize” America [11/4/02]
Unquestionably conservative, undeniably anti-liberal, irrefutably firm in his belief in all that’s “right” in America, Sean Hannity also is unmistakably “king of afternoon drive talk radio.” After just fourteen months in national syndication—his network program debuted September 10, 2001—Sean Hannity’s Tuned In To America is now playing on more than 230 affiliates across the U.S. on the ABC Radio Networks. Meanwhile, his book, Let Freedom Ring, has been sitting near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks now, and his Fox News Network talk show, Hannity and Colmes, continues to be one of the most successful news/talk shows on cable television.
Hannity got his start in commercial radio by placing a “job wanted” ad in Radio & Records, billing himself as “the most talked about college radio host in America.” A small station in Huntsville, Alabama took a chance on the brash young voice with the Reagan-esque ideals, and quickly prepared him for his next gig at WGST in Atlanta. While there he attracted the attention of WABC-New York and the Fox News Channel, and in 1996 Hannity moved to the Big Apple to co-host Hannity and Colmes on the fledgling Fox network. He subsequently joined WABC in 1997, and quickly became one of the top personalities on New York’s AM dial.
Then ABC Radio Networks came along and started looking at Hannity for a possible syndication gig. “When we were back trying to decide whether or not to syndicate him, I had lunch with him,” recalls ABC Radio Networks President Traug Keller. “I wanted to find out what kind of guy he was, and the most important test for me was whether he was a radio guy or a TV guy? It was clear from the get-go that radio is in his blood, always has been, and always will be.” That affinity for radio is what Keller says has been one of the true benefits of taking him pout into syndication. “Sean really gets what a program director needs. He understands how to build cume and TSL, but he also knows that you have to cut liners, local spots—all the little things that endear him to all the news and talk directors out there.”
Born and raised in the New York area, Hannity says he loves “every cliché about this wild, wacky, wonderful city.” As much as he loves New York, however, on an even deeper level he admits to being a proud American. “I believe in the American dream, the American ideal, the unique American culture, and traditional American values…the conservative vision is that America return to its founding principles, because these principles are the pillars of freedom.”
In direct contrast to the values of the conservative right, “the views of the American left—and the policies that flow from them—aren’t just wrongheaded; they’re reckless,” Hannity writes in Let Freedom Ring. “[And] if the Left succeeds in gaining and retaining more power, the well-being of future generations will be at greater peril…It is therefore our job to stop them. Not just debate them, but defeat them.”
And therein is the stuff of which great talk radio is made. With a style that’s at once affable, entertaining, indignant, arrogant, informed, intelligent, and decidedly passionate, Sean Hannity is a conservative’s conservative—and the man who both his fans and his critics contend has set a course to “Hannitize America.”
There are many theories on why conservative talk works so well on Radio. What’s your take on it?
The obvious answer is the fact that most people believe, and polls have shown, that the media has an institutionalized liberal bias. Because of this, over the years conservatives have sought alternative sources of information and different points of view, and radio is where they have found it. On top of that, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals. In fact, I debate liberals all the time on my program. I invite them on regularly. I had a peacenik on yesterday—one of the Iraq protestors from over the weekend. We have democratic senators and congressmen on all the time, so I’m providing balance, even though I have a conservative point of view. I do believe it’s the institutionalized bias that people see in the mainstream media that has caused so many to seek alternative sources of information.
Where do you think this bias originated?
I don’t know the origins of it, and it doesn’t really matter. But it shows up in a lot of things, such as story selection and the amount of time that’s devoted to a particular topic. If you watch the media over a given period of time you begin to see a consistent pattern, where conservatives are made fun of and their valued are impugned—and they have sought this out to fight back.
From your experience, is this bias found more in television or newspaper?
Prior to Fox this bias has existed more in television than in print, but I don’t think anyone doubts that most of the major newspapers in this country, with a few exceptions—the Washington Times and the New York Post—slant solidly to the left. But if you look at the growth in audience year-in and year-out, there is certainly has been a niche filled. The Fox network gives all sides, and that’s the formula for success. But a lot of people still don’t get it. Look at what some other networks are doing, putting one liberal host on after another. If you look at network news numbers over the years they consistently go down, and why is that? Because when people are afforded another opportunity they make that shift.
Why hasn’t the liberal bias been able to make any real inroads in radio?
I think they tried to do that but it didn’t work. The audience didn’t go for it. Also, liberals tend to take themselves too seriously—they’re banging on tables, all that. Right now if you had a liberal on the radio what would he be saying? That America ought not go to war, and criticizing the president while we’re under attack, and I don’t think they’re resonating with the people. And even some liberals I know think the president is doing a pretty good job on the war on terror and he has moral clarity in wanting to go after Saddam Hussein before he gets nuclear weapons.
There are a lot of different levels of conservatism in politics today. How would you define your brand of conservatism?
I identify myself as an independent compassionate Reagan conservative. He had a very affable, nice, kind demeanor. He was quick with a joke, but he still had his principles and core beliefs and core values. He never wavered in spite of the opposition on tax cuts and building up our nation’s defenses and confronting communism, so wherever that takes me is where it takes me. The thing I admire about Reagan the most is that he had core values, core beliefs, and principles. Even though the left predicted horrible things when he became president—they said he’d destroy the economy and lead us into depression. But we didn’t get the depression they predicted—we got the longest period of economic growth. Similarly, Reagan understood fundamentally that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. Look at some of the things liberals were saying about Reagan when he was running for office—they were calling him a cowboy, they predicted he’d start World War III. But he’d looked at Soviet expansionism, he’d studied their nuclear arsenal and knew it was a threat to freedom, and he stayed true to his own beliefs. When he got into office he pursued SDI, built up our nation’s defenses, walked away from the table at Reykjavik, wanted to deploy and modernize our missiles in Europe, and challenged Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Meanwhile, people like Al Gore and Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt were voting for a nuclear freeze. Lo and behold, Reagan brought the former Soviet Union to its knees.
Reagan aside, can you define what a true conservative believes in and stands for?
Can I define in words what a conservative is? Sure: we believe in limited government and greater freedom. But I’d also like to see uncompromising conservatives with the ability to communicate a message and draw people to their side.
Conversely, how would you define a liberal?
The modern liberal and the modern democrat has abandoned the tradition of, say FDR, Truman, and JFK. If JFK were around today I contend he would be a conservative. He was fighting for lower taxes to increase revenues to the government; that is exactly what Reagan did. He was a staunch anti-communist. We knew that he had the ability to confront evil in his time, like Truman and FDR. What has happened to the modern democrat? I don’t know what has happened, but there has been a radical shift—a departure—from their prior positions. They’re not responsible for terrorist attacks, but their policies are irresponsible and reckless and make us more vulnerable and susceptible.
Can you provide an example of this recklessness?
Sure. If Al Gore and Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt had their way when they voted for that nuclear freeze in 1983, a case could be made that the former Soviet Union, with their stated goal of expansionism and world domination, would still have all those nuclear weapons pointed at us. Also, with the Persian Gulf War a majority of democrats voted against the use of force. The left in the 1990s tried to abolish the CIA; when they couldn’t do that they rendered the agency impotent when they said they couldn’t deal with unsavory characters.
Do you ever disagree with your fellow conservatives?
Actually, I do have a criticism of many modern-day republicans and conservatives. In many ways they’ve lost that Reagan spirit, they’ve lost that Reagan focus. Conservatives can go to Washington and become intoxicated with power just the way democrats do when they build big government programs. Often I find there are too many conservatives who go to Washington with all the right ideas and they fall in love with the power and instead of fighting for the things they believe in, like Reagan did, they end up compromising and offering watered-down versions of democratic socialist proposals.
Do conservatives define the republican party, or is it the other way around?
One thing we have to have is critical independent thinking. And that means when a republican is wrong, if you identify yourself as republican or a conservative, you have to be willing to express it. One of my biggest criticisms during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was that there was hardly a democrat in America who could describe what the words “is” or “alone” meant. These were Clinton Kool-Aid drinkers. I don’t want to see conservative Kool-Aid drinkers; we want independent-thinking, smart conservatives. And sometimes that means going against the party line. You have to think for yourself.
Is that what works so well in talk radio—that ability to speak independently of the party line?
I have found myself behind a microphone disagreeing with President Bush, whom I like a lot. When he abandoned his instincts on school vouchers, I was very critical, and when he was urging Israel to negotiate with people who were terrorists I felt he was abandoning his very own doctrine. And I hear that all across talk radio. There is an independent voice. You do hear libertarian hosts like my friend Neal Boortz, you are getting a variety of opinions. There are some liberals on the radio—Bernie Ward in San Francisco and Alan Colmes, who will be back on the radio soon. It’s not that it’s totally dominated by conservatives, but conservatives tend to be more successful—in part because they’re filling a void.
Is political talk like preaching to the choir, or do you have listeners who disagree with your opinions?
When I started my program yesterday the first thing I did was ask for people who believe Clinton and Gore had a better policy in Iraq than Bush does. I only wanted calls from them, and instantaneously my lines lit up and those were the only callers on the line. And my point was this: in 1998, before Clinton used a little military action against Iraq, he gave a speech to the nation that was almost identical to everything President Bush has said. There is not a show that goes by where we don’t have opposition callers. I try to be nice to everybody. Callers and listeners are your customers, and I try to be nice to them. And sometimes it’s more interesting when I have people who disagree with me.
Liberals blame conservatives and conservatives blame liberals for a lot of today’s political ills. Have we become a nation that’s stuck on blaming others rather than taking responsibility for our own challenges?
Let me answer your question this way: do you think people that are in political power should be held accountable for the position they took? I’ll go back to Reagan one more time: Reagan had fierce opposition when he was seeking to deploy and modernize missiles in Europe. He was mocked and ridiculed when he wanted to do SDI. But he stood firm and the country benefited because of his vision. Now, Al Gore wants to be president and Tom Daschle wants to be president—yet they voted for a nuclear freeze. So why shouldn’t they be held accountable for, or at least reminded of, where their vote was on some defense appropriation bills or intelligence appropriation? I just believe that you hold people accountable. If they vote for tax cuts or increases, let people know their record.
As a conservative do you look at liberals just as people with differing opinions, or do you consider them dead wrong?
There are very different governing philosophies that are battling for power today, and one that makes us more vulnerable or susceptible to future attack and one will ensure the safety and security and liberty and freedom that we have all inherited. Look at the battle over Iraq right now: there are those who don’t want to pre-emptively stop this madman from getting nuclear weapons. Well, I think this is short-sighted and foolish. Debate is healthy—it’s exactly what our founders envisioned, it’s what they designed, and it’s what they went through in their own constitutional convention.
In the last three presidential elections the victor won by less than a majority vote. What kind of challenges does this create when trying to govern a country?
It is what it is. We have a pretty divided country, and most Americans don’t define themselves as right or left. They probably call themselves independent, or moderate. Each and every issue, each person in power has to make their case. People are pretty objective, and if they get all the facts they’ll make their choice, more often than not. I believe you can build a consensus, just as Reagan did. Remember those speeches he would delver the night before crucial votes on tax cuts or defense issues. He had to go out and sell his ideas and drag people kicking and screaming to his side. One thing Americans have shown after this very tight election is they rallied behind the winner. If Al Gore had won we’d be rallying around him, especially at a time of attack or war.
What do your listeners expect from you when they turn on the radio?
My listeners expect an informative, entertaining three hours on the radio. That’s all. And maybe occasionally they even want to be enlightened on the important issues of the day. My shows are focused almost entirely on the news of the day, and that’s what we do best. We do it with the top newsmakers in the country, some strong opinions, a sense of humor, and lots of phone calls. That’s all it really is.
Would you be able to do what you do without a strong liberal element against which to contrast your opinions?
I might have to become an FM jock. Seriously, America historically has always been involved and interested in the important issues of the day, and they really just want to remain engaged. I try to put myself in the place of a listener. I do afternoon drive in New York and mid-days on the west coast. If someone is going out to lunch or they’re in their car and they’re driving, I like to create the feeling that if there’s any news happening in the world, we’re going to be covering it. In that sense it is in the tradition of news and talk. I want to talk about what’s happening today and how those issues are relevant in our lives, and I try to do it in an entertaining fashion.
What do you have in common with other talk show hosts, ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern?
They’re the top people in their genre because they’re the best at it. There’s nobody better at talk today than Rush Limbaugh. Howard can be one of the most entertaining, engaging guys you’ve ever heard on the radio. And when you listen to Howard talk about politics he usually has a pretty unique, interesting, well-thought-out perspective, and he’s pretty libertarian-slash-conservative. They’re both natural entertainers and they’re informed, engaging, and fun to listen to.
How does the focus of your national talk show differ from when you were doing local talk radio?
I never really did a local “pothole show.” I’ve always dealt with issues that interested me, and they ended up being more often than not national issues. There shouldn’t be a slow news day for a talk host, because if it’s a slow news day it just means you haven’t dug deep enough. If you just keep digging you’re going to find something in some city somewhere that people can relate to. A mother hits a child in the store and gets arrested, or a teacher forces a kid to take Prozac. It transcends any boundary to talk about those issues. If you talk about the mayor in New York who wants to shut down the peep shops, I think people can relate to that because most communities have some issue dealing with that matter.
You say in your book that conservatives like you believe in the Constitution. What do you mean by that?
It’s our rule of law. It’s our road map. Our framers and founders in their wisdom put this document together—and it’s not easily amended, either. It’s relevant, especially because we have so many political and legal issues that you have to constantly refer to it. I have a copy of it with me at all times, and I refer to it often. It’s an amazing document. The sad thing is, too many people haven’t read it.
Even if you don’t agree with all aspects of the Constitution—and there are plenty of liberals and conservatives who don’t—should you still accept it?
Absolutely. It’s our framing document. I did not like the decision by the New Jersey courts as it relates to the Lautenberg-Toricelli issue; I think it was a bad decision. You have a bunch of rogue justices like the ones in Florida, legislating from the bench. They were not upholding their constitutional duty in my view, and the Supreme Court decided not to take the case. So all right, it didn’t go my way—it’s time to get over it. There is at least one more check and balance in this case, and that’s the people of New Jersey who have a chance to send a message to the body politic and say “no.”
Given recent election challenges in Florida and New Jersey, is it time to re-examine some of our election laws?
I wouldn’t change the electoral college; the system has a lot of wisdom in it. But I think we can do it better. Dimpled and hanging chads—we’ve come a long way and I would like to see a computerized system with touch screens, with people’s names and faces on the screen so you know exactly who you’re voting for—and a means of confirming that your vote is exactly the way you wanted it to be. We can do it better. And ultimately we’ll move in that direction.
Again, in your book you speak heavily of American values and the American dream. What do those things mean to you?
I am the product of immigrants. My grandparents came here from Ireland at the turn of the last century with no money in their pockets and they met with institutionalized discrimination. They worked 18 hours a day just so they could barely provide for their family in the hopes that their children and their grandchildren would have more opportunity than they did. It’s an incredible sacrifice. My father was of the World War II generation. Pearl Harbor happens, he signs up, he serves four years in the Navy, comes back, and lo and behold the American dream begins to come true. He gets a house in a better neighborhood—a Cape Cold on a 50 by 100 lot in Franklin Square, Long Island, and he was doing a lot better than his parents were doing. So that’s the American dream: we don’t wake up each morning and say “oh, we live in the land of liberty, we live in freedom.” We just sort of take that for granted. You wake up in the morning, you shovel coffee down your throat, you turn on the radio, you feed your kids, you go to work, and when you reflect on the wealth and the prosperity of this country and you compare it to other countries, and the freedom to pursue your God-given talents, we’re the exception. We’re not the rule. Even the poorest in America usually have running water, toilets, microwaves, stoves, and a refrigerator, and many of them still own cars.
So the American dream is to live in freedom and security and have the ability to raise your family, practice your religious faith, find where your talents are, and do your best to bring them to fruition. I don’t think it gets any better than that, really.
Can we win the war on terrorism, or is it more like the war on drugs? How will we know when we win it?
Honestly I don’t foresee that happening for many years to come. Decades, even. Things will likely get worse before they get better. There is an unmatched fanaticism out there, with extremists and terrorist cells, and the last 100 years of history have shown us that there is a lot of evil in the world. On a whole variety of spectrums there are a lot of people who want to do us in, and this is just the beginning of a long, protracted conflict—an ongoing struggle to defeat terrorism and terrorist cells and rogue nations, and prevent them from getting weapons of mass destruction. Sadly, I think America will be hit again, and we have got to shore up our borders and build up our defenses and make some pre-emptive moves. Right now America is wide open.
It’s been said that the main difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals believe they have all the questions, while conservatives think they have all the answers. What do you think?
I don’t have all the answers…I wish I did. I certainly have strong opinions about the way we ought to go. I’m pretty confident in my views because I know they work. Economically speaking I know we’re better off with less government intervention in our lives, more money back in our pockets, and less money in the pockets of bureaucrats. It may be a simple thing, but it works. Militarily, conservatives are the ones who want to spend more money on defense, who believe in intelligence, who understand the nature of evil in the world, and the need to defend against it. These are simple things; I don’t know why there’s even debate on these issues. Is that arrogant? I don’t know.
How do you perceive America’s place in the complex world of today?
Look at all the wealth and prosperity and happiness. What would the world be like if America didn’t have the military might to defeat fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. If America weren’t in the world, fighting for liberty and freedom, this fundamental belief that human beings are out here by a creator and that we are given freedom and innate talents and abilities to make the world a better place. Where would the world be if America didn’t defend all this freedom? I shudder to think what it would look like, knowing man’s capacity for inhumanity toward other men.
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
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