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Dana Blanton, vice president of public-opinion research at Fox News, had laid out clearly to network producers that unscientific online polls “do not meet our editorial standards” and should not be used on air.
Sean Hannity, evidently, did not get the memo.
Hannity, taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook over the past week, has cited those unscientific online polls as supposed evidence the Republican nominee bested Hillary Clinton in Monday’s presidential debate, leading the charge of some of the network’s hosts who had helped Trump push his post-debate message.
That was problematic because those types of web surveys, as Blanton noted, are grossly inaccurate – “nonsense.” But time and time again, Hannity blatantly ignored her memo. Hours after it was distributed, he referenced the unscientific online polls on his television program.
Then he did so again on Wednesday. And yet again on Thursday. (On Friday, he finally stopped after a Fox News scientific poll showed Trump lost the debate to Clinton by a large margin.)
The sequence has served as yet another sign that Hannity does not play by the same rules as his colleagues at Fox News.
The Fox News host has seemed to be immune to the network’s editorial standards – or, as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple suggested, “100% beyond the reach of Fox News management.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to find that in its next annual report, 21st Century Fox will report that the ‘Hannity’ show at some point in the 2016 cycle was spun off as an independent company separate from Fox News,” Wemple told Business Insider. “He’s running his own fiefdom, his own shop, his own news network.”
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It wasn’t just that Hannity misled viewers with inaccurate information. He took it a step further on his programs, characterizing those who did not embrace the results of online polling as out-of-touch elitists who comprise the “punditry class.”
Hannity devoted an entire monologue to raking journalists over the coals for reporting that most viewers thought Clinton handily won the debate, a fact supported by actual scientific polling and focus groups (including Fox News’ own survey).
And while network personalities, such as Brit Hume and Charles Krauthammer, pushed back against Trump boasting about winning those unscientific polls, Hannity undermined their message on his program, citing the very same information his colleagues had said hours before not to trust.
“I know that people hate when I cite online polling,” Hannity acknowledged on his Thursday program. “But when you see The Hill and you see Slate and Time.com, these are not mainstream conservative polling or websites. And when they vote after a debate so overwhelmingly for Trump, it’s telling me something.”
Asked about Hannity’s refusal to fall in line with network editorial standards, a Fox News spokesperson stressed to Business Insider that Hannity is an opinion host and, thus, not bound by the same rules as journalists with the network’s news operation. The Fox News spokesperson also said Blanton’s memo was intended for journalists inside the news division, not Hannity.
But the spokesperson could not say exactly what editorial standards do govern Hannity’s show. The network has never formally reprimanded the host. It once barred him from speaking at a Tea Party event in 2010. More recently, it restricted him from appearing in official Trump ads.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, told Business Insider that to understand why the network would permit Hannity to undermine its own reporting, his show should be thought of as an island inside the Fox News world, operating virtually independently from the network.
“Think of it this way. Trump is more like a rival media organization than a story Fox is covering,” the professor explained. “He’s infiltrated Fox and replaced part of it with the Trump Show.”
“Hannity’s program is the best example of that. Management has permitted it because it’s valuable to have the Trump Show running on your network,” Rosen continued. “So from that point of view it makes perfect sense that an editorial directive sent out by Fox doesn’t apply to the programming that another media company – Trump – is responsible for.”
A Fox News host who spoke with Business Insider on the condition of anonymity seemed to agree with the sentiment, characterizing Hannity’s show as “an extension” of the Trump apparatus.
“I imagine that he is wanting to be helpful to Donald Trump as an extension of the campaign,” the host said when asked about Hannity’s refusal to stop citing the unscientific polls, “but if Hillary Clinton had won any of those online polls, he probably would not have touted them.”
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Hannity does have defenders both in and outside of the organization. Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster and Fox News contributor, told Business Insider the conservative host was responsible in the way he cited the polling data.
“The vast majority of the time, he makes it very clear that they are not scientific,” Schoen said. “I think his point is to suggest they reflect enthusiasm and commitment of supporters.”
Joe Concha, a media reporter at The Hill, agreed with Schoen’s analysis, speculating Hannity was using the data to make a larger point about the race.
“He seems to be cautioning that the polls are not scientific,” Concha told Business Insider. “He’s citing them now more I think to show that there is more enthusiasm behind Trump.”
Indeed, as Hannity faced criticism for his citation of unscientific online polling, he modified his use of the numbers. Instead of saying they indicated a big Trump win, as he initially did, Hannity mostly argued later in the week that it reflected enthusiasm.
But other pollsters cast doubt on whether such polls could even indicate enthusiasm.
“They are not indicative of anything,” Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider, calling unscientific web surveys “completely meaningless.”
“Hannity shouldn’t be talking about them at all,” he added. “It’s irresponsible to be talking about them.”
Jensen said that influential voices like Hannity giving credence to unscientific polling has confused a large part of the population about what the real data shows and is “having a real impact on people’s understanding of polling.”
“People are calling and emailing us saying it’s unfair we had this poll and they didn’t get to vote. It’s blurring the line between real polling and fake polling,” Jensen said. “We’ve never had this happen until this election cycle.”
It’s not just pollsters like Jensen who are upset with Hannity’s use of the data. In conversations with Fox News employees within the network’s news operation, sources expressed frustration with Hannity’s reporting.
“It doesn’t seem fair to me that we have to follow these legitimate and fair standards regarding polling and Hannity gets to flagrantly ignore it,” a source said. “Then it also reflects poorly on the rest of us.”
Another source added that “it does reflect poorly” on the network, “but only a little” because most know Hannity is “a commentator and not a journalist.”
Nevertheless, Hannity holds one of the loudest microphones at the network and, more broadly, on cable news.
According to Nielsen Media Research, “Hannity” was the No. 1 cable-news show for the month of September in the key 25-54 age demo, averaging 2.4 million total viewers.
When reached for comment by Business Insider for this story, the Fox News host declined. He only wrote: “Working [on] latest hit piece! Woo!!”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from a Fox News spokesperson.