By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why the Jan. 6 panel should tread carefully in seeking Sean Hannity’s testimony

Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore

The Jan. 6 select committee’s decision to ask Sean Hannity to testify carries with it a few nettlesome details.

The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.

That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.

But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.

The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.

Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.

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  1. pauljbass

    Great piece! I had felt queasy about this when first reading about it, even though Hannity had made such a point of proclaiming that he is not a “journalist.” (I’m also skeptical that anything Hannity has to say would lead to a criminal conviction.) I hope the Dems read this column and save subpoenas for government officials and advisors who have truly important facts to reveal.

  2. I don’t get it. You say “tread carefully”, but what does that mean in practice? Ask for information, but don’t ask to reveal sources?
    And sure, an R congress can ask for Baron’s or Baquet’s testimony. I think they’d wait to be subpoenaed, but they’d testify (though they might refrain from giving sources, and they might be held in contempt over it). It might even be good for business.

  3. Paul Hutch

    I have no problem with any US citizen being subpoenaed to provide the truth to a congressional investigation regardless of which political party is in power. If the truth from a Marty Baron is a problem then something is very rotten in main stream journalism.

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