Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Hannity-Ellison dust-up shows our broken politics

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 5:12 PM EST, Fri March 1, 2013
Sean Hannity was doing his job in an interview with Rep. Keith Ellison that ended in a shouting match, Howard Kurtz says.
Sean Hannity was doing his job in an interview with Rep. Keith Ellison that ended in a shouting match, Howard Kurtz says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Sean Hannity-Keith Ellison dust-up made for good TV
  • He says Fox host was just doing interview, and Ellison picked fight on spending cuts
  • He says escalation, name-calling a sad reflection of coarsened political discourse
  • Kurtz: Each man may have stood his ground on principle, but viewers lost out

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- When I saw the headlines about Sean Hannity getting into a shouting match with a Democratic congressman this week, I assumed the combative and conservative Fox News host had just gone off on him.

I was wrong.

Hannity was trying to conduct what we in journalism call an interview. But from the first words out of his mouth, Rep. Keith Ellison came prepared to pick a fight.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

It was good television, I suppose, but it's hard to say it was enlightening.

Ellison began insulting Hannity from the get-go, Hannity pushed back, and the pugilistics were under way.

After I criticized Ellison in an online video, Fox-bashers, Hannity-haters and others started with the nasty tweets.

But it was Ellison, not Hannity, who had started throwing verbal punches. Said one tweet: "Even psychotic liberal Howard Kurtz thinks Keith Ellison was out of line with Sean Hannity." (For the record, I consider myself reasonably sane.)

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Go look at the video and decide for yourself.

I've never been shy about criticizing Hannity for mangling the facts or spouting the GOP's talking points. But in this case, he wasn't at fault. This wasn't a situation where both sides were engaged in an argument that grew more heated.

Watch: Why media are savaging Marissa Mayer over Yahoo work policy

Why would the Minnesota lawmaker launch a premeditated assault? Perhaps it's good politics for a liberal Democrat to force a confrontation with Hannity. He can brag to his base about beating up on one of Fox's most popular pundits. In fact, at least one liberal group is already trying to raise money off the incident -- another example of how unbridled partisanship can be profitable.

Ellison told me: "I stood up to Sean Hannity because of what the sequester will mean for millions of Americans who have already been forced to work harder while they get by with less. If these devastating cuts in the sequester go into effect at the end of this week, three-quarters of a million jobs will be lost. ...

"I have constituents in Minnesota who will lose their jobs because Republicans in Congress are unwilling to close loopholes for yacht owners. The president is not being an 'alarmist in chief' or 'President Panic' when he talks about these cuts; he is leading."

Watch: Why Sean Hannity wasn't a 'yellow journalist' in face-off with congressman

A person close to Ellison, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, told me that the congressman allowed Hannity to get under his skin because he felt the host had taken President Barack Obama's words out of context.

Here's how it got going: Hannity had played a series of brief clips of Obama and began with this highly partisan comment: "If and when the Obama sequester takes effect on Friday, it's because the president is more concerned with fear-mongering than finding a solution to the problem that he himself created."

No sooner did he tell Ellison, "Welcome back, sir," than the congressman took, shall we say, vigorous issue with Hannity's opening.

"Quite frankly, you are the worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen," said Ellison, who then accused him of "yellow journalism." Hannity's not a journalist, he's a commentator paid for his conservative opinions, but let's not quibble.

Ellison was getting revved up again when Hannity tried to make a factual point.

"What the president said was dead-on accurate, and for you to say the president is to blame here is ridiculous. I was there August 2011 when the Republicans, your party, which you shamelessly. ..."

Watch: Did White House e-mail really threaten Bob Woodward?

Hannity interrupted: "I'm not a Republican, let me correct the record."

"You are nothing but a Republican," Ellison said.

Hannity got out that he is a conservative, not a registered Republican, whereupon Ellison accused him of being "a shill for the Republican Party."

Hannity -- who does carry the party's water most of the time -- allowed Ellison to go on for a couple of minutes. Then he tried to ask a question and the congressman repeatedly talked over him. That is pretty much how it went for the rest of the segment, with Ellison at one point calling Hannity "immoral." Ellison accepted the invitation to come on and then showed more interest in name-calling than having a dialogue.

Watch: Overreaction? Conservatives rip Michelle Obama's Oscars moment

The shout fest was, perhaps, a microcosm of what's become of our media and political dialogue. There is so much noise in Washington that those who want to break through sometimes feel compelled to keep boosting the decibel level. Debate is reduced to each side yelling at each other rather than engaging on the issues.

How different was the Hannity/Ellison clash than House Speaker John Boehner telling the Senate to "get off their ass" and pass a budget? Obama and the Republicans have kept hurling accusations of bad faith at one another until the automatic budget cuts that both sides once deemed unthinkable loomed. The thinking seems to be: If there's no possibility of compromise, why not just take potshots and try to win the news cycle?

Most cable news anchors and political players don't descend to that level. But can anyone deny that the media have contributed to a coarsening of the political culture?

Hannity, who finds new reasons to attack Obama every day, is hardly the poster boy for bipartisanship. But in this instance he did invite a politician with liberal views and attempt to be civil. Maybe they both end up benefiting from standing their ground against a fierce opponent. But it's viewers who lost out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT