Last night, Fox New host and conservative radio talk show star Sean Hannity moderated what purported to be a debate on the topic of —guess what?— gun control on his cable TV show. The guests were “civil rights attorney” Leo Terrell (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a second) and conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow. The two adversaries—and Hannity, who was hardly neutral—discussed The Journal News’ recent decision (Covered and criticized on Ethics Alarms) to publish the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in two New York Counties. The ensuing dialogue, if you can call it that, was painful to watch (but you’ll have to watch it to know what I’m referring to.)
Some observations on the miserable ethics of a nauseating episode:
- A format in which an opinionated, ideological and unobjective host pretends to have a “balanced debate” between two adversaries on an issue, where the host is unequivocally in agreement with one of the adversaries, is not a balanced debate. Two against one isn’t fair. It is a rigged contest, unless the moderator has the skill, professionalism and self-restraint to really moderate—and Sean Hannity does not. Neither does Soledad O’Brien, David Gregory, George Stephanopoulos, or most of the other biased news and public policy show hosts who play this game. As a fair debate format, this is a fraud. It’s a recipe for a mugging.
- Hannity loves this trick: he finds a loud, illogical, obnoxious and hysterical advocate for a position he disagrees with, and puts him or her on TV to make that position look as foolish as possible. This was a classic: Terrell is an embarrassment to the gun control position, law, civil rights, pundits, bald people, men named “Leo,” you name it. It is an insult and a slur to all of them for Hannity to put this guy in front of a camera. Every time he opened his mouth, he made the position of gun advocates stronger.
- Terrell’s argument in favor of publishing a map showing where every holder of a legal gun permit lived—which is what the The Journal News’ did—was incoherent and unhinged. He is irresponsible to go on notational television to represent something as serious and important as gun regulation policy and to do such pathetic, embarrassing job of it. “This information will alert the neighborhood of people who are mentally ill,” he explained. What? Publishing the addresses of every person with a legal gun permit will alert the neighborhood to people who are mentally ill? How? Is Terrell asserting that anyone who owns a gun legally is mentally ill? How is mental health information conveyed by gun ownership? What a peculiar defense of outrageously unethical conduct by a newspaper!
- Meanwhile, is this “civil rights lawyer” so clueless about civil rights that he thinks the public has a right to know every citizen’s emotional and mental health status? Usually the term “civil rights lawyer” suggests some actual knowledge of the Constitution. Based on his comment on “Hannity,” Terrell’s claim of being a civil rights lawyer has to be judged as misleading at best. “Incompetent civil right lawyer,” perhaps.Terrell became to frustrated by Hannity’s questioning that he literally covered his ears and refused to respond. But before this odd behavior took form, the host asked Terrell, who agreed with the newspaper’s actions, if he believes in privacy rights.
- Last but not least, we saw a double ethics breach. Terrell is known as an associate of O. J. Simpson, and I agree that if guilt by association alone could ever be fair, it would be with pals of O.J. Still, it is not fair, and Terrell has twice before reacted in extreme fashion when Hannity has raised the Juice while debating with him. Terrell may be an idiot, but Hannity repeatedly smacking him with O.J. is a cheap and unfair tactic, especially when Terrell has already demonstrated that he won’t tolerate it. So, naturally, when things got heated during last night’s session, Hannity threw out O.J. again. Terrell’s response? He put his hands over his ears, like a five-year-old. Now there’s a dedicated and principled civil rights lawyer: his response to words he doesn’t like is to make sure the audience—him–can’t hear them!