And Then There Was Hannity: Bill O’Reilly. Roger Ailes. Megyn Kelly. One by one, the biggest personalities at Fox News have left the building. During commercial breaks on his Fox News program, Sean Hannity likes to wing around a football with anyone in the vicinity of his desk. At roughly 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and a substantial noggin reminiscent of late-empire Roman statuary, Hannity, 55, is a sporty guy. Like many middle-aged men, though, he’s prone to pack on the pounds.
During a round of golf in 2012, a friend took a picture. “I looked four months pregnant,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I had man boobs.” He started dieting and working out with a martial arts instructor. “My trainer will attack me, try and put me down, and I’ll grapple and throw him,” Hannity said. “Take any scenario: Come up to me from behind, put me in a chokehold, put a gun to my head, threaten me with a knife, and I know how to get out of it.”
With big personalities, eight-figure salaries, and zero-sum competition for airtime, cable news is particularly well-suited to braggadocio—and in Hannity’s case, it can go a bit past bragging. In the Fox News studio one evening in October, after taping a debate with liberal commentator Juan Williams, Hannity pulled out a gun. He pointed the weapon at Williams, flicking on its laser sight and dancing its red dot across Williams’s body. (CNN’s Dylan Byers broke the news of the incident.) Hannity, Williams, and Fox News Network LLC put out statements downplaying the incident. Hannity referred to Williams as “my good friend” and noted that the gun, for which he had a conceal-carry permit, wasn’t loaded. Williams said that “it was clear Sean put my safety and security above all else.” Fox News said an internal investigation had concluded that “no one was put in any danger.”
Around the same time, there was another jocular moment involving Hannity and a colleague that lit up the gossip lines within the network. Hannity and his co-workers were unwinding with some after-work drinks at Langan’s, an Irish pub in Midtown Manhattan popular with staffers at Fox News and the New York Post. At one point, Porter Berry, Hannity’s executive producer, playfully taunted Hannity to give him his best shot, Mr. Ninja Guy. In a flash, Hannity took Berry down using one of his martial arts moves. Berry, on the ground, lunged back and bit Hannity on the arm.
“Hannity’s experiencing a renaissance. It’s his network now”
“I didn’t even realize what was happening,” Berry recalls. “I go down, and I literally snapped at him. I bit him.” There were no hard feelings, though. “It was just two guys, giving each other a hard time after work, when you’re out having fun,” he says. “He’s like an older brother to me. I’ve worked at Fox News since 2004. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever worked with.” Hannity’s drink of choice is often vodka and pineapple juice, says Berry. But also beer, he hastens to add. “He’s not a big drinker. He just likes being out with his people.” (Hannity declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Internal jockeying, playful and otherwise, has been good for Hannity lately. As for the rest of Fox News, the past year or so has been … chaos. On the one hand, ratings have never been better. On the other, the network has been blasted by a relentless squall of litigation from current and former employees, bitter departures of top personnel, and scathing headlines. Beginning last summer, when several women accused Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, Fox News has faced one lawsuit after another over sexual misconduct and racial bias. Then the bomb dropped: Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s biggest star, was in trouble. On April 1 the New York Times published a front-page story reporting that the network and O’Reilly had paid a total of $13 million to five women for agreeing not to sue or talk about their allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior on the part of O’Reilly. (Through a spokesperson, O’Reilly denies the allegations; in a statement to the Times, he said that in more than 20 years at the network no one had ever filed a complaint against him with the human resources department.)
Protesters congregated outside Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters to demand that O’Reilly be fired. Dozens of advertisers pulled their spots from The O’Reilly Factor—the show generated $147 million in ad revenue last year, according to Kantar Media. With pressure mounting and a new explosive charge seeming to go off every day, the Murdoch family, which controls 21st Century Fox Inc., the parent company of Fox News, considered what to do about their crucial asset. The ad situation grew worse. On April 19, with O’Reilly on vacation in Italy, the Murdochs announced they were letting him go.
It was a risky decision, and it hasn’t stopped the flow of lawsuits—the network was hit with a racial-discrimination class-action suit on April 25. But if anyone has come out a winner, it’s Hannity. According to Nielsen Holdings Plc, from Dec. 26 to March 26, his show averaged more than 2.8 million viewers—a 47 percent increase from the same period a year before. Viewers spent 18.4 million hours watching him in the first 15 weeks of 2017, up 41 percent, according to Pivotal Research Group LLC. And Hannity’s importance to the network goes beyond ratings. He bet early on Donald Trump’s campaign for president and defended him at his worst moments; and now, President Trump himself is an avid fan who sometimes seems to act after getting ideas from the broadcast.
O’Reilly’s abrupt departure followed those of two other Fox News stars, Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, who had their own internecine reasons for leaving. Hannity has outlasted them all, meaning the longtime vice pundit of cable news is now effectively its commander-in-chief. Fox News is betting that fresh-faced, neo-preppy provocateur Tucker Carlson, who took over O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. hour on April 24, will be a key part of the network’s future. But at a time when the company badly needs someone to steady the organization, Hannity, with his mind-meld connection to the White House and his deep, abiding connection to the Fox News brand, is the alpha anchor right now. “Hannity’s experiencing a renaissance,” says Brian Rosenwald, a media historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s his network now.”