Last week, Sean Hannity used the full hour of his Fox News primetime show to hold what he called a town hall with Donald Trump. We have come to expect little from cable news town halls. They are generally filled with preselected audience members, friendly to the candidate, who rehearse their questions.
Even by the low standards of the format, however, what Hannity presented does not qualify. This hour of jingoistic propaganda did not follow the conventions of a town hall. It did, however, follow the conventions of another, well-known television format. What Hannity presented was an infomercial.
Television programing is extremely formulaic. Sitcoms pretty much toggle between A, B, and C plots. Crime procedurals are plotted out along the 43 minutes from cold opening to conclusions along predictable timelines. At 9:45, you know they probably have the right suspect. Sunday news shows go from headlines to interviews to panels. In significant ways, the format is as important as the content. It is the map we follow to consume the narrative. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, and each of these formats is a unique medium.
Like all types of TV programming, infomercials, those late-night and Sunday afternoon advertisements meant to lure us in, have a format all their own. In watching Hannity’s farcical celebration of Trump it becomes quite clear he is following the infomercial format. Hannity is the host—the Billy Mays, if you will—prepared to show us the wonders of a new and exciting product. That product is Donald Trump.
To get a sense of how a typical program is laid out, I spoke with former long-time infomercial insider, Lisa Hollett, who served as a director of commercial production for more than 15 years. The pattern is an introduction stating the problem, then three to four separate blocks, each introducing a new “call to action.”
By going segment by segment, we can see just how different Hannity’s show was from an actual town hall and how closely it hews to the standard infomercial formula. This was not a candidate fielding questions from curious voters; it was a product being marketed as a quick-fix wonder, which promises to effortlessly make our lives better.
Start with the Intro
Infomercials almost all start with a narrated montage about the problem the product is meant to fix. Whether it’s sticky messes or poor sleep habits, we see examples of the problem that we can relate to. In the case of Hannity’s town hall, this problem is terrorism. His program began with just such a montage, replete with examples of terror attacks. This primes the pump for introducing the miracle product, which can save us from the bad thing it fixes.
Block One, First Call to Action: The Current Product Isn’t Working
The first block or segment in which Hannity interviewed Trump with no questions from the audience is a classic infomercial setup. The two ran down the legitimate failures of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in fighting terrorism. Like all of those failed products you have tried in the past, the current administration just can’t handle the mess. There is no attempt from Hannity to play devil’s advocate, just a smiling willingness to accept that the current product doesn’t work, so we need a new one that will.
Also important here is Hannity having Trump assure the audience that the Syrian refugees will be taken care of. There will be safe spaces in the Middle East paid for by our allies. This is Hannity making sure we know the product is safe. Tellingly, this is the exact language Reince Priebus used on “Face the Nation” this Sunday, referring to Trump as a “safe product.”
Block Two, Another Call to Action: This Is Really Bad, Folks
The second block of Hannity’s infomercial consisted of victims of terror recounting their experiences. This is the testimonial block. We see this in many infomercials, especially for cures or beauty products. Relatable people share their stories so we can see not only how bad the problem is, but how easily it can affect normal everyday people like us.
This is an emotional appeal calling us to action because something simply has to be done. Trump, now acting both as product and celebrity co-host, is showing us just how deeply he cares. But still the focus is on Clinton, the failed product, and her ties to the Saudis.
At one point, playing nice, Trump said he gives the Clintons the benefit of the doubt. Hannity, dutiful shill that he is, insists that we will not. Here for the first time we get a sense of how the product works. Specifically, this includes the call for extreme vetting of immigrants and an end to the political correctness standing in the way of stopping terrorists.
Block Three, Call to Action: Experts Agree
The third segment was expert analysis from Sebastian Gorka, author of “Defeating Jihad.” After another statement of the problem, Hannity introduced the third call to action. He asked Gorka if the policies Trump presents will keep Americans safer. Gorka’s answer was “Absolutely.”
This is every medical professional in a white coat you have ever seen on an infomercial assuring us that in his professional opinion the product works. Far from deep questioning, host Hannity led Gorka in question after question to testify to the bona fides of the Trump plan.
Block Four, Call to Action: Miracle Product at Work
In the final segment, after commiserating on how unfairly the media has treated Trump, we get to the product’s promises. In a stunning final minute and a half, host Hannity ran off a litany of Trump promises, from the wall to military spending to repeal of Obamacare, to appointing originalist justices to the Supreme Court. Each question was a yes or no, with Trump replying “100 percent” or “We have to.” After each assurance the crowd roared its approval, like so many amazed audiences watching kitchen products reduce their cooking and prep time.
As had been the case for the entire 40 minutes, no serious doubt is ever cast on the efficacy of the claims Trump makes. There are no stubborn facts to overcome. Cleanup is easy. By the end, Hannity has done nothing even vaguely resembling a journalistic interview. Rather, he plays and relishes his role as a pitchman haircut with great aplomb.
This Is Not News
I asked Hollett what infomercials look for in a pitchman, specifically one selling with a celebrity co-host for a celebrity product. She told me: “When you’re picking a pitch person, a la Hannity, you need someone the audience will trust, will like, but won’t be too distracted by. Your celebrity host, Trump, needs to stand out. The other thing you want in a pitchman is a sure thing, so if your celebrity can’t get the words out or doesn’t hit the right sales notes, you have a qualified translator of sorts. Someone who is close to everyman, but just slightly better.”
Hannity fits this description to a T. And if he wants to do 40-minute ads for Trump, that’s his business. The problem arises when he, Fox News, or anyone else pretends this is somehow a news program. It is not. In fact, it is almost the opposite of one. News is meant to probe and challenge. Hannity does neither. Instead, he shields his product from criticism and lays his own reputation on the line assuring us his product works.
This Tuesday and Wednesday Hannity will air another two-hour “town hall” with Trump, this time on securing the border. It will be more of the same. He has already announced we will hear from victims, experts and law enforcement, with no mention of audience questions. Why not? There is a reason there are so many infomercials on the air: they work, even when people know it’s advertising. In this case, however, many don’t. Many think they are watching a serious news program.
Even if Trump loses in November, this bastardization of journalistic standards is a legacy we will be left with. It is not a trivial matter. It is a distortion of discourse that promises to divide us and make finding real solutions even more difficult. It must be made very clear that Sean Hannity has left journalism behind and embraced his new role as pitchman and propagandist for Donald Trump.