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Hannity-Ellison dust-up shows our broken politics

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
March 1, 2013 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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