Keith Ellison and Sean Hannity Had an Epic Battle on Fox News Tuesday

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The Fox host and the Democratic congressman ranted at each other for six minutes. What were they ranting about? Good question.

Fox News, a frequent source of epic interviews ("U mad, bro?") produced another instant classic Tuesday night. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, and Sean Hannity had one of the more impressive fights we've seen on air for some time -- if not as lengthy as the famous Alex Jones-Piers Morgan contretemps, at least as heated at its peak.

Within the first half a minute, Ellison had called Hannity "the worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen." Hannity pretended he didn't hear it and demanded the congressman repeat himself, and we were off from there. Ellison called Hannity's work "yellow journalism," then said he:

  • is "deceptive";
  • has breached "every journalistic ethic I've ever heard of";
  • is "ridiculous";
  • is a "shameless ... Republican"; and
  • is "a shill for the Republican Party"

Hannity, finally elbowing in, jokingly told Ellison to keep ranting, an invitation Ellison took to heart. When Hannity tried to ask another question, Ellison retorted, "You said I could rant .... We'll let you get a word in." Things took a turn for the playground -- "You're a broken record." "You're a broken record!" -- and eventually Hannity cut Ellison off ("Congressman, you are a total waste of time"). It was fun, if cringeworthy, while it lasted.

What's amazing about this is that Hannity and labelmate Bill O'Reilly work best when they bring in guests and steamroll them, giving them little time to respond and throwing them off balance. Ellison turned the script around. This isn't his first tangle with Fox, so perhaps he knew what he was getting into. In 2007, Ellison, a Muslim, compared the Bush Administration's handling of the aftermath of 9/11 to the Nazi Party's response to the burning of the Reichstag, which went over predictably poorly -- given that the Nazis are generally blamed for the fire, he appeared to be accusing the government of being behind the attacks. Fox ran with the story, and Ellison had to state publicly that he had no doubs that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. In 2011, Hannity and Ellison had another lengthy battle.

Tuesday's clip is already spreading widely, but all too often without the context for the comments, which both explains what they were fighting about and just how silly the fight was. Ellison appeared just after a segment in which Hannity placed the blame for the sequester squarely (and solely) on President Obama, then showed a montage of clips of Obama giving two similar speeches calling on Congress to stop the sequester, one week apart -- "a Hannity highlight reel of President Panic in action," in the alliterative local patois. It's a little unclear what it proves that Obama used similar language in speeches, but it's equally unclear why the clips enraged Ellison so much.

Trying to place the blame for the sequester is both a fool's errand and a parlor game that has consumed much of the Washington media over the last week or so, as the lack of substantive progress toward stopping the sequester has left pundits and reporters with little else to talk about. Bob Woodward has insisted that the Obama Administration first raised the prospect of sequestration. Others have pointed out that the cuts (1) were never intended to go into effect, but were rather an incentive to the "supercommittee" to find a solution, and (2) were offered under duress, as a way to convince Republicans in the House to agree to an increase in the debt ceiling and avoid national default. In any case, both parties agreed to and voted for it.

So the Ellison-Hannity battle is even pettier than it looks: Not only is it name-calling, it's name-calling in the service of an irrelevant sideshow. Batten down, because we're likely to get three more days of this before the cuts take effect on Friday -- and perhaps even beyond.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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