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By Jessica Brown

Fox News’ abrupt cancellation of conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s appearance at a Cincinnati Tea Party rally Thursday raises questions about whether the news network crossed – or feared it was about to cross – an ethical line in journalism.

“I think they think they might be too close to that line, based on what happened with Hannity,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The news network has been criticized for promoting tea party activities. Hannity decided to use the paid-admission event in Cincinnati as the last stop on his book tour Thursday and to tape his talk show there.

That decision intensified criticism from those who think the Fox network is too closely aligned with the tea party.

The Cincinnati Tea Party charged $5 for basic tickets and $20 for tickets near the Hannity stage.

When Fox executives discovered the local tea party group would keep any profit, it immediately ordered its talk show host back to New York at the last minute, leaving fans in Cincinnati frustrated and confused.

Fox’s reasoning: It hadn’t agreed to allow the Cincinnati Tea Party to “profit from broadcasting (Hannity’s show) from the event,” according to a statement by the executive vice president of programming Bill Shine.

Tea Party leaders assert they get no profit and the group actually expects to lose money. It’s granting refunds to guests. Shine told the Enquirer Friday it didn’t matter to him whether the group made a profit. The admission fee was the sole issue.

“We asked him to come back to New York once I realized the seriousness of what’s was going on there,” said Shine. “The Tea Party people were literally selling better seats of the program” based on the Hannity show. “That crossed the line, yeah. We told him to come back home.”

Shine said he didn’t know about the admission fee until the day of the event. As soon as he found out he immediately pulled the plug on the show.

Hannity’s staff also did not respond to requests for comment.

The Hannity situation highlights a sensitive question that plagues many news organizations: How close is too close?

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Story Courtesy of The Cincinnati Enquirer / Cincinnati.com