NEW YORK – Sean Hannity's cable television showdown this week with a Democratic congressman has become more than just a verbal schoolyard brawl. It's a fundraising opportunity.
Democratic and Republican advocates are using Tuesday's Fox News Channel appearance by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to raise money, even as the newly minted feud continues. Hannity said he planned to continue a discussion about Ellison's career on his show Friday.
Ellison opened his appearance on Tuesday's show by calling Hannity "the worst excuse for a journalist that I've ever seen," and their discussion descended from there. Hannity, who accused the congressman of "ranting," ended the gripping back-and-forth after eight minutes because "our audience deserves better."
The congressman appeared upset by a Hannity commentary just before his appearance that ridiculed President Barack Obama's speeches about fiscal negotiations.
Video clips of the confrontation spread online, and it swiftly became a partisan talking point. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin tweeted that Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, waged a "verbal jihad," or holy war, against Hannity. Martin Bashir, on his liberal MSNBC talk show, called the appearance "the utter evisceration of Sean Hannity on his own broadcast."
The lobbying group Progressive Change Campaign Committee sent out a solicitation to its supporters, urging them each to donate $3 to Ellison's campaign account or send him a thank you note. By Friday afternoon, the solicitation had raised $21,600, co-founder Adam Green said, with an additional $3,000 for a foundation supporting liberal congressional candidates.
Another liberal group, Democracy For America, also sent out an email to its supporters seeking donations in Ellison's name, spokesman T. Neil Sroka said.
"If you attack a hero of our movement, we're going to come back even stronger," Sroka said.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Republican Party posted a clip of the appearance on its website and asked for contributions. According to the website, nearly $47,000 of a fundraising goal of $50,000 had been pledged.
Hannity returned to the issue on his show Wednesday and Thursday, referring to an "epic meltdown" by the "incoherent congressman." A "Hannity" report Thursday explored Ellison's ties to polarizing personalities such as Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
"If I'm called a yellow journalist, immoral, a liar — as a matter of fair play, I did a little research on him, and he's got some views and friendships that have not been fully vetted," Hannity said in an interview Friday. "He sparked it. He initiated it."
He denied that he was out for revenge.
"I follow my gut and instincts on what interests me," he said. "The fact that a congressman wants to start a fight with me, that's his business. I have the ability to fight back, and I will."
The spat could prove a welcome jolt of interest for Hannity when cable news ratings are sagging months since the presidential election. Hannity's average viewership of 1.9 million people in February was down 11 percent from February 2012, with a much sharper decline among youthful viewers, the Nielsen ratings company said.
Hannity said his ratings have been stabilizing. His Thursday night show, which featured Washington Post writer Bob Woodward, drew 2.5 million viewers.
Media critic Howard Kurtz, of The Daily Beast, said it was Ellison who had picked the fight and suggested he may have been trying to seek attention.
Ellison was unavailable for comment on Friday, his spokesman said.
"Representative Ellison was invited to appear on 'Hannity' to discuss the sequester, an issue that will harm thousands of his constituents and the American economy, and accepted the invitation for that reason," spokesman Jeremy Slevin said.