On 1 August 2017, a Fox News contributor filed a federal lawsuit that accuses Fox News of “contriving” with President Donald Trump and members of his administration “to publish and disseminate fake news to affect politics in America” with the intention of distracting the public from alleged collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign.
In the suit, Fox News contributor and former Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police officer Rod Wheeler claims that key quotes attributed to him in the 16 May 2017 Fox News story, which was written by reporter Malia Zimmerman, were fabricated.
Wheeler was quoted making statements indicating that he had information that slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was the one who had leaked DNC e-mails to document dumping site WikiLeaks during the 2016 election, rather than Russian hackers.
The quotes disavowed as fake by Wheeler are as follows:
My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks.
My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.
Fox News retracted the story on 23 May 2017, saying it that did not meet their editorial standards. Wheeler claims that Ed Butowsky (a Fox contributor who is also a wealthy investor and Trump supporter) and Zimmerman went so far as to collude with the highest level of the United States government to create the false story, with the intention of lifting the cloud of suspicion that Trump associates had themselves colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. One week earlier, the lawsuit notes, Trump had fired FBI director James Comey after meeting with him privately and complaining about the investigation.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages for defamation, and also accuses the conservative cable channel of discriminating against Wheeler because he is African-American.
Fox News president Jay Wallace released a statement denying the allegations:
The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.
The suit says the article was given the green light personally by President Trump, and that it was discussed with top members of his administration, including former press secretary Sean Spicer, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Department of Justice spokeswoman Sarah Flores.
A text message allegedly sent from Butowsky to Wheeler on 14 May 2017 reads:
Not to add any more pressure but the president [Donald Trump] just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure
According to court documents, Wheeler is a “private investigation consultant” and crime analyst. Butowsky initially approached him with a 23 February 2017 text message, asking him to conduct an investigation into the Rich murder and offering to foot the bill. Butowsky told Wheeler he was working with Zimmerman, an “investigative journalist” at the cable outlet. The lawsuit alleges that Butowsky and Zimmerman were not charitably seeking the truth on behalf of the murdered man’s family, but instead banking on Wheeler confirming their storyline that Rich had leaked the e-mails and was murdered by DNC operatives in a cover-up scheme.
According to court documents, Butowsky texted multiple messages to Wheeler’s phone telling him how he should frame the story. Part of one message read:
[t]he narrative in the interviews you might use is that your and Malia’s work prove that the Russians didn’t hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our election
Shortly after the story broke, Wheeler began retracting comments made on WTTG, a Washington D.C. Fox affiliate, that seemed to support the cable news channels’s story. (Wheeler told BuzzFeed that he had been misquoted by WTTG; although he appeared to have told the station he saw evidence of e-mails on Rich’s laptop computer, he said he was only talking about reporting by Zimmerman.) The Rich family slammed Wheeler and Fox News and sent Wheeler a cease and desist letter, saying he had violated their agreement which barred him from speaking about the case in the media.
Nevertheless, in the week between the Fox story being published and retracted, it traveled far and wide across the Internet. It was promoted on Twitter by the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom, as well as Kremlin-funded outlets like RT and Sputnik. It was also pushed by dubious hacker figures like Kim Dotcom, and conspiracy sites like Zero Hedge and InfoWars as well as “alt-right” sites like Breitbart. It even got a boost from WikiLeaks in that timeframe, along with high profile Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich.
The Rich family released a brief statement about the lawsuit, saying:
While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth.
Rich, 27, was shot and killed at 4:20 A.M. on 10 July 2016, not far from his Washington, D.C. apartment. Police believe the murder was an attempted robbery, and have not made any arrests as of 1 August 2017.
The lawsuit comes as Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, attempts to take over Sky News in the United Kingdom — an effort that has been stymied by British regulator Ofcom, which has concerns that such a merger would allow chief executive Rupert Murdoch and his sons to have too much media influence. In a statement, Wheeler’s attorney, Douglas Wigdor, raised questions about the fitness of Fox to merge with Sky in relation to the allegations made in the lawsuit:
According to the complaint, at the same time that 21st Century Fox’s General Counsel, Gerson Zweifach, was meeting with the UK regulators in an attempt to convince them that Fox had in place procedures to ensure compliance with broadcasting standards to purchase Sky, Fox News was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our Country’s presidential election.
Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department told us that the Rich murder remains under investigation. Our messages sent to Zimmerman, Butowsky and the White House for comment have not been answered. During a press briefing, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president had “no knowledge” of the story and the White House was not involved in it.