On 23 May 2017, Fox News removed a discredited article from their web site suggesting that Seth Rich, a 27-year-old employee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) who had been shot to death the year before in Washington, D.C., had leaked thousands of DNC e-mails to the WikiLeaks web site before he died.
The article was replaced by a statement that read:
On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.
We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.
A year has passed since that notice went up, so it seemed an apt time for us to look back at the genesis of the story, how and why it came to be retracted, and what Fox News has had to say about it since. The best place to start is with the known facts about the murder.
Seth Rich was found dead approximately one block from his Washington, D.C., apartment just before dawn on 10 July 2016. He had been shot twice. Rich was walking home from a local bar while speaking on the phone to his girlfriend, who later reported hearing voices and gunshots before his phone went silent. Bruises on his hands and face indicated that a struggle had taken place.
No suspects were ever arrested in what the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) theorized was a botched robbery attempt (even though none of Rich's possessions appeared to have been stolen), and the case remains unsolved to this day.
Seth Rich's death became the focal point of a baseless conspiracy theory holding that Rich leaked tens of thousands of DNC e-mails to WikiLeaks and was targeted for "assassination" after the notorious site published them online.
Rumors to that effect erupted within days of the shooting and were enthusiastically promoted by right-wing web sites and social media influencers noteworthy for their support of GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Trump campaign surrogates Roger Stone and Newt Gingrich, to name three prominent examples).
As the Washington Post and other mainstream news venues quickly pointed out, however, U.S. intelligence agencies had already singled out Russian hackers as the perpetrators of the e-mail leaks, not a DNC insider. That, plus the utter dearth of evidence linking Rich to the hacked e-mails, WikiLeaks, or Assange (despite sly hints from the latter that Rich may have been the source), effectively put a lid on the conspiracist rumblings, which were relegated to lesser-known hyperpartisan blogs and discussion groups as the months wore on.
But 2017 saw a resurgence of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory thanks to a Fox 5 DC (WTTG-TV) report on 15 May (bylined Marina Marraco) suggesting that hard evidence existed showing Rich had been in direct communication with WikiLeaks:
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator hired by the Rich family, suggests there is tangible evidence on Rich's laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death. Wheeler's services were offered to the family and paid for by a third party, according to a statement issued by the Rich family Tuesday which also includes that "the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family."
Now, questions have been raised on why D.C. police, the lead agency on this murder investigation for the past ten months, have insisted this was a robbery gone bad when there appears to be no evidence to suggest that.
Wheeler, a former D.C. police homicide detective, is running a parallel investigation into Rich’s murder. He said he believes there is a cover-up and the police department has been told to back down from the investigation.
"The police department nor the FBI have been forthcoming,” said Wheeler. “They haven't been cooperating at all. I believe that the answer to solving his death lies on that computer, which I believe is either at the police department or either at the FBI. I have been told both.”
When we asked Wheeler if his sources have told him there is information that links Rich to Wikileaks, he said, “Absolutely. Yeah. That's confirmed."
The story had serious problems, however. For one, Wheeler was quoted as saying a police source confided to him that the department was told to "stand down" from investigating the case — an assertion the MPDC flatly denied. For another, Rich's family issued a statement dismissing Wheeler's claims as unsubstantiated and saying the private detective wasn't authorized to speak to the press:
We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth's murderers. The services of the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family.
The story fell apart completely when Wheeler contradicted himself in statements to other news outlets. He told CNN's Oliver Darcy, for example, he learned of supposed evidence that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks from the news media, not from an FBI informant:
Wheeler instead said he only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through the reporter he spoke to for the FoxNews.com story. He explained that the comments he made to WTTG-TV were intended to simply preview Fox News' Tuesday story. The WTTG-TV news director did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News," Wheeler told CNN.
Asked about a quote attributed to him in the Fox News story in which he said his "investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of e-mail exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks," Wheeler said he was referring to information that had already been reported in the media.
Specifically, Wheeler said in a 16 May interview with BuzzFeed, he had learned about the e-mails while being interviewed by Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, whose article alleging Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks was posted on FoxNews.com that same day.
For her part, Zimmerman attributed the revelation to an unnamed "federal investigator":
The Democratic National Committee staffer who was gunned down on July 10 on a Washington, D.C., street last July just steps from his home had leaked thousands of internal emails to WikiLeaks, law enforcement sources told Fox News.
A federal investigator who reviewed an FBI forensic report detailing the contents of DNC staffer Seth Rich’s computer generated within 96 hours after his murder, said Rich made contact with Wikileaks through Gavin MacFadyen, a now-deceased American investigative reporter, documentary filmmaker, and director of WikiLeaks who was living in London at the time.
“I have seen and read the emails between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” the federal investigator told Fox News, confirming the MacFadyen connection. He said the emails are in possession of the FBI, while the stalled case is in the hands of the Washington Police Department.
The revelation is consistent with the findings of Rod Wheeler, a former DC homicide detective and Fox News contributor and whose private investigation firm was hired by Rich’s family to probe the case. Rich was shot from behind in the wee hours, but was not robbed.
Wheeler told other news outlets he had been misquoted and in fact had no direct evidence or personal knowledge of communications between Rich and WikiLeaks. He first learned of the alleged e-mails, he said, from Zimmerman herself.
CNN reported, moreover, that according to law enforcement officials the information did not come from the FBI, which neither had possession of Seth Rich's laptop nor had conducted a forensic examination of its contents.
Six days later, FoxNews.com retracted Zimmerman's article and substituted a statement (quoted at the top of this page) saying the piece didn't pass editorial muster. Fox 5 DC, instead of deleting their version of the story, simply added a preamble noting Wheeler had "backtracked" on his claim that he had sources at the FBI who confirmed contacts between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.
Even as the Seth Rich story was crumbling, pro-Trump Fox New Channel commentator Sean Hannity latched onto the conspiracy theory and continued promoting it on his nightly broadcasts and Twitter, calling on Congress to investigate the murder:
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 22, 2017
Hannity finally relented — sort of — on 23 May 2017, after Rich's brother sent a letter to the commentator and his executive producer begging them not to "drag our family name through the mud" with "baseless accusations." That night, Hannity said on his program that he would no longer discuss the matter "for now" out of respect for the family's wishes, then tweeted the following hours later:
Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available. Stay tuned!
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 24, 2017
Fox News would not publicly comment on the matter again until more than two months later, on 2 August 2017, when private investigator Rod Wheeler sued the network, reporter Malia Zimmerman, and sometime Fox contributor Ed Butowsky (who allegedly financed Wheeler's investigation), alleging they had fabricated quotes and "created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda." The complaint said the Trump administration not only approved the story but was involved in its creation.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied any White House involvement, and Fox News President Jay Wallace issued a statement denying the rest of the lawsuit's claims:
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.
Fox News employees interviewed by CNN's Oliver Darcy expressed puzzlement over the lack of disciplinary (or exculpatory) action in connection with the botched story despite an ongoing internal investigation. The inaction was "classic Fox," in the words of one Fox staffer quoted by Darcy. "No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn't true," the senior employee maintained.
Another lawsuit followed in March 2018, this time filed by Seth Rich's parents, Joel and Mary Rich, against the same three defendants. Their complaint alleged that the false narrative Fox News promoted about about their son made the Riches "collateral damage in a political war to which they are innocent bystanders." The network responded by filing a motion to dismiss on several grounds, including the plaintiffs' failure to plead "outrageous or extreme conduct" on the part of Fox News or state a claim for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
The network did not issue a statement to the press, citing the pending litigation.
Indeed, Fox News has neither commented nor issued updates on the Seth Rich story or its aftermath since August 2017, a fact duly noted in a tweet by Oliver Darcy on the one-year anniversary of the story's publication:
One year ago today, Fox News retracted its Seth Rich story & said it would investigate the matter.
Thus far, there has been no disciplinary action announced or update on how it got published. When I asked about its status, a Fox spox declined comment.. https://t.co/hP5jL6Iu14 pic.twitter.com/kYds3oybfU
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) May 23, 2018
We reached out to Fox News for a response to Darcy's comments and any other information they might care to share about the retracted article and their internal investigation.
Citing pending litigation, Fox declined to comment.