After Seth Rich was shot and killed in July 2016, a conspiracy theory emerged that his death was connected to the Democratic party’s email scandal.
Fox News wrote and later retracted an article saying that Wheeler talked to WikiLeaks about the DNC’s emails.
A lawsuit by one of the people quoted in the article alleges Fox News published it to draw attention away from President Donald Trump and the Russia investigation.
A lawsuit against Fox News’ coverage of last year’s murder of Seth Rich could shed new light into the media firestorm that the 27-year-old’s tragic death ignited.
On Tuesday, longtime Fox News commentator Rod Wheeler filed a lawsuit against the network. In it, he claims that fabricated quotes from him about Rich’s July 2016 death were used with the intent of connecting it to the DNC and drawing attention away from the investigation into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
While Rich’s mysterious death led to numerous right-wing conspiracy theories, the Fox News lawsuit may finally offer some clarity into what happened to the Democratic National Committee staffer.
Here’s what’s behind the controversy:
Who is Seth Rich?
Last summer, Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staff member, was fatally shot in the back. Though the circumstances surrounding his killing are not entirely clear, local news outlets have reported he was the victim of a botched robbery. Rich was reportedly on the phone at the time and had to quickly hang up. A torn watchband at the scene suggested there was a struggle between Rich and his killer.
It was the first killing of the year in that particular neighborhood. Two more armed robberies happened in the neighborhood within weeks of Rich’s killing, local news outlets reported.
Rich worked at the headquarters of the DNC as the voter-expansion data director. A statement from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was then the DNC chair, called Rich a “dedicated selfless public servant” who “saw the great potential of our nation and believed that, together, we can make the world a better place.”
How Rich’s death became a conspiracy that went viral
On July 22, nearly two weeks after Rich’s death, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of internal emails it said came from the DNC. Following the release, some right-wing media personalities and outlets, including Breitbart News and the Drudge Report, touted a theory that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before he was killed and that he was murdered as part of a cover-up.
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator connected to Rich’s family and a long-time Fox News commentator, was quoted in an article saying there was evidence that proved the alleged contact between Rich and WikiLeaks. Wheeler’s quotes also suggested that the Metropolitan Police Department tried to cover up the nature of Rich’s death on behalf of the DNC, an allegation the police department denied.
Fox News ran the story, also citing a “federal source” who claimed the FBI had examined Rich’s computer and found the emails from WikiLeaks. Other than the unnamed person, Wheeler was the only source named and quoted in the article.
A law-enforcement official told CNN, however, that the FBI was never in possession of Rich’s laptop and that a forensic analysis of it was not conducted. Fox News eventually retracted the story and Wheeler backtracked, saying he had no evidence of a connection between Rich and WikiLeaks.
“I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” Wheeler told CNN.
Hannity spent several days promoting the conspiracy theory on Twitter and on his Fox News program.
“Congress, investigate Seth Rich Murder,” Hannity tweeted on Sunday. “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
“Snowflakes with anger issues and impulse control issues. U must believe the “robbery” gone bad story,” another tweet from Hannity said.
Other Fox News personalities helped promote the baseless theory, including Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera, who tweeted, “1) #SethRich shot in back(2)worked for #DNC which, (3)screwed @BernieSanders 4)#WIKILEAKS screwed DNC(5)Did #sethrich leak?(6)is it related?”
Kim Dotcom, a multimillionaire internet mogul who is subject to extradition to the US on charges of copyright infringement, money laundering, and wire fraud, dedicated a large section of his website to the conspiracy. He called Rich a “hero” and appealed to Robert Mueller — the former FBI director who was named special counsel to lead the FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election — to guarantee “safe passage from New Zealand to the United States and back,” in exchange for evidence he claims to have on the Rich conspiracy.
As Hannity continued to spin the conspiratorial web, some staff members at Fox News reportedly grew upset with their prime-time star. The Daily Beast interviewed nearly a dozen employees, including hosts and reporters, who all expressed dismay.
“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SH–,” one Fox News political reporter said in a message to The Daily Beast.
“The other reporters I’ve talked to [about this] are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox News reporter told the publication. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless.”
Members of Rich’s family conveyed frustration over what they described as Wheeler’s “unsubstantiated claims.” The family said there were “no facts” and they had seen “no evidence” that Rich was communicating with WikiLeaks.
“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,” a statement from the family said.
Brad Bauman, a representative for the Rich family, rebuked those he said were seeking to politicize Rich’s killing.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” Bauman told Business Insider in May. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
Fox News and Hannity
In May, Fox News removed an article it had published nearly a week earlier on Rich, saying “the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny.”
“Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed,” Fox News’ statement said, according to CNN. “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”
To this effect, Bauman said Rich’s family was grateful.
“The family would like to thank Fox News for their retraction on a story that has caused deep pain and anguish to the family and has done harm to Seth Rich’s legacy,” Bauman said in CNN’s report. “We are hopeful that in the future Fox News will work with the family to ensure the highest degree of professionalism and scrutiny is followed so that only accurate facts are reported serving this case.”
Rich’s brother Aaron wrote a letter to the executive producer of Hannity’s show and urged him to find the “decency and kindness” to reconsider the decision to peddle the conspiracy theory.
“Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother,” the letter said. “And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy.”
Rich’s parents also wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post that was published May 23:
“Imagine living in a nightmare that you can never wake up from. Imagine having to face every single day knowing that your son was murdered. Imagine you have no answers — that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers. Imagine that every single day, with every phone call you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case.
“Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.”
The op-ed article continued:
“We also know that many people are angry at our government and want to see justice done in some way, somehow. We are asking you to please consider our feelings and words. There are people who are using our beloved Seth’s memory and legacy for their own political goals, and they are using your outrage to perpetuate our nightmare. We ask those purveying falsehoods to give us peace, and to give law enforcement the time and space to do the investigation they need to solve our son’s murder.”
On May 23, Hannity on his show said he would back off on the subject “at this time.”
“I totally and completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family, especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death,” Hannity said. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
Though Hannity expressed his condolences to Rich’s family, at the end of his program that night, Hannity appeared to backpedal on it.
“There are so many issues here, not the least of which is the Democratic push of their Russia narrative … There’s something clearly happening here,” Hannity said. “The ‘destroy-Trump media’ … They have been pushing the Russian tinfoil-hat conspiracy story with zero evidence.”
Hannity tweeted minutes before his show ended Tuesday night: “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!”
On August 1, Wheeler brought new light to the story by filing a lawsuit in which he says reporter Malia Zimmerman falsely attributed quotes to him suggesting that Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks before his death. Wheeler further said that Trump supporter and wealthy investor Butowsky sent text messages and voicemails telling him that Trump “just read the article” and “wants the article out immediately.”
“Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public,” the lawsuit says.
The Democratic National Committee, which has rejected many right-wing conspiracy theories about Rich’s death, said if the allegations were true, “it is beyond vile” that the White House “would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia.”
Fox News said it had retracted the article for an internal investigation and denied publishing it to draw attention away from Trump’s alleged Russia ties.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” Jay Wallace, the network’s president of news, said in a statement on Tuesday.
He added: “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.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump “had no knowledge of the story,” and claimed that “it is completely untrue that he or the White House had an involvement in the story,” though former press secretary Sean Spicer himself admitted he met with Butowsky and Wheeler.
In a statement to Business Insider on Tuesday, Rich’s family said it hoped the lawsuit puts an end to the various conspiracy theories swirling around Rich’s death last year.
“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,” the family said in the statement.
Maxwell Tani contributed to this report.