More than four years have passed since the right-wing, Donald Trump-friendly conspiracy machine—fueled by 4Chan and Reddit theorists, WikiLeaks impresario Julian Assange, and ultimately by Fox News—began spreading toxic fantasies about the death of Seth Rich.
The machine continues to chug away—as with personal Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s recent tumble down the Seth Rich rabbit hole—even as the 45th president’s political future is under threat from the results of next Tuesday’s election.
Rich was the 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot and killed by unknown assailants during an apparently botched robbery on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk a block from his home in the wee hours of July 10, 2016.
Almost alone among the conspiracy-mongers, who pushed variations on the theme that Rich could have been assassinated by a Democratic Party hit team hired by Hillary Clinton in retribution for leaking a cache of damaging DNC emails to Assange, Fox News is still grappling with the fallout while defending itself in federal court.
This past Friday, for instance, primetime star Sean Hannity, one of the worst offenders in the Seth Rich fiasco, was scheduled to sit for a lengthy deposition in a March 2018 lawsuit filed by Mary and Joel Rich, Seth’s parents, alleging “intentional infliction of emotional distress” against Fox News and one of the Trump-friendly cable outlet’s digital reporters, Malia Zimmerman, along with Fox News commentator Ed Butowsky.
“It’s very important that the Rich family is continuing their lawsuit, because it’s really important to get to the nuts and bolts of how that story made its way onto the Hannity show, which is the crowning mainstream media platform to spread false stories,” said documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi, whose recent HBO movie, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, featured a rare on-camera interview with Seth Rich’s brother Aaron. “That’s the objective of all these conspiracy theorists and propagandists. They would like to get their hoaxes and false information into a platform that people go to frequently and seem to trust.”
Rossi added: “The lawsuit is about respect for the memory of Seth Rich and about some form of closure for the Rich family, but it’s also about understanding the propaganda pipeline and how Fox News plays a role as a launderer of false information.”
Hannity is among at least 17 Fox News personalities, executives, contributors, and managers—including Lou Dobbs, Laura Ingraham, Newt Gingrich, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox News President Jay Wallace, and Senior Executive Vice President Irena Briganti—whom the Riches’ attorneys have named in court filings as people they’d like to interrogate under oath.
“Thanks for your inquiry, but I am not permitted to speak about the case,” one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Elisha Barron of Susman Godfrey L.L.P., emailed The Daily Beast on Friday in response to a question about whether Hannity’s deposition went forward as scheduled. Meanwhile, others involved in the litigation didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether the lawsuit, as rumored, has recently become the subject of settlement talks.
“We don’t comment on active litigation,” a Fox News spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
The tangled history of Fox News’ involvement began on May 16, 2017, with the publication on the outlet’s website of Malia Zimmerman’s error-filled story—allegedly cobbled together with the aid of Butowsky, among others, and headlined “Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks, say multiple sources.”
On his syndicated radio program, on Twitter, and on his Fox News show, Hannity eagerly repeated and embellished upon the story’s bogus claims, which prompted Aaron Rich to write to the Fox News star’s executive producer Porter Berry: “Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother. And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy… It is a travesty that you would promote false conspiracy theories and other people’s agendas rather than work with the family to learn the truth.”
A week after Zimmerman’s story was published—amid expressions of dismay and disgust both from inside and outside Fox News—the cable channel officially retracted it, saying it “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” and adding: “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
That night on television, Hannity said he wouldn’t be promoting the debunked story for the foreseeable future, but suggested it might still be valid. Indeed, as The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported, 17 days after the cable channel retracted Zimmerman’s story, FoxNews.com’s then-deputy managing editor, Greg Wilson, emailed Butowsky: “I hope all is well, and am sorry about how things worked out. I still believe we will be vindicated.” To which Butowsky replied: “Thank you and I agree.”
Hannity, meanwhile, told viewers: “I totally, completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family—especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death... Now I’ve been communicating with them. I got a very heartfelt note. I also sent them a heartfelt note back. I reached out personally today to Seth’s brother, Aaron. I expressed my condolences over how hard, how difficult, this has been for him and his family and, as I told Aaron, my soul, my prayers, everything goes out to them at this very difficult time.”
Yet when it came to giving the poisonous lies oxygen, Hannity was hardly an outlier on Fox News. The day Zimmerman’s story broke, Laura Ingraham—then a Fox News contributor—appeared on Fox & Friends and not only tied Rich’s murder to the DNC, but also suggested that Rich’s parents were such hardened partisans that they didn’t want his murder investigated for fear it would implicate the Democrats.
“And he was shot in the back,” she declared. “He was shot in the back, nothing taken from his person. That’s just—anyone at the time thought that was bizarre?... He happened to work for the DNC, rumored to have had contacts with WikiLeaks, and then, he’s shot in the back; nobody takes his cellphone, his wallet, just found in the street in Washington, D.C.”
When co-host Ainsley Earhardt said it was “interesting” that the “parents aren’t pursuing it,” Ingraham replied: “I don’t know what to say about that. When people don’t want information to get out, and when an election is on the line, you know, again, reading between the lines, a lot of people will do a lot of things that otherwise they wouldn’t do when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line.”
Fox Business host and informal Trump adviser Lou Dobbs, meanwhile, also smeared the Rich family. On May 16, 2017, the day the Fox story was published, Dobbs’s guest, Republican strategist Ed Rollins, said the motive for the murder “was obviously was this was someone who took 40,000 documents out of the DNC and gave it to WikiLeaks.”
Dobbs followed up by blasting the Rich family. “You have now a partisan shroud around the family. You have an investigation that is going nowhere…The [Washington, D.C., police] department admits that. And the FBI investigator is the one who has a specific number, 44,053 emails that were transferred from his computer to WikiLeaks, and guess what? The police department, the federal investigators, none of them know where that computer is.” (As legitimate news outlets reported, the FBI was never investigating the murder and never obtained access to Seth Rich’s computer.)
Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich, during an appearance on Fox & Friends Sunday on May 21, 2017, claimed that Rich had been “assassinated” for supposedly working with WikiLeaks.
“And what does that tell you about what was going on? Because, it turns out it wasn't the Russians, it was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee,” Gingrich said. “He's been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.”
Gingrich has yet to walk back his bogus claims, even after July 13, 2018, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators indicted a dozen operatives of Russia’s intelligence directorate in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails.
After Fox News’ embarrassing retraction, Hannity and others on the channel generally stopped talking about Seth Rich conspiracy theories on-air—although they would get revived from time to time. In one instance, during a Jan. 10, 2018, appearance on the Fox Business Network, senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano connected Rich’s murder to the infamous Steele Dossier, speculating that Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson might have been referring to the murdered DNC staffer when he said someone had been killed as a result of the Steele document.
“Who?” Napolitano wondered aloud. “We really don’t know who he’s talking about. Is the reference to Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer who was killed assassination-style in D.C., and who it is believed somehow facilitated the hacking of the DNC emails?”
Fox News, meanwhile, has yet to apologize to the Rich family.
“I have no clue why they won’t say it—pushing out false statements and not being willing to accept that they were false,” Aaron Rich said in After Truth. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”