Fox News staffers are growing increasingly dismayed as network star Sean Hannity and others continue to promote the unfounded conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered last year for talking to WikiLeaks.
The Daily Beast spoke to nearly a dozen reporters, pundits, and hosts inside Fox News who all conveyed the same sentiment: Hannity is “embarrassing” the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.
“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!” one Fox News political reporter, who says they are furious that the conservative cable-news giant is entertaining the conspiracy theory, messaged The Daily Beast when informed of recent coverage.
The theory that the Hillary Clinton political machine had Seth Rich, 27, murdered because he allegedly had contact with WikiLeaks has been fodder for pro-Trump trolls on Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter for months. No actual evidence exists proving the theory—beyond conspiratorial innuendo from trolls and Julian Assange—and Washington, D.C. police suspected that Rich was killed last summer in a botched robbery in the neighborhood.
And yet the conspiracy came back to Hannity’s attention last week when Fox regular Rod Wheeler, a private investigator allegedly hired by a Trump-supporting millionaire, claimed that proof existed of Rich’s contacts with WikiLeaks. Fox 5 D.C. ran with his assertion, as did FoxNews.com. Major players in viral far-right media including Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and The Drudge Report immediately latched onto this as a smoking gun.
Hours later, the story began to crumble.
Wheeler since rescinded the claim after the Rich family sent him a cease-and-desist letter. The family, via a spokesman, has additionally pleaded with Hannity and others to stop “[manipulating] the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda.”
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory has persisted on Fox News.
It gained an additional on-air advocate on Sunday when Newt Gingrich told reliably unskeptical Fox & Friends hosts: “We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments.”
The Russian Embassy in the U.K. also got in on the action last week, following Fox News’ lead. “#WikiLeaks informer Seth Rich murdered in US but MSM was so busy accusing Russian hackers to take notice,” the embassy tweeted.
Hannity angrily responded on Sunday to critics on Twitter with messages like, “Why do u and the lib media keep advancing the unhinged ‘Trump/Russia’ conspiracy? Any evidence? Do you believe the ‘robbery’ story?”
“Is it possible that one greatest lies ever told is soon exposed?” he fired off in another tweet. “How will the tin foil hat destroy Trump media and deep state deal with this.” Hannity also hinted at the real motivation for his parroting of a groundless conspiracy theory: “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
Fellow Fox News star Geraldo Rivera embraced the conspiracy on Monday afternoon, tweeting: “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?”
Multiple sources said that hard-news reporters and staffers at the network are aghast at the network’s ongoing coddling of the baseless story and wonder why it has been allowed to continue.
Fox News staff spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.
“The other reporters I’ve talked to [about this] are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox reporter said. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless [to spread this].”
“It’s just gross,” the reporter added.
Another news reporter said he is “befuddled” that the network hasn’t intervened to decisively put an end to Hannity’s incessant support for, and coverage of, this particular conspiracy theory.
Fox News has long prided itself on a supposed firewall between its “straight-news” reporting and its right-wing commentary side. Such a distinction often becomes the network’s line of defense when critics lambast anything its opinion hosts say on-air.
And yet, several of the network’s opinion pundits expressed disgust at the conspiracy theorizing, using words like “absurd” and “unhinged” to describe Hannity’s antics.
The network, however, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the ongoing saga.
Hannity declined to comment on the record.
As the most openly partisan host at Fox News, Hannity is widely considered to be an island unto himself, unbound by the journalistic standards applied to someone like Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.
Hannity, for instance, simultaneously served as a Fox News host while acting as an informal Donald Trump campaign adviser last year. And during the 2016 presidential race, Hannity devoted air-time to evidence-free conspiracy theories that aided Trump, such as Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill President Kennedy and that Hillary Clinton is an “evil,” bisexual “secret sex freak.”
Fox News’ hard-news operation is not without problems, either. Outside of Hannity’s right-wing commentary oasis, the network’s more serious set—including their one-time star Megyn Kelly—has gladly and consistently harped on pointlessly racist memes under the guise of “fair and balanced” reporting.
During this latest affair, however, the closest anyone at Fox News has gotten to publicly criticizing Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering is Julie Roginsky. The liberal contributor, who recently sued the network for sexual harassment, said in a digital-only video posted Monday that “some people—ahem, ahem… have [exploited] a dead man whose family has begged conspiracy theorists to stop.” She added: “You only want to underscore your political affiliation… Let it go.”
Several staffers said there exists a general sense of exhaustion from the network’s endless stream of controversies, from sexual-harassment and racial-discrimination lawsuits to the scandal-plagued ousting of several executives and primetime stars.
“Mostly we’re keeping our heads down,” one politics reporter told The Daily Beast.
“I mean, have you seen some of the stuff we put on air?” the reporter continued.