Faced with widespread expressions of disgust from liberal groups, journalism watchdogs, and even his own Fox News colleagues, Sean Hannity didn’t double down Tuesday night on his fact-free promotion of an unfounded conspiracy theory that 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered in Washington, D.C., last July because he talked to WikiLeaks.
Instead, Hannity weaseled out of it.
“Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” the Fox News 10 p.m. host announced—after using his radio and television programs to push the widely debunked claim, hinted at by the less than reputable Julian Assange, that Rich was whacked as payback for leaking the politically damaging DNC emails to WikiLeaks during last year’s presidential campaign.
In what might have seemed a shocking omission, but par for the course considering the source, Hannity failed to mention the likely real reason for his grudging reversal—that his own cable network, the Fox News Channel, had officially retracted the bogus Seth Rich story earlier Tuesday.
A May 16 article posted on the Fox News website “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” the conservative-leaning network declared in a statement. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.” Rich was found shot to death on a sidewalk near his Washington home on July 10, 2016, and his killing remains unsolved.
The original article that prompted Hannity’s irresponsible crusade had claimed that “sources in FBI” suggested they’d seen Rich’s computer containing evidence of him corresponding with WikiLeaks prior to his murder. However, it turns out, the FBI never had Rich’s computer.
“Retracted. Wow,” a former Fox executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remarked to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. Disgraced Fox News founder Roger Ailes—who died last week, 10 months after his ouster from the network because of a sexual-harassment lawsuit from fired anchor Gretchen Carlson and similar allegations from other women, “would brag at meetings how he was proud Fox never had to print a retraction,” the former executive said. A second former Fox News exec confirmed that Ailes liked to boast about his no-retraction policy during editorial meetings.
Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering prompted left-leaning journalism watchdog Media Matters to point out all his advertisers for a potential boycott and, more to the point, a plea from Rich’s grieving family for him to stop spreading “baseless accusations.”
“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,” the dead man’s brother, Aaron Rich, wrote in a letter to Hannity Executive Producer Porter Berry. “It is a travesty that you would prompt false conspiracy theories and other people’s agendas rather than work with the family to learn the truth.”
In his Tuesday night announcement, Hannity claimed that he and Aaron Rich had finally gotten in touch, although he failed to acknowledge the torment he had caused.
“I totally, completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family—especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death,” Hannity told viewers. “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.
“I’m a father… I don’t think I’d ever recover from losing a child or a brother. I honestly don’t think I would. I cannot imagine the pain that they are in.”
Then Hannity quickly pivoted to blaming Democrats and “the Trump-destroying media” for promoting “tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories” that suggested that staffers and associates of the president’s 2016 campaign had colluded with Russian government operatives to undermine Hillary Clinton.
The Seth Rich story had made its way to Fox News’ airwaves as Hannity repeatedly promoted the theory that DNC apparatchiks had murdered Rich for betraying Clinton and the Democratic establishment.
Despite the Rich family’s outrage—and nearly a dozen Fox News reporters, hosts, and pundits telling The Daily Beast on Monday that such coverage is cruel and “embarrassing” to the network—Hannity had persisted.
Fox News staffers who spoke to The Daily Beast on Tuesday evening said they were glad the network retracted the FoxNews.com piece but were not at all confident that Hannity—who is largely an island unto himself at Fox—would relent.
Hannity and Fox News certainly aren’t the only ones to entertain or encourage a Seth Rich assassination “coverup” theory. Former Republican House Speaker and Donald Trump adviser Newt Gingrich and major players in viral far-right media—including Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and The Drudge Report—got in on the action, too. (So did the Russian Embassy in London.)
But Hannity suggested his own personal motivation on Twitter recently: “Is it possible that one greatest lies ever told is soon exposed?” he fired off in one tweet. “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion,” he wrote in another.
As The Daily Beast reported this week, members of the Fox News newsroom were furious over Hannity’s conspiracy-theory crusade.
“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!” one Fox News political reporter messaged The Daily Beast when informed of the recent coverage.
“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.”
The reporter added: “It’s just gross.”