Fox News didn't deliver on its promised Seth Rich coverage investigation, so Media Matters is doing it instead. This is the first in a series marking the two-year anniversary of Fox’s publication of a story -- retracted seven days later -- that promoted the conspiracy theory that the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, and not the Russians, had provided DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Read part two, part three, part four, part five, and our timeline of events.
When Fox News’ stable of unhinged propagandists draw public criticism, its executives tell observers to focus on the network's “news” side, which supposedly provides credible reporting and follows the industry’s standards. But it was the “news” side that was responsible for Fox’s most calamitous failure in recent memory, in which the network repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories about murdered former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. And two years later, despite a purported internal investigation into what went wrong with the network’s coverage, no one at Fox has been held accountable.
In July 2016, the online fever swamp linked together two unrelated events: Rich’s tragic murder on July 10 in what police determined was an unsolved botched robbery and WikiLeaks’ July 22 release of thousands of internal DNC emails whose contents damaged Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Conspiracy theorists speculated -- based almost entirely on the facts that Rich had worked at the DNC and that his murder had been unsolved -- that Rich been killed in retaliation for giving the emails to WikiLeaks.
In reality -- as the U.S. intelligence community concluded in January 2017, as did special counsel Robert Mueller in 2019 -- Russian hackers had given the emails to WikiLeaks as part of a successful effort approved at the highest levels of the Kremlin to support Donald Trump’s presidential run. But in order to raise doubts about that conclusion, prominent U.S. conservatives and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would repeatedly suggest that Rich had been the real source of the emails.
On May 16, 2017, 10 months after Rich’s death, Fox News put itself firmly behind that conspiracy theory with a despicable and eventually retracted online article and a series of on-air segments.
Rereading the original FoxNews.com story, it’s still disturbing that something so poorly conceived and thinly-sourced could have made it to Fox’s website in the first place.
Fox’s story was the result of a collaboration between an unlikely trio: Fox News investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman, who “has a history of publishing questionable stories” based on anonymous sources and claimed to have been working on the story for 10 months; Fox contributor Rod Wheeler, a private investigator who had been hired by the Rich family to review the case; and Ed Butowsky, a businessman and “reliable Republican surrogate” who Wheeler says had connected him to the Riches, paid for his work, and brought him to Zimmerman’s attention.
The result was what Fox termed a “bombshell” story that included three extraordinary claims. Zimmerman’s report suggested that Rich had been in contact with a WikiLeaks representative before he died, that he had provided that contact with tens of thousands of DNC emails, and that a vast conspiracy theory helmed by the DNC and Clinton had covered up the truth.
By the time Fox ran Zimmerman’s story, the notion that Rich had given the DNC emails to WikiLeaks was widely recognized as a conspiracy theory, one contradicted by the U.S. intelligence community’s findings in its January 2017 report that Russian intelligence agents had hacked the DNC and given the emails to WikiLeaks.
One would expect a story purporting to dispute the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community to provide substantial and serious evidence. Instead, Zimmerman’s report for Fox was based almost entirely on two sources -- one anonymous and one discredited.
Fox prints a claim from a single anonymous source that Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails
Zimmerman’s anonymous source -- a “federal investigator” from an unnamed agency -- purportedly told her that he had read an FBI report that detailed the contents of Rich’s computer, had “seen and read the emails” between him and WikiLeaks Director Gavin MacFadyen, and that Rich had sent thousands of DNC emails exchanged between January 2015 and late May 2016 to MacFadyen before May 21, 2016.
Zimmerman claimed to have spent 10 months investigating Rich’s death, but she provided no other information corroborating the source’s statement. MacFayden had died of lung cancer in October 2016, so he couldn’t be reached to corroborate the story. But Zimmerman had no comments from any of his associates verifying that he received documents from Rich either.
The U.S. intelligence community is not infallible, but it beggars belief that a news outlet would publish a purported debunking of its claims based on such scanty evidence.
Fox prints its contributor’s unsupported claim of a Rich cover-up
Later in the article, Zimmerman included this extraordinary claim:
Wheeler believes powerful forces are preventing the case from a thorough investigation.
“My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward,” Wheeler told Fox News. “That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
There are several major problems with this claim. First, Zimmerman provided no additional sources in the police department or elsewhere signing on to this theory -- it relied entirely on Wheeler’s say-so.
Second, Zimmerman published this claim without including any information about why Wheeler believed this to be the case. He questioned why the police hadn’t been forthcoming about releasing video of Rich's murder Zimmerman's sources say exists and speculated that Rich may have given police information about his murderer before he died. But Zimmerman gave no explanation about why this led Wheeler to conclude that “powerful forces” were behind the events, much less why he named the DNC or Clinton specifically.
Third, Wheeler is not a credible source for information -- as BuzzFeed reported, before his involvement in the Rich case, he was “mostly known for saying outrageous things on air” as a Fox contributor.
And fourth, Wheeler subsequently alleged in a lawsuit that Zimmerman fabricated that quote, which either shows massive malfeasance on her part or provides more evidence that he is not a reliable narrator whose claims should be taken seriously. (In dismissing the suit, a federal judge concluded that Wheeler had not proved he was misquoted and that having “embarked on a collective effort to support a sensational claim regarding Seth Rich’s murder” he “cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact.”)
Fox relies on the same two sources to “corroborate” report that Rich was WikiLeaks' source for the DNC emails
Zimmerman’s only “corroboration” of her anonymous source’s claim that he read the FBI report that showed Rich and WikiLeaks’ MacFayden were in contact was that the claim “is consistent” with Wheeler’s probe. She reported that Wheeler told her: “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks. … I do believe that the answers to who murdered Seth Rich sits on his computer on a shelf at the DC police or FBI headquarters.” But again, Zimmerman presented this assertion without producing any evidence to back it up, and Wheeler later claimed that that quote had also been fabricated.
This was all the evidence Fox apparently required to publish a story promoting the conspiracy theory. And the network’s on-air talent picked it up from there, with Zimmerman’s report trumpeted to audiences of millions on shows like Fox & Friends, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and Hannity.
Fox reportedly published the story because it had been scooped
How could did this happen? CNN’s Oliver Darcy provided an explanation in an August 2017 report. In this telling, the “frenzied saga” that led to the story’s publication “took place over a period of less than 24 hours”: Zimmerman had filed a draft of her story, but it had “no concrete publish date.” But Wheeler set the wheels in motion by telling a reporter for local Fox affiliate WTTG all about the story that he said Fox News was preparing to publish. Within hours on May 15, WTTG ran a segment pushing the Rich conspiracy theory based on the reporter’s interview with Wheeler.
CNN reported that when that story went viral on conservative media outlets, a top Fox News digital editor responded by publishing Zimmerman’s story without subjecting it to the usual editorial process:
By the time Greg Wilson, who was at the time deputy managing editor of FoxNews.com, entered the office on the morning of May 16, the story was everywhere. Even “Fox & Friends,” the network's morning show, did two segments on the case based largely on WTTG's report. Wilson rushed to prepare Fox News' own article -- which included quotes attributed to Wheeler -- for publication and set it live on the website. Zimmerman's story soon replaced the previous text on the Fox News website and was featured on the homepage as the top story.
It's not clear exactly what kind of vetting, if any, the article went through during the rush to publish it and stake Fox News' claim to the story. A person familiar with the situation told CNN that at least two steps in the usual vetting for an article like this -- review by Refet Kaplan, managing director of FoxNews.com, and by the network's legal team -- did not happen.
Zimmerman’s story began collapsing almost immediately under scrutiny from more credible news outlets, which reported that the FBI was “not involved in the case” and that Rich’s computer email activity did not indicate he had even been in contact with WikiLeaks. The other reporting also included denials from the Rich family and the Washington, D.C., police and looked into both Wheeler and Butowsky. Meanwhile, Wheeler began walking back the article’s claims.
Fox promised an investigation into the story, then went quiet
Following a week of brutal coverage, Fox finally retracted Zimmerman’s article. The piece was replaced with an editor’s note which claimed that the article “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting” and that upon further review, it was “found not to meet those standards.”
The note further promised to investigate how the story had been published and release that information publicly. But two years later, no such updates have been provided. Does Fox believe that Zimmerman’s anonymous source wasn’t credible? Does the network feel that its own contributor’s investigation was not sufficient to report on? We still don’t know.
Fox has not held any of the people involved in the story’s publication accountable either. Zimmerman is apparently still a Fox reporter; Greg Wilson, the story’s editor, was subsequently promoted; and none of the on-air talent that promoted the conspiracy theory even apologized.
And with no accountability for such a monstrous failure from the network’s “news” side, there’s every reason to suspect that something like this will happen again.