On The Bill Press Show, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz explains how Sean Hannity spread the Seth Rich conspiracy theory
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A Republican operative’s email, revealed in a new lawsuit, turns the subtext behind the last year of Seth Rich conspiracy theories into text: Conservatives have been cynically deploying the murder of the Democratic National Committee staffer in an effort to protect President Donald Trump from the damning Russia story.
Conspiracy theorists have claimed since shortly after Rich’s July 2016 murder that he had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks and had been killed in retaliation; according to U.S. intelligence agencies, hackers linked to Russian intelligence stole the emails as part of an effort by the Kremlin to help Trump win the election. Originally floated on Internet message boards, the story was amplified by key Trump media allies like Fox News’ Sean Hannity, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, and the conspiracy site Infowars.
From the beginning, Trump’s allies used these conspiracy theories to try to kick up dust around the Russia story. As more stolen Democratic emails entered the public sphere, they cited Rich’s murder and his purported ties to WikiLeaks as pushback against the crystallizing evidence that Russian intelligence services were playing a key role in the election. But at the same time, the conspiracy theorists often presented themselves as the ones who really had the best interest of the Rich family at heart; the only ones interested in finding the real killer.
Fox gave the story new life in mid-May when it produced reporting prompted by the efforts of Ed Butowsky -- a Trump supporter and unpaid Fox commentator. Butowsky had hired Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and Fox contributor, to investigate Rich’s murder; Wheeler was cited in the network’s May 15 FoxNews.com report that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks.
The president’s media sycophants immediately sought to use the Rich story to defuse the Russia allegations. But Fox had to retract the story after it fell apart, and a humiliated Wheeler is now suing Butowsky and the network for damaging his reputation.
Wheeler’s lawsuit reveals that Butowsky’s concern with the Rich investigation had little to do with getting elusive justice for the murdered DNC staffer. It was a political operation aimed at protecting the president from the Russia scandal -- one that Fox was eager to support.
Butowsky made that clear in an email he sent to a list of Fox staff hours before the FoxNews.com’s story’s publication. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails,” he wrote, “and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.” The pro-Trump press had been searching for a way to defuse the collusion bomb, and Butowsky hoped he had found it.
In the days that followed, pro-Trump Fox hosts Steve Doocy, who had received Butowsky’s email, and Sean Hannity, the most prominent champion of Rich conspiracy theories, promoted the story using Butowsky’s language (emphasis added):
The lawsuit also adds new details that suggest that the story, published amid a slew of negative stories about the president and Russia, was deliberately timed to blunt the Russia debacle:
On May 8, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress about Russian interference. Yates testified that she had warned the White House in January that former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn could be "essentially blackmailed by the Russians."
On May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the federal criminal investigation into whether Trump’s advisers had colluded with Russia.
On May 10, according to Wheeler’s suit, Butowsky and the Fox reporter he had been working with told him they had “supposedly secured a source at the FBI who confirmed that emails were sent between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”
On May 11, Wheeler says he saw a draft of the story. The same day, Trump told NBC News that he had fired Comey because he was unsatisfied with Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, and The New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him over a private dinner at the White House.
On May 15, Washington reeled from a report that Trump had revealed classified information to Russian diplomats in an Oval Office briefing.
Later that day, Fox published the Rich story.
Conservatives wanted to help a president badly damaged by mounting evidence that he owed his election to a foreign adversary. Rich was just a pawn in their game -- he was an instrument they could use to further their argument. There are no limits to the depths the president’s media allies are willing to sink in their quest to defend the indefensible.
Enough with the bullshit
Political operatives have dishonestly seized on a murder to undercut the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election -- and Sean Hannity has been the point person for that cynical campaign, a lead steer for the nonsense.
Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer, was murdered July 10, 2016. Within days, initially at the behest of anonymous users on Reddit and 4chan, his murder would be used as the basis for a massive right-wing conspiracy theory, with the eventual purpose of undermining and discrediting the notion that Russia illicitly interfered in the 2016 presidential election in part by hacking DNC, DCCC, and John Podesta emails that WikiLeaks later published. And no one has done more to push this conspiracy theory than Fox News host Sean Hannity -- even after Fox News retracted a story about it that was published on its website.
Hannity had long dabbled in conspiracy theories about Seth Rich’s murder, but he went into overdrive when, on May 15, Fox 5 DC and FoxNews.com ran stories linking Rich to WikiLeaks based largely on the statements of then-Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler. This was just days after former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress about Russian interference.
In the week after that story was published (and quickly fell apart), Hannity repeatedly pushed the conspiracy theory on his television show, his radio show, and his Twitter account. Rich was referenced numerous times on his Fox News television show, and the story was hinted at in countless others.
Hannity’s coverage was so relentless that he was condemned by some of his coworkers, who reportedly told The Daily Beast that the host was “‘embarrassing’ the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.” Rich’s brother personally asked Hannity to stop pushing the conspiracy theories.
During all this, Hannity repeatedly made clear that he was pushing the story because it undermined the Trump/Russian narrative. (In fact, Hannity went back to the story in June and made the same point.)
After more than a week of flogging this nonsense, Hannity said on his television show that he would stop talking about Rich “for now.” Minutes later, he promised on Twitter to keep going:
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!
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 24, 2017
All this unfolded in the public sphere and proves Sean Hannity’s volatility. And look: Sean Hannity has long been a serial misinformer who has pushed lies and dishonest smears. He has been completely shameless in shilling for the far-right. Hannity has toyed around with basically every conspiracy theory that the far-right has proffered.
But now we have evidence that the deceit goes even deeper. And while Hannity is not named as a defendant, his story is inseparable from the story at hand.
We know that political operative Ed Butowsky played a key role in the retracted Fox story that set Hannity off on his conspiracy crusade in May. According to a lawsuit filed by Wheeler -- the Fox News contributor who served as a key source for the claims connecting Wikileaks to Rich in the May 15 Fox story -- that story was the product of a cynical attempt by Ed Butowsky, Fox News, and the White House “to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration's ties to the Russian government.” And once that story was published, Hannity was its chief promoter.
We know that Butowsky coordinated for him and Wheeler to meet then-press secretary Sean Spicer in the White House. We know that Butowsky sent talking points to Fox News hosts and producers detailing how to talk about the conspiracy theory in a way that undermined the reporting from credible outlets about Russian interference in the election. We know that in the days after Butowsky sent that message, his words were repeated once on Fox & Friends and multiple times on Hannity.
In short, we know that Hannity is not just a dishonest, volatile pro-Trump hack, but that he is a dangerous propagandist willing to do or say anything to shore up Trump support with his audience on a daily basis. Nothing Hannity says, to his audience or advertisers, can ever be trusted. He is both post-factual and post-ethical. There is nowhere that Sean Hannity will not go for political convenience. When Hannity takes to the air, there is nothing that he will not aid or abet to help Trump.
Journalism, regardless of its political consequences, deserves extensive protection from financial retaliation. Propaganda does not. And Sean Hannity is a rank propagandist. As Angelo Carusone wrote, if Fox News executives choose to not do the right thing and fire Sean Hannity, the obligation is on sponsors and the people at large to force their hand.
Enough is enough.
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Stone was one of the first to push conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder, and he has called on Rich’s parents to be “charged with obstruction” of the investigation into their son’s death
Roger Stone is doing damage control following the filing of a lawsuit alleging a scheme by Fox News and Trump administration officials -- including possibly the president himself -- to use the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to absolve the Trump campaign of accusations it coordinated with Russia.
During an appearance on Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory program, Stone said that officials he has spoken to at the White House are calling the lawsuit “bogus” and that he thinks the lawsuit will be dismissed “summarily.”
Wheeler alleges that Zimmerman published fake quotations attributed to him in a since-retracted May 16 story about Rich, and that Trump administration officials, including the president himself, were involved in crafting the story. The retracted story suggested that Rich, rather than Russia, provided WikiLeaks with emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged to NPR that he did meet with Butowsky and Wheeler prior to the story’s publication. The lawsuit also alleges that Trump himself reviewed the Zimmerman story before it ran.
Rich was murdered in Washington, D.C., in July 2016 in what local police believe was a botched robbery attempt. Conspiracy theories began spreading within weeks of Rich’s death and percolated throughout fringe right-wing media for nearly a year before finally exploding into the national conversation thanks to Fox News host Sean Hannity, who continuously hyped Zimmerman’s May 16 report.
During the August 1 broadcast of conspiracy theory program The Alex Jones Show, Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, said, “My sources at Fox and my sources in the White House tell me that the lawsuit filed by the black private investigator, former D.C. police officer, is completely and totally bogus.” Stone also added that he thinks the lawsuit will be quickly dismissed.
Stone was one of the first prominent figures to promote conspiracy theories about Rich’s death.
On August 9, 2016, less than a month after Rich’s death, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons:
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) August 9, 2016
In recent months, Stone has turned his sights on Rich’s parents, first calling their behavior regarding the investigation into their son’s death “suspicious,” and most recently saying that Rich’s “parents should be charged with obstruction" of the investigation.
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A new lawsuit alleges that Trump personally helped Fox create fake news regarding Seth Rich, and Sean Spicer admits that he took a meeting with two people involved in the story
A new NPR report confirms that the Trump administration met with a Republican donor and Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler about a now-debunked FoxNews.com report that pushed false claims about Seth Rich, a deceased Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer. As reported by NPR, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by Wheeler, the donor gave talking points about the Rich conspiracy theory not only to Wheeler but also to other Fox News employees, messaging that was then parroted on Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity’s show.
Wheeler's lawsuit also alleges that President Donald Trump helped with the article in order to distract from the ongoing controversy about Trump’s possible ties to Russia. Trump, people in Trump’s inner circle, and Fox News have all previously spread fake news and downplayed and delegitimized efforts to counter the spread of fake news.
In May, a Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., claimed that Wheeler, who is a private investigator, said police had told him that they were told to stand down regarding the death of Rich, a DNC staffer killed in what law enforcement has concluded was likely a botched robbery attempt. The affiliate also said that Wheeler said it was “confirmed” that Rich had spoken to WikiLeaks, which published thousands of leaked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.
FoxNews.com reporter Malia Zimmerman subsequently published an article on the site quoting Wheeler as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” and, “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.” According to the lawsuit, in conjunction with the FoxNews.com story, the Republican donor who brought Wheeler and Zimmerman together also suggested talking points to "various Fox News producers" and Fox & Friends on-air personalities, as well as to Wheeler for use on Hannity’s program. Both Fox News shows parroted the suggested messaging within days.
But the story was quickly debunked, with Wheeler admitting he had no evidence and D.C. police saying Wheeler’s supposed claim was false. Fox News was forced to later retract the story. Yet Hannity, who ran with the report, continued to push the conspiracy theory even after the retraction.
Wheeler, in an August 1 lawsuit against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman, and the Republican donor, investor/Trump supporter Ed Butowsky, now claims that Zimmerman made up those quotes she attributed to him. Wheeler claims that Trump was given the article in advance to review and urged its publication, and that the supposedly fabricated quotes were published “because that is the way the President wanted the article.” Wheeler added that Zimmerman and Butowsky, who bankrolled Wheeler’s original investigation into Rich’s murder, “had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.” Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer -- who had said in May that he knew nothing about the story -- has now confirmed to NPR that he met with Wheeler and Butowsky to discuss the article before it was published, adding that he did not know of any involvement by Trump.
Here’s audio of Spicer denying knowledge of the Rich story in May:
April 20: Wheeler, Butowsky brief Spicer on Seth Rich.
May 16: Asked about Fox story @ WH briefing, Spicer says he knows nothing about it. pic.twitter.com/lImdSOQAFf
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) August 1, 2017
The allegations come after Trump and his inner circle have worked tirelessly to cloud the actual meaning of fake news while spreading fake news stories themselves. Trump and his aides, echoing right-wing media including Fox News, have repeatedly called legitimate news stories and outlets they do not like “fake news.” People close to Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have pushed fake news -- as has Trump himself. Additionally, federal investigators are looking into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign digital operation, headed by Brad Parscale along with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm hired by the campaign, colluded with Russia to target voters in specific states with fake news.
And this would also not be the first time that Fox News has spread fake news. Last October, Fox hosts Howard Kurtz and Megyn Kelly both reported a fake news story that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called supporters of her primary opponent Bernie Sanders a “bucket of losers.” Kelly subsequently apologized for reporting the fake quote. In April, FoxNews.com published an article from the British tabloid The Sun that reported fake news originating from Russian state media; Fox later removed the article after The New York Times asked the outlet about it. Additionally, Fox News repeatedly tried to minimize and dismiss concerns about fake news after the 2016 election, calling them "nonsense” and “a fake story,” and claiming that fake news is actually just “in the eye of the beholder." And when Facebook considered (and later implemented) the idea of partnering with fact-checking organizations to fact-check potential fake news stories on its platform, Fox criticized the fact-checkers for having “a liberal bias” and a “proven” bias “against conservatives.”