Rod Wheeler | Media Matters for America

Rod Wheeler

Tags ››› Rod Wheeler
  • Fox’s “investigation” of its Seth Rich reporting is an obvious, predictable sham

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fox News’ employees, reports CNN’s Oliver Darcy, are “perplexed” with the state of an ongoing internal investigation into their network’s since-retracted May reporting on the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. A lawsuit filed against the network by one of the report’s subjects thrust the story back into the news this week, and beset by a new wave of criticism, Fox’s journalists want their questions answered: Why Fox has not given a public accounting of why it published a report, based on shoddy evidence, indicating Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks shortly before he was killed? Why does Malia Zimmerman, the reporter who wrote the story, continue to publish pieces on  FoxNews.com? Did a “top editor” review the story before its publication? And most of all, why has no one has been fired over the journalistic disaster nearly three months after it imploded?

    The answer to all these questions is the same: That’s the way Fox operates.

    Fox does not conduct internal investigations because the network’s executives want to get to the bottom of failures and hold people accountable. Fox conducts investigations when the heat is on and executives need to make it look like they are doing something about it. Their reviews are a public relations exercise that give them time to assess whether the level of criticism demands action, not an effort to maintain high ethical standards.

    If Fox was actually serious about maintaining its journalistic integrity after descending into the sewer by promoting long-debunked Rich conspiracy theories, the network would have long since fired Zimmerman, the story’s editor, and Sean Hannity, the Fox host who kept promoting the story long after it fell apart.

    CNN had a story about Anthony Scaramucci fall apart in late June. The network’s response to the situation was very different from Fox’s interminable Rich review. CNN’s piece was published, investigated, and retracted over the course of a weekend. By that Monday, the story’s reporter, editor, and the head of the investigations division -- all highly credentialled veteran journalists -- had resigned. On Fox’s airwaves, this was seen as a sign of weakness, evidence of CNN’s “major credibility crisis,” as Hannity put it. But that’s what real news outlets do when they screw up -- figure out what went wrong as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and hold their journalists accountable.

    That’s not how things work at Fox. The network killed its internal investigation into sexual harassment after firing CEO Roger Ailes last year, choosing to, as Vanity Fair put it, get “the revenue machine back on track” once the media firestorm died down rather than expanding its assessment to examine Fox’s broader culture. A similar investigation into Bill O’Reilly bought the network time to assess the blowback the reports that he had sexually harassed colleagues had caused; once it became clear that ongoing advertiser boycotts threatened the bottom line, the longtime star host was shown the door. Faced with a decades-long culture problem the network did as little as possible to stop the immediate criticism, using these internal reviews as a tool to manage the blowback.

    The review Fox launched in the wake of its bogus Rich story focuses on the quality of the journalism the network produced, not the horrendous behavior of its employees. But the principle of the investigation remains the same: It was an effort to defuse widespread public criticism, not to get to the bottom of what happened and punish those responsible.

    As CNN’s Darcy explains, it should have been extremely easy for Fox to have done a quick, comprehensive investigation into its Rich reporting, if that was what executives wanted to do. The network employs all the key players involved in producing the story, and presumably it has access to Zimmerman’s notes and communications. The simplest explanation for why the review yielded no result is that it was a sham. Perhaps the network went through the motions, looked into the claims a bit, then sat on its findings; perhaps Fox announced an investigation and simply never followed through. Either way, the point was to stall, to act like it was doing something and wait for the rest of the press to move on. That worked, until the lawsuit put the network’s reporting back under the spotlight. Maybe now the heat has risen high enough that Fox will actually have to act, though it’s certainly possible those in charge are hoping attention will shift again and they can continue to make no response.

    It is extremely unusual for such a review to happen at Fox in the first place. When the network’s reporting is bogus and there is enough attention on the failure, Fox will usually issue an apology, as anchor Bret Baier did last year after his report that Hillary Clinton was on the verge of being indicted collapsed. In a more extreme case, as we saw with senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano’s nonsense claim that a British intelligence service had spied on Donald Trump on President Barack Obama’s behalf, the network might issue a brief suspension.

    But that’s as far as accountability tends to go at Fox -- as a senior network source explained to Darcy, “No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn't true.” And the higher up in the network’s pantheon you are, the less chance you will be held to account. It seems significant that while Fox’s staffers are whispering to Darcy about how shameful it is that Zimmerman remains on the payroll, no one even bothers to suggest that there should be repercussions for Hannity, who melted down over the story, continuing to trumpet it after key details were called into question, and never admitted fault or apologized. If this investigation is serious, it should end with his termination.

    "I think the lack of transparency is not that surprising," the senior Fox News employee told Darcy. "But it really forces the question, how much journalistic integrity does Fox News really have?” Not much, pal. Welcome to the party.

  • The email that gives away the pro-Trump media’s Seth Rich game

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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):

    • May 16: Doocy reports, “For a long time on the internet and elsewhere, he has been rumored to have been the one who gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails. So, if that is true, and we don't know yet, it looks like Russia didn't give it to WikiLeaks. It was Seth Rich, perhaps.”
    • May 16: Hannity claims that “explosive developments” in the Rich story “could completely shatter the narrative that in fact WikiLeaks was working with the Russians, or there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
    • May 18: Hannity claims: “If Rich, in fact, was WikiLeaks' source for DNC email leaks, it would confirm Russia was not involved. … Wouldn’t that blow the Russian collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?
    • May 19: Hannity claims: “What if it was somebody that was so disgruntled in the DNC at how they cheated Bernie and how the fix was in, if that turned out to be true that somebody did that, wouldn't that completely wipe out the entire Russia lie we've heard for months and months?

    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.

  • What the Seth Rich conspiracy theory is, why it matters, and why Sean Hannity must be the one to pay the price

    Enough with the bullshit

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Media Matters

    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:

    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.

  • Roger Stone says he's in communication with the White House about the Seth Rich lawsuit

    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

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    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.”  

    NPR reported on August 1 on a defamation lawsuit filed by Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, and frequent Fox guest Ed Butowsky.

    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:

    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.

  • Lawsuit ties Fox News’ “devious scheming” in Seth Rich reporting to Sky bid

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    A new lawsuit ties Fox News’ misconduct in its reporting of the murder of a Democratic staffer to parent company 21st Century Fox’s bid to takeover Sky PLC.

    NPR’s David Folkenflik reported today that Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler filed a defamation lawsuit stating that the conservative channel and a wealthy supporter of President Donald Trump “worked in concert under the watchful eye of the White House to concoct a story about the murder of” Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was killed in what Washington D.C. police believe to be a botched robbery attempt in June 2016. Rich’s murder has been the subject of unfounded conspiracy theories in the conservative media, especially on Fox News.

    Fox News was forced to retract a story about Rich’s murder featuring quotes by Wheeler last May. According to NPR, Wheeler says that Fox “and the Trump supporter intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration's ties to the Russian government. His suit charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.”

    Wheeler’s lawsuit connects Fox News’ conduct to parent company 21st Century Fox’s bid to take over Sky. Media Matters has opposed Fox’s bid for control of the British satellite broadcaster due to “the company’s demonstrated culture of malfeasance and governance deficiencies borne out of Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s commitment to advancing his personal political agenda.”

    The suit states that while Fox executives claimed they “were completely transparent during” meetings with British regulators about the bid, those executives “failed to disclose the facts regarding Fox’s role in the effort to influence American politics by disseminating” the Rich story. The suit adds that the “devious scheming” involved in Fox’s mishandling of the story “is precisely why British regulators have yet to provide a green light to Fox for the Sky takeover bid, and why many U.K. politicians question whether Fox is capable of news dissemination in a fair and neutral manner.” From the complaint:

    96. As part of the U.K.’s takeover rules, government officials referred Fox’s takeover bid to Ofcom, the communications regulation agency tasked with investigating Fox and issuing a report as to whether Fox had a “commitment to broadcasting standards.” As part of the regulators’ inquiry, attention was focused on whether Fox was “fit and proper” to exert such enormous influence over U.K.’s news and media industries.

    97. In an effort to convince regulators that Fox was in compliance with the rules, senior executives from Fox participated in meetings with Ofcom investigators and provided testimony under oath. Specifically, Fox Executives, including [general counsel Gerson] Zweifach, met with regulators in London on March 27, 2017, April 11, 2017, May 11, 2017 and May 30, 2017, to alleviate concerns regarding Fox’s ability to influence the media.

    98. Despite public claims that Fox Executives were completely transparent during the Ofcom investigation, upon information and belief, Fox Executives failed to disclose the facts regarding Fox’s role in the effort to influence American politics by disseminating Zimmerman’s story.

    99. Clearly, senior level producers at Fox, as well as [Executive Vice President of legal and business affairs Dianne] Brandi and [Executive Vice President of news and editorial Jay] Wallace, were aware of the fact that Zimmerman’s article, while unsubstantiated, provided support to the Trump Administration’s desire to divert attention from the Russian email hacking scandal.

    100. It is hard to imagine a clearer example of Fox’s willingness and determination to influence the news agenda and the political process than a situation where it knowingly generates and publishes fake news to further its own political agenda.

    101. Such devious scheming is precisely why British regulators have yet to provide a green light to Fox for the Sky takeover bid, and why many U.K. politicians question whether Fox is capable of news dissemination in a fair and neutral manner.

  • Trump administration met with a GOP donor and a Fox contributor about a fake story meant to distract from Russia probe

    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

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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:

    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.”

  • How the murder of a DNC staffer turned into a right-wing conspiracy

    The story goes through nearly everyone in right-wing media: Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Louise Mensch, Megyn Kelly, Jim Hoft, Julian Assange, and more

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It started with a late night walk on July 10, 2016. Seth Rich was talking with his girlfriend while walking through the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., when there was some sort of altercation. Rich was shot multiple times and died shortly thereafter.

    Nearly a year later, his death has become a cause célèbre among right-wing media and the fringiest elements of pro-Trump media, simply because he worked as a staffer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

    The conspiracy theories started immediately. The day after Rich was killed, a Twitter user connected the murder with a lawsuit filed by Bernie Sanders supporters against the DNC. (This lawsuit would later be the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories after the death of a process server that the coroner would later conclude was caused by accidental polypharmacy, or a combination of drugs.)

    The first right-wing version of the conspiracy theory was about confirming right-wing allegations against the Clinton Foundation. On July 13, conspiracy theory website WhatDoesItMean.com (previously cited by pro-Trump media) ran a piece, sourced to the Kremlin, claiming that Rich thought he was on his way to meet with the FBI about the Clinton Foundation when a “hit team” put in place by the Clintons killed him. The article also linked the conspiracy theory with two Russian diplomats who were expelled by the United States two days before Rich’s murder, and it concluded by claiming the hit team was captured on July 12 in Washington, D.C. The actual police events of July 12 had nothing to do with any of this. On July 14, Snopes debunked this conspiracy theory.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On July 22, WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails that had been stolen from the DNC, and Redditors immediately started guessing that Rich was the source of those emails. Heat Street, a News Corp. publication then run by Louise Mensch, ran a roundup of these rumors. In the post, Heat Street simply went through the “r/The_Donald” subreddit, listing different conspiracy theories that users had come up with, even comparing one theory to the work of mathematician John Nash and the movie A Beautiful Mind. Heat Street had also mentioned the FBI rumor in the bottom of a previous post about Rich’s murder, noting that there was no evidence to substantiate it.

    The one entity that did claim to be the WikiLeaks source was Guccifer 2.0. As The New York Times explained on July 27, while American intelligence services believed Guccifer 2.0 to be a front for Russian spies, the hacker claimed to be Romanian. In the report, the Times detailed evidence linking the emails to Russia, including “metadata hidden in the early documents indicating that they were edited on a computer with Russian language settings.”


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Notorious dirty trickster Roger Stone, a contributor to Alex Jones' conspiracy theory website Infowars, and WikiLeaks began pushing the conspiracy theory in earnest in August. In an August 8 tweet, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons, referencing the FBI version of the conspiracy theory. A day later, WikiLeaks announced that it was offering $20,000 for information, and founder Julian Assange himself brought up Rich unprompted on a Dutch TV program, implying that Rich was a source. The host was taken aback by Assange’s suggestion and tried to push him on what he was implying, but Assange did not clarify his remark:

    Pro-Trump media jumped on the interview. Mike Cernovich immediately promoted the interview while stating point-blank that Rich was the source -- something that even Assange never said. On August 10, Hannity discussed the interview on his radio show, saying that it wasn’t the Russians who gave WikiLeaks the information. Later in the show, he discussed the matter with Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft and Townhall’s Rachel Alexander. Hoft was befuddled as to why the Rich family would not want the matter politicized, saying that it could only increase the information about the murder.

    Also on August 10, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson published a video about Assange’s implication, expressing concern that Assange could be assassinated:

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also jumped on Assange’s interview on the same day, telling Mike Gallagher on August 10 that the conspiracy theory was “worth talking about.”

    WikiLeaks also issued a similarly vague statement on August 10.

    On August 11, WikiLeaks started sowing distrust in Rich’s family when it tweeted that the family’s spokesperson was a “professional Democrat” -- even though the same could be said for Rich himself.

    In the days that followed, Infowars ramped up its coverage. Watson cited a “source close to the Democratic party” who said his reporting was “on the money.” Infowars dutifully picked up Gingrich’s interview and used it to confirm its own assertions. The conspiracy theory site was particularly incensed that the Rich family would hire a spokesperson to quash conspiracy theories. And it went on to publish multiple pieces about Rich that included accounts of WikiLeaks’ assertions and implications about Rich.

    Assange would resurface and again hint that Rich was his source on the August 25 edition of The Kelly File, again declaring his interest in the case without actually saying anything about Rich himself. While Laura Ingraham and some others ran with what Assange said to Kelly File host Megyn Kelly, Fox host Greg Gutfeld hit Assange for pushing the conspiracy theory -- to the distaste of fellow Fox host Eric Bolling:

    The conspiracy theory machine would turn away from Rich for most of September and October, though during this time Hannity frequently talked with Assange on his radio show, eager for new leaks that could be damaging to Clinton. In September, Rich’s girlfriend and his family spoke with Chris Hansen of Crime Watch Daily about the case, condemning the claims. GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman also began working with the Rich family at this time, offering more than $100,000 in rewards for information. Burkman would later say that he could “rule out attempted robbery” based on his canvassing of the neighborhood.

    On October 7, The Daily Beast reported that “Russia’s senior-most officials” ordered the DNC hack. On November 2, fake news purveyor DC Gazette published a post saying that WikiLeaks’ source was neither Russia nor Seth Rich, but instead dissatisfied government staffers. On December 9, The Washington Post reported on a CIA assessment that Russia was behind leaks targetting the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

    This Post story would touch off a new round of conspiracy theories about Rich, and once again they began with Louise Mensch’s Heat Street. On December 14, the site aggregated comments on Twitter saying that it was Seth Rich and not Russia that provided WikiLeaks with the emails. The piece offered no theory as to how Rich could have gotten access to DCCC or Podesta emails; indeed, it’s unclear from the story if the author even understood that there were multiple hacks, even though Mensch herself turned up in the hacked Podesta emails (which the piece did not disclose). Weeks after this post, it was announced that Mensch had left Heat Street in “mid-December.” There is no indication if Mensch was still at Heat Street when this post was published.

    On December 15, Craig Murray, a “close associate” of Julian Assange, told the Daily Mail that he was a middleman for the leaks and that the handoff took place in D.C. in September. People immediately began tying Rich to Murray, even though Murray’s supposed handoff date (of which there was no evidence) took place months after Rich was murdered.

    Later that day on the radio, Hannity would cite Murray’s account as evidence that Russians were not behind the hacking. Later in the program, Hannity brought up Fox contributor John Bolton’s conspiracy theory from December 12 that if something looked like it was the Russians hacking, it might actually be a false flag in which someone made it look like it was the Russians. Assange agreed with the theory on Hannity’s show: 

    Hannity also called Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) an “idiot” for saying that Russians were involved in hacking:

    Weeks later, on January 3, Hannity returned to Rich, again saying that Rich may have been the source for Wikileaks:

    On January 6, U.S. officials released a report saying that Russians were behind the hacking. Suddenly, Hannity admitted that Russians have been hacking Americans for years:

    On January 12, Guccifer 2.0 denied the report that Russia was behind the hacking.

    Once again, the conspiracy mill died down, with occasional posts on 4chan and Reddit keeping the conspiracy theory alive.

    On February 27, Jack Burkman, the GOP lobbyist who at one point was allied with the Rich family, told the Daily Mail that he had evidence that the Russians killed Rich because Rich had evidence that they were the ones behind the hacking. Burkman’s only source was a “former U.S. intelligence officer” -- “an older man, 65-70 years old, who claims to have been a contractor in Iraq in the 1970s.” None of Rich’s friends or family members have given any indication that Rich had such an explosive secret.

    In mid-March, Stone admitted contact with Guccifer 2.0, but he claimed it was innocuous.

    On March 23, Burkman talked to Sinclair station WJLA in Washington, D.C., about launching a new investigation. Claiming that the investigation would be launched out of “the Seth Rich Center for Investigations” in Arlington, VA, Burkman now claimed to have a team including “a forensic physiologist, a security specialist and George Washington grad students.” But the piece also noted that the Rich family had no part in this effort.

    On April 8, a new conspiracy theory emerged alleging that Guccifer 2.0 was the middleman between RIch and WikiLeaks. Model Robbin Young published screenshots on her website of a purported direct message conversation she had with Guccifer 2.0 from August 25. In it, Guccifer 2.0 claimed that the DNC leak came from someone named “Seth” and responded affirmatively when Young talked about Rich’s murder. WikiLeaks, the subreddit “r/The Donald,” Gateway Pundit, Heat Street, and others immediately ran with the claim.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The conspiracy theory came to its most public stage on May 15. That was a week after Obama intelligence chief James Clapper and former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified before the Senate partially on issues relating to Russian hacking, days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey as a result of the Russian investigation, and hours after The Washington Post reported that Trump gave highly classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that compromised a valuable intelligence source.

    On that day, Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler told Fox 5 DC, a station owned and operated by Fox News’ parent company, that he had evidence that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.

    Sean Hannity pushed the story on his Twitter account shortly after midnight, including by quote-tweeting a vague allegedly hacked email of Podesta’s:

    After retweeting a video of the Fox 5 segment, Hannity affirmatively quote-tweeted someone claiming that Assange had previously said that Rich was his source (which, again, Assange had never actually said).

    The story exploded as conservatives latched onto a tale that ostensibly showed that the focus on Russia was misplaced. Drudge put the story on the top of the site. The subreddit “r/The Donald” went crazy. Pro-Trump media pushed the story hard. Fox News joined in on Tuesday morning. By 10 a.m., Hannity was lashing out at CNN's Oliver Darcy for noticing the trend.

    Hannity then quote-tweeted Robbin Young, whose story about Seth Rich was different from the one Wheeler was pushing and that Hannity was touting. (Guccifer 2.0 claimed that they served as the middleman between Rich and Wikileaks; Assange had implied and Wheeler had stated that Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks directly.) At no point then or later did Hannity ever seem to notice the discrepancy.

    At one point, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson even claimed that the Washington Post story about Trump giving highly classified information to the Russians was a hoax intended to cover up the Rich story -- a claim based on Watson completely misreading time stamps on the stories (the Post’s went up before the Fox 5 piece did).

    But soon, the Rich story fell completely apart. The Fox station admitted on May 16 that D.C. police said that Wheeler’s claim was false. Wheeler’s contact with the Rich family turned out to be frequent Fox News guest and Breitbart author Ed Butowsky. Wheeler himself admitted to CNN that he actually had no evidence. Wheeler instead claimed that his comments were reflective of the FoxNews.com piece that ran. Fox News’ piece, by Malia Zimmerman, cited Wheeler as the source of the claim.

    And yet, the transparent bullshit was still enough for pro-Trump media. On May 16, echoing Benghazi conspiracy theories, Gateway Pundit claimed there was a “stand down” order given to police regarding the Rich investigation. An “alt-right” troll asked Trump himself about Rich in the White House, getting no response. Anonymous posts on 4chan linked Rich to Pizzagate, Antonin Scalia’s death, Michael Hastings’ death, and even Media Matters. An anonymous post on 8chan even suggested that Rich was illegally surveilled and then improperly unmasked by former national security adviser Susan Rice.

    Lou Dobbs on Fox Business picked up the line of attack on Rich’s family that had previously begun with WikiLeaks and Infowars, saying there was “a partisan shroud” on Rich’s family:

    Later on May 16, Hannity even declared that Rich’s murder “could become one of the biggest scandals in American history”:

    Later in the show, Hannity talked with American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow and former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, focusing on the media being wrong about Russia. Hannity continually brought Rich into the conversation:

    Hannity then had Wheeler himself on the show. Wheeler continued pushing the conspiracy theory, even while admitting that he never had seen the evidence.

    The next day, even more claims collapsed. Newsweek reported that the FBI is not investigating Rich’s death, contra Wheeler’s claims, and a family spokesperson confirmed that D.C. police found no evidence of stolen emails ever being on Rich’s laptop. Fox 5 added an editor’s note that Wheeler had backtracked from claims that he made, but it did not retract the story. The story was in shambles. The Rich family demanded full retractions from Fox 5 and Fox News.

    Still, conservative media persisted.

    On May 18, after Mediaite published a post highlighting people mocking Hannity, Hannity again tweeted his belief in the conspiracy.

    Hannity then discussed the case at length on his show, re-airing Assange’s Dutch TV interview and previous radio interviews.

    On May 19, the Rich family sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rod Wheeler.

    The Russian Embassy in the U.K. trolled everyone when it stated as a fact that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source. Meanwhile, Infowars claimed that The Washington Post was reporting on the Comey memos only as a distraction from the Rich story.

    May 19 is also when Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom inserted himself into the story. Dotcom alleged that he had bombshell information on the case. As Dotcom, who lives in New Zealand, is fighting extradition to the United States to avoid trial for charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering, nearly everyone on the planet saw through the ruse, save for Sean Hannity.

    Hannity brought up the conspiracy theory again that night on his show with Jay Sekulow, apparently just for the purpose of saying that it is important because if true, it would clear Russia entirely.

    Over the weekend, it got even stranger.

    Stone escalated attacks on Rich’s parents, claiming on his radio show Stone Cold Truth they were engaging in “suspicious” behavior.

    Stone also told obvious lies. For instance, he claimed that Craig Murray said Rich was his source. First, Murray did not mention Rich in his comments about serving as a middleman for the emails. Second, Murray said he met his source in September, months after Rich had already been murdered. Third, nothing about what Murray actually did say is credible in the least -- there’s no evidence and nothing has been corroborated. There were other factual errors as well, though “Roger Stone says something factually incorrect” is the rule, not the exception.

    “Dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft jumped head-first into the Dotcom conspiracy, even one-upping Hannity by picking up an anonymous 4chan poster whose only claim to knowledge is “I work in D.C.” The post claimed there’s a “panic” in D.C. over the Rich conspiracy theory that right-wing media had been pressing.

    The following day, Hannity would echo this post:

    Hannity even admitted that it was about the Russia story:

    Also on Sunday, Newt Gingrich joined Fox & Friends Sunday and stated outright that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for DNC emails, even though he had avoided that conclusion in August. Pro-Trump media jumped to promote the interview.

    Another Gateway Pundit post took a video that the Rich family did thanking donors to a GoFundMe campaign and stated that it was actually done to thank conservative media for pushing the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, self-described “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone said that someone had edited Rich’s Reddit posts. Soon after, she added a “retraction” note to the post following a statement from the Pandas For Bernie Facebook group.

    Early on May 22, Assange was still playing coy about Rich and WikiLeaks

    But by this point, the story was getting attention in the mainstream media -- but only as a conspiracy theory run amok in right-wing media. As Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering had drawn attention, he became a focal point of criticism. The Daily Beast ran a story about Fox News personalities embarrassed by Hannity’s actions.

    Hannity was undeterred:

    On his radio show, Hannity said that he was right about Rich because he had been right about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot and killed while walking through a Florida neighborhood:

    (He wasn’t right about Trayvon Martin, by the way.)

    Geraldo Rivera, a perpetual gadfly when it comes to pushing terrible things, also jumped on the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, the subreddit “r/The Donald” announced plans for a march on D.C. about Rich’s death on its anniversary, claiming 1.1 million people could show up.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On May 23, everything came to a head. Rich’s brother personally asked Hannity to stop pushing the conspiracy theories. Shortly thereafter, Fox News retracted its story about Rich, the one that Rod Wheeler originally cited as the basis for his story. A statement from Fox News said that the story did not meet the site’s editorial standards.

    And yet after all of this, Hannity continued to push the story on his radio show.

    On Twitter, Hannity ecstatically promoted Kim Dotcom’s “revelation,” which was a big nothingburger.

    The Rich family then published an op-ed in The Washington Post begging commentators to stop pushing conspiracy theories about their son.

    Hannity then tweeted about the op-ed as if it wasn’t just about him

    Shortly before his television show, Hannity tweeted that he still stood behind everything he had said on the topic, but also that he just was on a call with three of his attorneys:

    On his show, Hannity said that he was stopping talking about the matter “for now” at the request of the Rich family:

    And yet before his show was over, Hannity hinted on Twitter that he was still looking at the story.

    He even retweeted gratuitous praise from Kim Dotcom.

    Meanwhile, Oliver Darcy, who followed the story closely from the beginning, had a list of good unanswered questions for Fox News about Hannity’s despicable and ghoulish actions.

    Hannity then begged for fans to spread the conspiracy theory.

    By morning, a Republican congressman was echoing Hannity.

    Newt Gingrich, after pushing the conspiracy both in August and again on May 21, suddenly said that he didn’t know anything about it, telling The Washington Post, “I don’t know anything about it. … I know exactly what has been said on the various blog sites. ... I think it is worth looking at.”

    The retractions and hedging were much too little and far too late. In the bowels of pro-Trump media, Hannity had become a martyr and the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was gospel.

    The enduring tragedy of the episode is that the Rich family will likely have to live with this delusion bubbling up for a very long time. Even worse, pro-Trump media will say that they are part of it.

    No family deserves that.

    Research assistance provided by Bobby Lewis

  • Seth Rich's family sends cease and desist to Fox News contributor behind evidence-free smears

    Rich family: “Your statements and actions have caused, and continue to cause, the Family severe mental anguish and emotional distress”

    Blog ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ

    According to NBC News, the family of murdered DNC employee Seth Rich sent a cease and desist order to Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler after his recent allegations led right wing media figures to smear Rich as the person responsible for providing WikiLeaks with DNC emails. Wheeler alleged that the murder was somehow related to a purported relationship between Rich and WikiLeaks, despite finding no evidence that Rich had ever been in contact with WikiLeaks. The Rich family previously demanded an apology but did not receive one.

    In a May 15 article and subsequent newscast, Fox 5 quoted Rod Wheeler as saying  “a source inside the police department” told him the department was “told to stand down on this case.” Wheeler also claimed it was “confirmed” that Rich had links to WikiLeaks. According to CNN, “no real evidence has been provided to support such claims and Washington's Metropolitan Police Department.”

    Right-wing media seized on this story with Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs smearing Rich as potentially being behind the WikiLeaks release of DNC emails.  The right-wing One America News Network has also fueled the conspiracy, even offering $100,000 for information about Rich’s death during a conspiracy-fueled report.

    Conservative media’s exploitation of the Seth Rich murder spurred the family to threaten Wheeler with legal action, saying, “Your statements and actions have caused, and continue to cause, the Family severe mental anguish and emotional distress. Your behavior appears to have been deliberate, intentional, outrageous and in patent disregard of the Agreement and the obvious damage and suffering it would cause the family.” From a May 19 NBC News report:

    The family of slain Democratic staffer Seth Rich is threatening legal action against a private investigator after his "outrageous behavior" has given fuel to right-wing conspiracy theories about the unsolved murder of their son.

    An attorney representing the family of Rich, who was 27 when he was killed last July, sent a cease and desist letter Friday to Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who was employed by the family and earlier this week told a Fox affiliate that he believed police were covering up details about the crime.

    "Your statements and actions have caused, and continue to cause, the Family severe mental anguish and emotional distress. Your behavior appears to have been deliberate, intentional, outrageous, and in patent disregard of the Agreement and the obvious damage and suffering it would cause the Family," wrote Joseph Ingrisano of the law firm Katuk Rock, according to a copy of the letter shared exclusively with NBC News.

    "Your improper and unauthorized statements, many of which are false and have no basis in fact, have also injured the memory and reputation of Seth Rich and have defamed and injured the reputation and standing of the members of the Family," Ingrisano continued.

    The letter demands Wheeler "immediately and permanently" cease and desist from making any comments about Seth Rich or his death and suggests he could face further legal action either way.

  • How A Fox Affiliate And Contributor Fueled Fringe Conspiracy Theories About Murdered DNC Staffer

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    A Washington, D.C., Fox News affiliate’s shoddy reporting purposefully validated right-wing conspiracy theories about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich when the station published unproven claims that Rich directly communicated with WikiLeaks regarding the leaked committee emails published on that site. Following the publication of the Fox 5 DC story, Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Sean Hannity further fueled the conspiracy theories when they retweeted new conspiracies about the Rich story, including a false claim that a Washington Post report on Trump sharing classified information with Russia was published to drown out Fox 5's story. 

    In a May 15 article and subsequent newscast, Fox 5 DC’s Marina Marraco quoted Rod Wheeler, a private investigator once hired to assist the Rich family’s search for Rich’s killer, who claimed that “a source inside the police department” told him that the department was “‘told to stand down on this case.’” Wheeler also said it was “confirmed” that Rich had links to WikiLeaks. Alex Griswold, a reporter for right-wing publication the Washington Free Beacon, pointed out that Fox 5’s story was “entirely hearsay” and chided the news station for failing to disclose that Wheeler is a vocal Trump supporter and a paid Fox News analyst.

    The article was updated on May 16 to include a note that the station had spoken to D.C. police since publication and was told that Wheeler’s claim was false. The Rich family issued a statement saying family members had seen “no facts” and “no evidence” to suggest Rich had worked with WikiLeaks. It also noted that a “third party” paid Wheeler for his investigative work and that he was “contractually … barred from speaking to press.” But the updates came too late to prevent the unsubstantiated claims published in Fox 5 DC’s report from becoming fuel for the right-wing conspiracy theory machine. (Marraco’s article even acknowledged that the claims she was publishing “could prove these theorists right.”)

    By the next morning, fringe right-wing media and conspiracy theory websites had run full speed with the false allegations made in the Fox 5 DC article. Breitbart.com ran an article on its home page claiming that Fox’s shoddily sourced article may prove that the hack of DNC emails was “an inside job.” The Drudge Report ran a screaming banner on its site claiming Rich “had contact” with WikiLeaks and linked to the Fox 5 DC article:

    The Gateway Pundit published a “BREAKING” piece about the conspiracy theory linking to the Fox 5 DC article. Fringe conspiracy theory sites World News Daily and ZeroHedge also regurgitated the Fox 5 DC article to claim a conspiracy theory. The baseless speculation quickly jumped to more established outlets, as FoxNews.com made it the lead morning story on its website, and Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Circa News and Fox News’ Fox & Friends also promoted the story:

    Some conspiracy theorists, including InfoWars' Paul Joseph Watson, even spread claims that The Washington Post’s report about President Donald Trump sharing highly classified information with Russian officials was printed to drown out the “bombshell news” story reported by the Fox affiliate. Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Sean Hannity retweeted this false claim. But Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel set the record straight, noting that the Washington Post story went up before the Fox 5 story was published.

    This isn’t the first local news station to lend legitimacy to a fringe conspiracy theory that resembled fake news. In January, a CBS Atlanta affiliate ran a segment promoting the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that a Washington pizza parlor was the headquarters of a child sex-trafficking ring involving the Clinton family.

    Update:

    White House credentialed "alt-right" troll Jack Posobiec posted video in which he asks President Trump for comment on the conspiracy theories surrounding Rich's murder in a video uploaded to Twitter May 16: