This week brought a little bit of justice to the family of Seth Rich, the former Democratic National Committee staffer whose unsolved July 2016 murder launched a series of ghoulish right-wing conspiracy theories. Conservatives subjected Rich’s family to “unimaginable pain and grief” by alleging that he was the true source of the purloined DNC emails distributed by WikiLeaks that summer and was assassinated in retaliation. But on Monday morning, The Washington Times issued a formal retraction and apology for a March op-ed that regurgitated a variant of the conspiracy theory, claiming it was “well known in intelligence circles” that Rich and his brother Aaron had worked together to obtain and distribute the emails.
The conservative newspaper’s actions -- which came as part of a settlement Aaron Rich reached with the Times -- puts the spotlight on Fox News, by far the most powerful outlet to push the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
Last May, after the network -- led by Sean Hannity, who hosts its most-watched program -- descended into the fever swamps to raise questions about Rich’s death, Fox promised to “investigate” the situation and “provide updates as warranted.”
But 16 months later, no updates have been provided, no employee has been publicly disciplined, and all signs suggest that the network’s promise to review a massive failure was made in bad faith.
FoxNews.com’s May 16, 2017, story suggesting that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death, along with a similar report from the local Fox affiliate WTTG, generated a frenzy on the right. Rich conspiracy theories spread across the network, promoted by prominent Fox personalities including Hannity, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, and former House Speaker and Fox regular Newt Gingrich. Their grotesque effort sought to undermine the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the DNC emails had been stolen by Russian hackers as part of a successful Kremlin effort to deliver the presidency to Donald Trump.
Fox’s story unraveled within hours of its publication. But the network left the discredited report up on its website while its top host crusaded for the story in front of his massive Fox, radio, and Twitter audience. Only after six days and extensive critical media coverage did FoxNews.com finally retract the article, replacing it with a note stating that the piece had not met Fox’s editorial standards. “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted,” the statement concluded.
But the promised investigation never materialized. Two months after the retraction, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Fox employees were “left puzzled as to why” the network had not released the results of the probe and taken disciplinary action, forcing Jay Wallace, the network’s president of news, to go on the record stating that the investigation was ongoing.
More than a year later, nothing has changed.
The network has not apologized to the Rich family -- in fact, its lawyers argued in a successful motion to dismiss a lawsuit the family had filed against the network that Fox’s reporting had actually portrayed Seth Rich as a heroic whistleblower.
The editor who worked on the story -- which, remember, the retraction acknowledges did not meet network standards -- was subsequently promoted.
Hannity and Doocy have retained their lofty positions. Hannity, in particular, has never apologized for pushing the conspiracy theory, even as his instability and lack of standards triggered an ongoing advertiser exodus.
And Fox itself has gone quiet on the story, refusing to answer Darcy’s regular inquiries about the status of the network’s internal investigation.
The simplest explanation here is probably the right one. If Fox cared about what its staff did to the Rich family, if the network had the basic personnel standards you see in newsrooms throughout the country, if the powers that be were concerned that their audience had been exposed to a monstrous conspiracy theory, they would have done something about it by now.
As time passes, the natural conclusion to draw is that Fox’s promised “internal investigation” was a scam, a distraction to make it look like the network was taking its responsibilities seriously. Once time passed and the attention from reporters at other networks had dissipated, Fox could return to its business of lying to its audience.
Fox executives haven’t done anything about the network’s Seth Rich reporting because they don’t really care.