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.
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: