Sean Hannity and Fox News take anti-press victory lap over Barr memo that demolishes their Seth Rich conspiracy theories

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Fox News’ prime-time lineup has responded with glee to Attorney General William Barr’s memo summarizing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham have framed the document not only as a complete vindication of President Donald Trump, but as definitive proof that the media enabled a hoax by reporting on ties between Trump’s associates and Russia. And the Fox hosts plan to relentlessly drive that narrative home, in keeping with their network’s decades-long campaign to undermine public confidence in the press. “We will call out every single solitary liar, con artist, who actively promoted a hoax, conspiracy theories, many for personal and political gain only, for power,” Hannity claimed on Tuesday. “This is now part of our mission going forward."

These charges, consistent with Trump’s own talking points, are both overwrought and premature. Barr’s letter quotes Mueller’s report as stating that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But no one outside the Justice Department has actually seen the report itself, meaning that this debate is happening absent a full understanding of what Mueller found. Collusion aside, Mueller’s probe resulted in indictments of 34 people and guilty pleas or successful verdicts involving several of Trump’s closest advisers. And it is foolishly myopic to suggest that Mueller not charging a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and Russia somehow invalidates the painstaking reporting on the unethical and newsworthy ties between the two.

Moreover, there’s a great deal of hypocrisy in Fox hosts trying to leverage the Barr memo to attack others in the press for promoting a “hoax.” One thing the Barr memo does quite clearly is yet again demolish one of the network’s own conspiracy theories -- that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, rather than Russian hackers, provided thousands of stolen DNC emails that were released by WikiLeaks before the 2016 election.

“The Special Counsel's investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election,” Barr writes. “The second element involved the Russian government's efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election. The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”

As Barr points out, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers in July 2018 in connection with hacking and stealing documents from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the DNC. That indictment lays out how the Russian hackers provided more than 20,000 stolen DNC emails and other documents to WikiLeaks and discussed “the timing of those releases” in order “to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” WikiLeaks published the documents on July 22, 2016, three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention.

The DNC first alleged it was the target of Russian hackers way back in June 2016. But in the despicable fever swamps of the internet, Rich’s unsolved murder on July 10, 2016, provided grist for a more politically useful tale. WikiLeaks hadn’t received the DNC emails from Russian hackers, the story went, but from Rich, a whistleblower who had then been slain in retaliation, perhaps by Clinton associates. Several versions of this story made the rounds in the months after Rich’s death, despite the U.S. intelligence community's October 2016 determination that Russia had hacked the DNC. (Throughout the campaign, Trump also repeatedly denied that Russia had been behind the hacking.)

In May 2017, Fox News pushed the discredited conspiracy theory into the mainstream. Amid a media firestorm over Trump’s public declaration that he had fired FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the Russia probe, published a story suggesting that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death.

That May 16, 2017, piece, together with a similar story from the local Fox affiliate WTTG, fell apart within hours of their publication. But the reports nonetheless generated a frenzy on the right and were promoted on-air by several prominent Fox personalities. Fox’s actions not only misled its audience -- they caused unspeakable pain to Rich’s family, which once again had to withstand the “nightmare” of new questions about Seth’s death. finally retracted the article after six days of brutal media criticism. In its place, the network left a note stating that the piece had not met Fox’s editorial standards and promising an investigation into what went wrong.

But nearly two years later, whatever internal probe the network started has had no public result. The reporter who wrote the story still apparently works at the network, the story’s editor was subsequently promoted, and the network’s PR team refuses to answer questions about the status of the investigation.

It seems quite clear that Fox’s probe was a scam, a PR tactic used by a network with little regard for basic standards of journalistic ethics but quite a lot of interest in dissipating outrage about its despicable behavior. That unwillingness to come to terms with the network’s failures may upset some on the network’s “news side,” but Fox executives know that it’s the red meat provided by its prime-time hosts that delivers the network its audience, and will side with them every time. And no credible internal report from Fox detailing its failures on the Seth Rich story could avoid holding accountable the network’s biggest star: Hannity.

Hannity was the chief proponent of the Rich conspiracy theory, returning to it again and again on his Fox show, his radio show, and his Twitter feed. And he made it very clear that he was deploying it in service of the president. “If it was true that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails,” Hannity asked on his May 18 show, “wouldn't that blow the Russian collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?”

When the network retracted its story, Hannity was defiant, telling his radio audience, “All you in the liberal media, I am not or; I retracted nothing.” His unhinged commentary only ended after desperate pleas from Rich’s family to stop exploiting Seth’s death, an advertiser exodus, and reportedly a direct order from the Fox brass to stop.

In the months since then, it’s become clear that the network has no rules for Hannity, who has repeatedly refused to obey anything remotely resembling basic journalism standards. “It’s hard to overstate​ how little Hannity cares about Fox News leadership, with which he rarely interacts,” Mediaite’s Aidan McLaughlin reported last week. “One of the prevailing dynamics that has settled in as Fox News entered its post-Ailes era is that Hannity is untouchable.”

Hannity claims to be on a mission to denounce liars and con artists who promote conspiracy theories for political gain. He should start with himself.