The press is “running wild” with reports that President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian officials, Sean Hannity declared last night, decrying the “biased, abusively biased, so-called news -- it’s really fake news, coverage.”
Just moments later, Hannity detailed a “massive breaking news story” -- “explosive developments” in last year’s “mysterious murder” of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. “If true, this could become one of the biggest scandals in American history,” the Fox host said of claims that Rich had been killed because he was the source of the stolen DNC documents acquired and released by Wikileaks.
But the story was not true -- it was vile, it was transparently false, and it collapsed at the first hint of skepticism, as several media accounts had already revealed before Hannity’s show aired. The Fox host had done exactly what he had falsely accused the mainstream media of doing.
This is Fox News at this moment in history -- desperate defenses of Trump that revolve around attacks on the rest of the press, interspersed with even more desperate efforts to change the subject and focus attention on some other liberal foe. Journalists for mainstream outlets continue to produce reports indicating that the nation stands on the precipice of a constitutional crisis. But Fox appears more committed than ever to convincing its viewers to voluntarily plug themselves back into the Matrix, where the Trump administration is actually going great, save for the vicious attacks by the president's enemies.
Fox News’ already abysmal journalistic standards have dissolved altogether as the network’s hosts try to salvage the presidency.
When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and later admitted that he did it because he didn’t like how Comey was handling the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, Fox’s hosts downplayed the events and claimed that the media was hysterical and the Democrats were melting down.
On Monday night, as the other cable news networks devoted their programming to the revelations surrounding Trump’s meeting with the Russians, Fox was downplaying the claims, defending the president, and spending time covering “rompers for men” and the purported misdeeds of college progressives.
And yesterday, after news broke that Trump had urged Comey to end his investigation of former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn in a potential obstruction of justice, the network’s commentators called the story “fake news,” attacked Comey, and devoted airtime to important stories like ABC canceling a television show that starred a conservative character and attacking a New York City Council member over a bill aimed at getting the president to release his tax returns.
Hannity’s decision to devote multiple segments of last night’s broadcast to Rich’s murder is ghoulishly instructive. In July, Rich was killed while walking home in the early morning. While law enforcement have suggested that he was the victim of a botched robbery, conspiracy theorists instead have claimed -- absent anything remotely resembling evidence -- that he was murdered because he leaked the emails published by WikiLeaks later that month.
Even as Rich’s family decried the conspiracy theorists and begged them to stop, Fox hosts brought the theory to a much larger audience, eager for nakedly partisan reasons to link Hillary Clinton to the murder and diffuse claims from intelligence officials that the emails had actually been stolen by hackers linked to the Russian government.
The latest iteration of the story is so obviously flawed that you have to desperately want it to be true to believe it. On Monday, a reporter for D.C.’s Fox 5 claimed that Rod Wheeler -- a vocal Trump supporter, Fox News contributor, and private investigator who was once hired to assist the Rich family’s search for Rich’s killer -- had told them there was evidence Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death, and that D.C. police were covering it up.
Fringe right-wing media and conspiracy theory websites rushed to promote the story, and Fox & Friends picked it up the next morning. But the story quickly evaporated after reporters began scrutinizing it, and by yesterday afternoon law enforcement sources had debunked the story, Rich’s family had condemned Wheeler’s comments, and in an interview with CNN, Wheeler walked back his claims and said that he had actually “only learned about the possible existence of such evidence” linking Rich to Wikileaks from a Fox reporter.
Before Hannity aired, a spokesperson for the Rich family issued a statement urging the network to be more careful because “using the legacy of a murder victim in such an overtly political way is morally reprehensible.”
The story was false, and promoting it clearly causes Rich’s family profound pain. But Hannity apparently didn’t care -- it was red meat to throw his audience between segments about the perfidy of the “destroy Trump media’s” lies about the president.
Fox’s executives don’t care either. Hannity pre-tapes his show. The network had to know by the time it aired that Hannity was reporting lies. Fox let it happen anyway.
Fox isn’t a news network; it’s a pro-Trump propaganda machine catering to an audience of supporters who want enemies to hate and explanations that vindicate the president, however tendentious. And its hosts don’t care who knows that, or who gets hurt along the way.