Fox News’ announcement last week that it had settled a lawsuit with the parents of the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich marks a rare instance in which the network paid a literal price for producing ghoulish pro-Trump propaganda. But the decision to pay up in order to end the litigation also shows just how far Fox executives are willing to go to avoid transparency and accountability for the network’s total lack of editorial standards.
Four months into President Donald Trump’s presidency, Fox’s Rich reporting signaled the network would do virtually anything to protect him. The network’s “news” division and its unhinged right-wing stars insinuated that unknown forces might have assassinated the 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer, murdered the summer before while walking home after midnight in what police concluded was a botched robbery, as retaliation for his purported role in providing emails to WikiLeaks that the group released during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Fox’s gruesome narrative originated with a dubiously sourced FoxNews.com article written by Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and published on the morning of May 16, 2017. The report collapsed within hours as journalists at more responsible outlets scrutinized its claims. But the network’s right-wing hosts aggressively promoted the story, led by prime-time star Sean Hannity. The sometime Trump political operative championed it for a week, even as Rich’s family begged him and other conservative commentators to stop pushing the “unspeakably cruel” smear and end the “family’s nightmare.” FoxNews.com retracted the story on May 23, 2017, and Hannity largely backed down in the face of a looming advertiser boycott.
The network’s reporting was part of a calculated effort to defend Trump no matter the cost, at a time when the president was engulfed in scandal after publicly admitting he had fired FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. As Hannity put it, the “explosive” FoxNews.com report “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.”
Fox will pay a hefty price for its Rich conspiracy theories. Last week, the network publicly disclosed that it had settled a lawsuit brought by Rich’s parents, who alleged that Fox’s coverage caused them emotional distress. Terms of the deal were not released, but according to Yahoo News' Michael Isikoff, Fox made “a lucrative seven figure payment to the Rich family” to end the litigation.
The settlement allows Fox executives to complete their cover-up of the network’s Rich reporting. Isikoff reports that Fox News had been “forced to turn over hundreds of internal emails and documents relating to its story,” which “were sealed but could have become public if the lawsuit proceeded.” And the Rich family’s lawyers were scheduled to depose key Fox stars and executives, including Hannity and network President Jay Wallace, over the following weeks.
Now the documents will remain sealed and the depositions won’t happen, preventing disclosures that may have been quite damning. Journalists at other outlets have reported in the years since Fox retracted Zimmerman’s story that her story had been rushed through editing; that she may not have actually spoken to the anonymous source her story hinged upon; and that Fox editors subsequently questioned whether that source even existed.
But litigation shouldn’t have been necessary for Fox to publicly explain how it erred in promoting the Rich conspiracy theory -- the network promised to do so more than three years ago. When Fox retracted the original FoxNews.com story, its text was replaced with a message promising an internal investigation into how the network had published materials that didn’t undergo the “editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” Two months later, as confused network employees questioned why no results had been released from that probe, Wallace confirmed to CNN that it was ongoing. At times, the network’s representatives suggested that ongoing litigation prevented further comment on the topic. The conclusion of those lawsuits rendered that excuse moot, but a week after the announcement of the settlement, there’s still been no movement.
In reality, the purported internal investigation was a sham all along, a PR gambit the network used to try to reduce public pressure by making vague gestures toward ethical guidelines it had no intention of enforcing. On a similar note, Fox also cut ties with Zimmerman in the wake of the settlement. She’s taking the fall for the network, while the more prominent right-wing talkers who spread her story, like Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Newt Gingrich, kept their jobs or were even promoted. The network owes the public answers, but answers might raise awkward questions about why those people still have their jobs, and so they won’t be provided.
That’s not how a normal news outlet behaves, but as the network’s own staffers have acknowledged, Fox is a propaganda channel. The Rich conspiracy mongering was an early sign of just how deep into the fever swamps its abominable propagandists were willing to go. Along with later heinous cases like Fox’s efforts to hamstring the response to the coronavirus and its defenses of the tear gassing of peaceful protesters, it should stain the network forever.