Fox News didn't deliver on its promised Seth Rich coverage investigation, so Media Matters is doing it instead. This is the second in a series marking the two-year anniversary of Fox’s publication of a story -- retracted seven days later -- that promoted the conspiracy theory that the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, and not the Russians, had provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Read part one, part three, part four, part five, and our timeline of events.
After the collapse of Fox News’ May 16, 2017, report pushing a conspiracy theory about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, reporters and other staffers at the network told other outlets they were furious and confused with the network’s handling of the story. They anonymously savaged Fox star Sean Hannity for championing the falsehood that Rich was mysteriously killed after handing over tens of thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks. As months passed, they criticized the network brass for not updating them either on the internal investigation into how Fox’s digital operation published the false story or whether anyone responsible would be disciplined for it.
But Fox’s Rich debacle was not limited to Fox’s “opinion” commentators or its digital operation. One of the network’s on-air news reporters had also played a key role in the fiasco -- Griff Jenkins, a longtime correspondent in Fox’s Washington, D.C., bureau.
On the night of May 15, 2017, local Fox affiliate WTTG ended up breaking Fox News’ then-unpublished story that Fox investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman had been writing. Rod Wheeler -- a Fox News contributor who had been investigating the Rich murder for his family and was the article’s only named source -- blabbed about it to one of WTTG’s reporters, who reported on his claims during the evening news. Within hours, the channel's report went viral on conservative online outlets and on social media.
Fox & Friends, President Donald Trump’s beloved morning talk show, picked up the story early the next morning. This wasn’t surprising as the program has a long history of promoting dubious or fabricated stories from the internet without scrutinizing them, and it had previously dabbled in Seth Rich conspiracy theories. And in an apparent effort to prime that program, a businessman who had paid for Wheeler to investigate Rich’s murder on behalf of the family allegedly copied its co-hosts on an email the night before, urging them to use the Rich reporting to undermine the notion that Russia had hacked the DNC and distributed the emails as part of an effort to help Trump’s campaign.
During the morning show, Jenkins also reported from Washington, D.C., in two early-morning segments on the Rich conspiracy theory, putting the credibility of Fox’s “news” side behind it.
Jenkins opened his first report by detailing the “bombshell new evidence” from the WTTG report, namely Wheeler’s claims that there was evidence Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death and that the investigation was being stalled as part of a coverup. Over the course of the segment, Jenkins also pointed to purportedly suspicious aspects of Rich’s murder, which police have ruled a botched robbery, including that it happened in the city’s “most popular neighborhood” and that Rich’s wallet wasn’t stolen.
Notably, Jenkins all but vouched for Wheeler, saying of the Fox contributor, “I’ve known Rod for a long time, and I know he’s been looking into this case for a long time in a parallel investigation.”
He also indicated that he was hard at work on the story, explaining that he had been trying to reach the Washington, D.C., police department’s public information officer line since the department at opened at 6 a.m. (the live segment began at 6:17 a.m.) and reached out to other crime sources but “nobody [is] telling me anything.”
“We are going to keep hunting this,” the correspondent added.
An hour later, Fox & Friends brought Jenkins back for an update on the developing story. This time, Jenkins not only repeated many of the same details from WTTG’s report, but also provided fresh reporting of his own: an interview with Wheeler that Jenkins claimed to have happened “moments ago.” But the story Jenkins got from Wheeler wasn’t the same one Wheeler gave to WTTG.
Jenkins reported that Wheeler told him, “Number one, a law enforcement source inside the investigation told him personally that he saw emails on a computer between Rich and a WikiLeaks contact, and he also says, number two, that the source told Rod he was instructed not to pursue the murder investigation 48 hours after Rich’s death.”
This suggests that Wheeler told Jenkins the same “law enforcement source” provided both details. But in the WTTG report Jenkins had discussed in the previous hour, Wheeler attributes the first claim to FBI sources, and the second claim to “a source inside the police department.”
(FoxNews.com’s Rich report, published soon after this segment, quoted Wheeler claiming that his investigation “shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks” but did not include him claiming he had spoken personally to someone who had seen the emails. Later that day, Wheeler told CNN he had only heard about the supposed emails through Fox’s Zimmerman, and he would later sue Fox News claiming she had fabricated his quote in her article.)
It’s unclear whether Wheeler was actively changing his story or if the details were muddled in Jenkins’ retelling, but either way the Fox reporter did not note the inconsistencies.
After repeating several of the purportedly suspicious aspects of Rich’s murder he detailed in the first report, Jenkins concluded that the story “is clearly developing.”
“You know, for a long time, on the internet and elsewhere, he has been rumored to have been the one who gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails,” co-host Steve Doocy responded. “So, if that is true, and we don’t know yet, looks like Russia didn’t give it to WikiLeaks. It was Seth Rich, perhaps.”
As Jenkins was discussing WTTG’s story on-air, back in the newsroom a top network digital editor rushed to publish FoxNews.com’s own report. But hours later, the story started falling apart. Wheeler walked back his claims, other news outlets reported that there were gaping holes in the WTTG and FoxNews.com stories, that the Rich family and the district police both denied the reports, and that the family demanded an apology and retraction from each outlet.
WTTG issued a clarification the next day noting Wheeler’s reversal, and Fox finally retracted its story on May 23 and announced that it would conduct an internal investigation into how it had been published.
But if you got your news solely from Fox & Friends, you never learned that the Rich story you had seen on the program had been debunked. The show never returned to the subject to admit it had been promoting a conspiracy theory, according to reviews of the iQ Media and internal Media Matters databases.
Those May 16, 2017, segments were also the last time Jenkins mentioned the Rich story on Fox. His colleagues on Fox’s vaunted “news” side didn’t pick up the slack either. According to a Media Matters review of the same databases, the network’s “news” programs did not mention the Fox’s Rich report until Wheeler filed a lawsuit against the network in August (Zimmerman’s story was updated to note that the Rich family had criticized Wheeler).
Once the story started to dissolve, Fox’s “news” side was apparently no longer interested in “hunting” it.