Monday marked the 700th day since Fox News promised to investigate how it had come to propagate fact-free conspiracy theories about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and to “provide updates as warranted." As of yet, the network has not revealed why it put Rich’s family through hell by pushing a vicious smear dredged from the right-wing fever swamps, and it probably never will.
In May 2017, Fox’s nonexistent editorial standards and unhinged prime-time personalities plunged the network into crisis. For nearly a year, right-wing online conspiracy theorists had postulated that Rich had provided thousands of stolen DNC emails that WikiLeaks published during the 2016 presidential campaign. With several ghoulish on-air segments and a credulous online report that quickly collapsed, Fox pushed that discredited hypothesis into the mainstream.
Fox was engaged in a cynical, partisan effort to undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had hacked the DNC and leaked the emails through WikiLeaks to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the effort backfired almost immediately as the network faced widespread public condemnations, internal dissent from embarrassed network staffers, and pleas from Rich’s anguished family. (“With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us,” his parents wrote in The Washington Post.) The incident sent a clear signal to the rest of the press that the network had become a propaganda arm of Trump’s White House, putting the network’s brand in jeopardy.
Fox executives took what was, for the network, an unheard-of stab toward accountability in response. They retracted the original FoxNews.com and replaced it with a promise that Fox would review how it had published materials that didn’t meet the network’s standards and “provide updates as warranted.” But it quickly became apparent that Fox’s actions weren’t on the level. Two months later, as confused network employees questioned why no results had been forthcoming, a top Fox executive told CNN the investigation was ongoing but provided no sense of when it might conclude.
No one at Fox has faced consequences for Rich commentary
That internal probe has now lasted longer than special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. To date, Fox has provided no public accounting of what went wrong, and it has announced no disciplinary action against anyone involved with promoting the conspiracy theory.
The author of the initial FoxNews.com story apparently still works at the network (though she hasn't published a story since August 2017), its editor has been promoted, and on-air commentators who pushed the conspiracy theory such as Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and Steve Doocy are still comfortably ensconced at Fox.
The subsequent years have provided more evidence that Fox’s Rich reporting was bogus. But as Mueller indicted Russian intelligence officers for the hack of the DNC, Attorney General William Barr publicly acknowledged that Mueller’s probe had found that Russians were responsible for the hacked emails, and the likes of the conservative Washington Times and prominent birther Jerome Corsi retracted and apologized for some of their own flawed Rich stories, the network has kept its internal probe under wraps.
Fox served as a vehicle for WikiLeaks’ reported disinformation
Last week brought a new opportunity for Fox to explain what went wrong. The Mueller report explicitly cleared Rich of providing the DNC emails to WikiLeaks, finding that the group had received them from their real source, Russian hackers, after Rich’s death. The report also criticized WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, for misleading the public by suggesting that Rich had been their source. “WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing,” the report states.
Fox provided a willing venue for this misinformation campaign. Assange repeatedly and unequivocally told Hannity that the Russian government was not his source during a January 2017 interview, a claim that the Fox host accepted both at the time and over the intervening years because it bolstered his talking point that Russia hadn’t tried to help Trump’s campaign. During the interview, Hannity asked Assange about a report that WikiLeaks had received documents from a “disgruntled Democrat,” whom Hannity later noted on his radio show may have been Rich (Assange demurred).
At a normal media outlet, news that the network had been used as part of a deliberate disinformation campaign might trigger an outraged response. But at Fox, producing propaganda that helps conservatives is simply the business model. The network’s PR team is still refusing to answer questions about how its Rich reporting went wrong, its reporters have not addressed the Mueller report’s revelations about Rich in detail on-air, and Hannity himself has been lashing out at other media outlets while ignoring his own failures.
Fox’s Seth Rich internal report seems like a sham
It’s probably safe to assume that we will never see the results of Fox’s internal investigation. Fox rarely has an actual interest in ensuring its personnel are meeting the basic ethical standards accepted at other newsrooms.
But the network is deeply concerned with its brand, and that’s the best way to think of this probe -- as the sort of PR gambit that its executives try in order to reduce public pressure until the media moved on.
In a Friday statement, Rich’s brother Aaron Rich responded to the release of the Mueller report last week by saying it provides “hard facts that demonstrate this conspiracy is false.” He continued:
I hope that the people who pushed, fueled, spread, ran headlines, articles, interviews, talk and opinion shows, or in any way used my family’s tragedy to advance their political agendas — despite our pleas that what they were saying was not based on any facts — will take responsibility for the unimaginable pain they have caused us.
But people like Hannity aren’t going to apologize for what they did to the Rich family, and Fox hasn’t done anything about the network’s Rich reporting because its executives don’t really care about them either.
Fox is a propaganda outlet geared toward ensuring the continued dominance of Trump and his movement.
The pain of Rich’s family is simply the cost of doing business.