Fox News founder and sexual predator Roger Ailes used to brag that his wildly irresponsible network had never needed to run a retraction. That obviously mythical streak came to an end on May 23, 2017. That’s when Fox pulled a report it had run online the week before propping up the conspiracy theory that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been assassinated to cover up his purported role in WikiLeaks’ release of DNC emails during the 2016 campaign. Fox’s dubious, thinly sourced, and quickly debunked report had been trumpeted on air for days, particularly by star host Sean Hannity.
The network’s top news executive, Jay Wallace, promised at the time that Fox was conducting an internal investigation into how it had come to publish ghoulish conspiracy theory fodder ripped from the right-wing fever swamps. Three years later, the network has yet to produce the findings of any such probe. But reporters at more credible outlets who reviewed the network’s handling of the story have painted a damning portrait of institutional failure at every step of the process.
The latest salvo, from Rolling Stone Washington bureau chief Andy Kroll, reveals that the Fox reporter who authored the original online story may never have spoken to the single anonymous source on which the entire report rested. That points to monstrous malfeasance on Fox’s part -- either a total breakdown of or a complete lack of interest in basic journalistic standards.
Kroll’s August 16 story, based on “tens of thousands of pages of court documents and interviews with dozens of key figures,” details how Fox staff writer Malia Zimmerman teamed up with Fox contributor Rod Wheeler and green room gadfly Ed Butowsky to produce the original FoxNews.com article -- a challenging task given the complete lack of credibility of everyone involved.
Zimmerman’s story grew out of a grotesque, 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. She suggested that Rich -- and not Russia -- had been the source of those emails, citing the extraordinary claims of an anonymous “federal investigator” at an unnamed agency, who supposedly said Rich had been in contact with a WikiLeaks representative before he died and that he had provided that contact with tens of thousands of DNC emails.
In an investigation last year, Yahoo News chief investigative reporter Michael Isikoff reported that “Fox editors came to have doubts that [Zimmerman’s source] was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed.”
Kroll adds to the case against the source, reporting that “evidence suggests Zimmerman may not have spoken with the anonymous ‘federal investigator’ in her report.” He writes:
In a voicemail message produced in court, Butowsky told Wheeler that one reason Fox “pulled the story” is because “Malia did not actually speak to someone. She heard.” In a deposition, Wheeler testified Zimmerman told him “she did not physically speak to the FBI source. Someone else did.”
Everyone at Fox who was involved in the network's cynical ploy to use lies about a young man's murder for political gain should spend the rest of their lives deeply ashamed of what they did. But as Kroll points out, Zimmerman and Hannity still have their Fox gigs. Other key figures involved in the report’s publication and promulgation have even been promoted. The lack of accountability at the network is shocking -- but not surprising. After all, as one senior Fox employee told CNN in 2017, “No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn't true."