In a segment on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assage on Friday’s edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the Fox News host brought on a purveyor of a truly pernicious conspiracy theory involving the murder of 27-year old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — a false narrative which Rich’s family has repeatedly urged right-wing media outlets to stop pursuing.
Moreover, Carlson and his production team cannot plausibly claim ignorance of a guest’s fringe views. Not only had this theory been spread by Fox for years — but during the interview, a montage of on-screen still photos included a group of people with a message spelled out on the sidewalk: “His name was Seth Rich.”
This right-wing media conspiracy theory revolves around the Russian hacking of the DNC server in 2016 and the subsequent release by WikiLeaks of politically embarrassing emails in an effort to help Donald Trump’s candidacy. The theory claims that Russia was not behind the DNC server hack and that it was in fact Rich who had leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. It also falsely claims that Rich’s July 2016 death was a retaliatory murder by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign. (The police and Rich’s family believe he died as a result of a botched robbery.)
The conspiracy theorists also say that messages on Rich’s laptop examined by the FBI show that he had been in communication with WikiLeaks. To be clear, an FBI source told NBC News in 2017 that the Washington, D.C., police didn’t even give the agency Rich’s laptop, while a former local law enforcement official said that the laptop “never contained any e-mails related to WikiLeaks, and the FBI never had it.”
Rich’s family declared in a public statement in May 2017: “There are people who are using our beloved Seth’s memory and legacy for their own political goals, and they are using your outrage to perpetuate our nightmare.”
Fox News has a long and shameful record on this story, which culminated in an out-of-court settlement with Rich’s family in 2020 for the infliction of emotional distress. Fox reportedly paid a seven-figure sum in order to avoid further litigation.
Carlson’s tin-foil hat guest calls Trump/Russia investigation “fake news”
On Friday night, Carlson brought on pro-Assange activist Andrew Zigmund to discuss the WikiLeaks founder’s ongoing legal troubles. Zigmund had repeatedly tweeted in 2018 that Rich had been “killed for exposing the words of the #DNC” and that the theft of the DNC emails had been “a leak not a hack.”
Zigmund also repeated these falsehoods in 2020, as a gratuitous interjection in a discussion on progressive voter mobilization during the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Zigmund did not directly refer to the Rich conspiracy theory during his appearance with Carlson, but Carlson’s team put up a photo referring to Rich on the screen during the segment.
The main topic of Zigmund’s interview was his call for the release of Assange, who was arrested in 2019 in London and faces an ongoing extradition proceeding to the United States under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information, including the names of military and diplomatic sources.
And while defending Assange’s actions on the subject of obtaining and publishing classified information, Zigmund did continue to press one of Fox’s favored talking points that “the whole predicate for Russiagate” had been false.
The Justice Department inspector general’s report in December 2019 made it very clear how the Russia investigation actually began: The FBI received a tip from an official with a “Friendly Foreign Government” that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos had told him that “the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).”
Fox’s record: An attempt to discredit the Trump/Russia probe, and a disgrace to any outlet claiming to be a journalistic enterprise
The network had initially pushed a claim in 2017 that Rich had contacted WikiLeaks and alleged that an unnamed “federal investigator” found that Rich had made contact with WikiLeaks figure and journalist Gavin MacFadyen. (MacFadyen had died of lung cancer in October 2016 at age 76, and was thus unable to comment on the story.)
The online article was soon retracted, with Fox acknowledging that it was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” The network promised to “investigate this story and … provide updates as warranted.” Such public updates have not been forthcoming, but there are reports that the network came to have doubts over whether the unnamed “federal investigator” even existed.
Fox’s article also relied on alleged quotes from private investigator and Fox contributor Rod Wheeler, stating that Wheeler told Fox “someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.” Wheeler later sued the network claiming that it had fabricated those quotes, though a judge dismissed his suit on the grounds that he “cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact.” (Wheeler’s private investigation activities had also been paid for by Republican operative Ed Butowsky.)
Fox host Sean Hannity was the main figure to push the false narrative about Rich’s murder, as part of a deliberate attempt to undermine the intelligence community’s settled finding that Russia was behind a hack on the DNC servers. Purported “news”-side personality Griff Jenkins also joined in promoting the “bombshell new evidence” on the air. And in perhaps in the single worst example of all, Fox News host Laura Ingraham questioned the morals of Rich’s family for not pursuing the allegations, claiming that, “reading between the lines,” they were motivated by politics and money.
Rich’s family demanded a retraction of the entire story, though Hannity and others on the network continued to push it. Also, Fox’s political reporters anonymously leaked their grievances to The Daily Beast about the network’s continued promotion of the debunked story.
In the face of legal threats, Hannity announced in May 2017 that “out of respect for the family's wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.” But he continued to voice it even two years later.
Fox eventually cut ties with Malia Zimmerman, the online reporter who wrote the retracted story in 2017 — which could possibly have made her the only network figure to actually face consequences for the story. In contrast, many others who were involved in this disgraceful episode have continued to thrive at the network.