How the Seth Rich Conspiracy Could Stop Fake News at Fox News and Other Conservative Outlets

John Kerry served dishonorably during the Vietnam War. Barack Obama is a Muslim, born in Indonesia. Hillary Clinton knew about Benghazi, and yet did nothing. These and many other untruths have been disseminated in the right-wing media, which couches them in the principled bluster of the fearless truth-teller taking on the media establishment. They have been eagerly repeated and amplified on the internet, where journalistic standards are looser, if not nonexistent.

But in the family of Seth Rich, Fox News and younger, internet-based outlets like Infowars and Breitbart News appear to have encountered a formidable foe: grieving parents outraged at the fake news that has been spread surrounding Seth's murder. If the Rich family succeeds in the lawsuits they've filed this month, conservative media will have to collectively face, for perhaps the first time, the effects of spreading misinformation. Even if victorious, the Rich family is unlikely to cripple the enormously profitable media organization like Fox, which is run by Rupert Murdoch, one of the world's wealthiest individuals. But the public reckoning can be just as powerful as a financial defeat.

Rich was shot and killed in the summer of 2016 as he was walking home from a bar in the Northwest section of Washington, D.C. His belongings weren't taken, and no suspect was ever named or apprehended. That eventually gave rise to a theory: That Rich, who was an employee of the Democratic National Committee, was killed because he was involved in the leaking of emails to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assange published those emails about two weeks after Rich was murdered. Rich had been a one-time supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who waged a bitter primary battle against Hillary Clinton, widely seen as a favorite of the party establishment. The DNC emails depicted the Clinton campaign in a deeply unflattering manner. Perhaps the killing had not been a robbery gone horribly awry but an act of cold-blooded retribution by the famously vindictive Clinton clan.

On May 16, 2017, the Fox News website published an account written by journalist Malia Zimmerman: "Slain DNC Staffer Had Contact With WikiLeaks, Say Multiple Sources." Zimmerman wrote that private investigator Rod Wheeler found evidence of a cover-up regarding Rich's killing, implying that he had been the Wikileaks source within the DNC. That, presumably, had been the reason for his killing.

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Fox News

Sean Hannity eagerly promoted this version of events on his primetime show, of which President Trump is said to be a devoted fan. This came at a time when the investigations into the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia were intensifying. Hannity offered a compelling counter-narrative, one that implicated the Democrats while exculpating Republicans.

"We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments," said Newt Gingrich on Fox News on May 21.

That same day, Hannity tweeted, "If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion."

And then, poof. Zimmerman's story was retracted on May 23, replaced by a brief statement about the "high degree of editorial scrutiny" Fox News said it demands from its journalists. Hannity promised to continue his own investigation, but by the time Memorial Day arrived, he also grew silent.

This only confirmed what everyone already knew: That the right's Rich narrative was an elaborate concoction meant to distract from reality. But the Obamas and Clintons are elder statesmen, and can withstand Hannity's smears. Joel and Mary Rich are decent Midwestern people who lost a son. They have no reason to restrain their outrage.

Their suit, filed earlier this month, is not the first to call into question the credibility of the Seth Rich story, as well as of Fox News as a news organization. Nor is it the first lawsuit involving Zimmerman's story from last May. In August of 2017, Rod Wheeler — the private investigator whose work supposedly formed the basis of Zimmerman's account — sued the network, alleging that he "was used as a pawn by Ed Butowsky, Fox News and the Trump administration to try and steer away the attention that was being given about the Russian hacking of the DNC emails," as his lawyer put it to NPR. He alleges that Zimmerman attributed to him statements he did not make.

Most damning of all, the suit claimed that the White House was involved in crafting Zimmerman's story. It denies this claim. Yet Trump, after all, watches some five hours of television per day. His tweets are often alligned with segments from Fox & Friends , a morning program that has attained the status of a daily presidential briefing. In the evening, he watches Hannity. Then, he calls him. Sometimes, Hannity and other Fox News luminaries dine at the White House.

So you’re the president of the United States of America. You can dine with literally anyone you want to. Titans of industry. Geniuses of the arts. Tech wizards changing everything. World leaders and humanitarian saints.

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 10, 2018

In other words, Fox News has immense sway over the Trump administration. The network knows this of course. On a nightly basis, its anchors attempt to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller while flogging the Clintons for some prior sin, real ( the women ) or imagined (the uranium).

Filed in federal court last week, Joel and Mary Rich's suit names Fox News, Malia Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky, a Republican donor from Dallas who hired Wheeler to investigate Seth Rich's killing. The suit charges that they "intentionally exploited this tragedy — including through lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths — with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary."

In response, Fox News has said only that it "can't comment on this pending litigation."

The suit renders the effect of fake news in nakedly personal terms. This is not about Russian bots, or 70,000 votes in the Upper Midwest. Here are parents whose sorrow has been compounded by lies. "The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son's life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension," the Rich family said in a statement.

Following that came a separate suit this week by Aaron Rich, Seth's brother, who some conspiracy theorists said (without providing any evidence) was somehow involved in the theft of DNC emails. That suit, filed in Washington, D.C., is broader than that by the Rich parents. It names conservative newspaper The Washington Times and the right-wing media company America First Media, operated by Matt Couch, as well as Butowsky. "Defendants are entitled to their own opinions, but they can and must be held accountable for their lies," the suit says.

Why did Aaron Rich talk to everyone before Police and Investigators? What is Aaron Rich Hiding America... #SethRich #DNCFraudLawsuit

— Matt Couch (@RealMattCouch) August 16, 2017

The Rich family may be best poised to usher such a public accounting. Politicians, academics and national security experts grow more concerned about fake news, but their concerns are social, collective. Two years ago, the Rich family was forced to mourn in public. They listened as Sean Hannity callously turned their son into a pro-Trump talking point. Their counterattack is turning out to be just as public. And while it is unlikely to seriously harm Fox News, it may force the network to confront what it has become.