It’s easy to understand why conservatives, especially older conservatives, feel affection for Fox News. When it launched in 1996, it filled a vast media void. With the Internet in its infancy, legacy media maintained a vise grip on the news and conservative voices were mainly confined to a.m. talk radio — where Rush Limbaugh reigned supreme.
Younger Millennials, to say nothing of the next generation, hardly remember those days. Indeed, most can’t conceive of a world with narrow media choices and a relative dearth of debate. But I remember, and I remember being grateful for Fox’s reporting.
A “fair and balanced” network? It was about time. Fox hired serious journalists then, as it does now. It employed thoughtful commentators then, as it also continues to do. Not every journalist was serious and not every commentator was thoughtful, of course, and the nighttime lineup often veered into populist infotainment, but it represented a necessary, healthy dose of competition to CNN.
But as Fox grew into the dominant conservative media outlet — the place where conservative careers were made — something else began to happen. It started to attract a constellation of cranks and grifters, people desperate for Fox hits that could turn into contributor contracts. Contributor contracts could turn into book deals. The fortunate few could even host a show. A person who was Fox News famous could be a kingmaker, a celebrity to Fox’s vast and loyal audience.
While Fox has always had its critics — and it’s never been perfect (no media outlet ever is) — by 2016 and 2017 the dark underbelly was starting to show. Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly went down in the face of serial sexual-harassment claims, and a series of additional allegations gave Fox its own #MeToo movement before even Hollywood. But it was the single-minded, sensationalistic defense of Donald Trump that brought out the worst of the network on-air.
And that brings me to Seth Rich.
Last summer all too many conservatives began promoting one of the more bizarre conspiracy theories in modern American political culture, a conspiracy just as bizarre — in its own way — as Pizzagate or Trump’s questions about Ted Cruz’s father. The Seth Rich conspiracy theory goes something like this:
The Russian hacking story is bogus. The true story is that the DNC email leak was an inside job. Possibly disgruntled at the DNC’s anti-Bernie bias, Rich contacted WikiLeaks himself and uploaded tens of thousands of emails. Someone then assassinated Rich to cover their tracks — he was murdered in the early morning hours of July 10, 2016 — and the D.C. police, the FBI, and federal intelligence agencies are slow-walking the investigation while (at the federal level) still pushing a Russian-hacking story they know to be false.
Believe it or not, this crazy theory was given media life on Fox, went viral thanks to Fox, and was pumped day after day on Fox through comments by some of its biggest names, including Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich. Eventually, Fox retracted the story that launched the theory, but immense damage was done.
Yesterday, Seth Rich’s family filed a lawsuit against Fox; Malia Zimmerman, the reporter responsible for the retracted story; and Ed Butowsky, an occasional Fox guest who worked with Zimmerman and heavily promoted the story internally at Fox. The suit makes for depressing reading.
The suit makes for depressing reading.
According to the complaint, Butowsky ingratiated himself with the Rich family, coaxed them into letting him hire a Fox contributor named Rod Wheeler to help them solve their son’s murder, and then proceeded to work closely with Zimmerman and Wheeler for a very different purpose — to attempt to debunk the Russian-hacking narrative.
The Rich family claims that Butowsky assured them that Wheeler would provide information only to Joel and Mary, Seth’s parents, and that he would work at their direction. Instead, the family alleges, Wheeler worked closely with Zimmerman and Butowsky.
Days later, Wheeler and Butowsky even reportedly met with Sean Spicer to provide him details on their “investigation.” Zimmerman then drafted an article containing an explosive claim — that she had an FBI source “supposedly confirming that emails were sent between Seth and WikiLeaks.” The complaint also claims that Zimmerman reached out to them for comment on the alleged “fact” that Zimmerman “had been in communication with a federal agent who reviewed an FBI report completed last July that showed Seth had been in communication with [WikiLeaks] and that [Seth] had in fact transferred emails from the DNC to WikiLeaks.”
The suit claims that these statements were all lies.
Fox published Zimmerman’s story on May 16, 2017, the day after a local Fox affiliate published a similar story. Butowsky promoted it relentlessly, writing to multiple Fox producers and on-air personalities that “one of the big conclusions that we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and steal emails and there was no collusion like Trump with the Russians.”
Sean Hannity ran with the story, tweeting and talking about it extensively. Lou Dobbs discussed it. So did Newt Gingrich and Steve Doocy. Gingrich’s comment was particularly egregious. He said Seth “apparently was assassinated at four in the morning having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000 — I’m sorry 53,000 emails with 17,000 attachments. Nobody is investigating that. And what does that tell you about what was going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians.”
On May 23, 2017, Fox News retracted the article — after Wheeler confirmed he’d never examined Rich’s laptop, after Wheeler said he had not gotten his information from FBI sources, and after the FBI said that it had played no part in the investigation of Rich’s murder and had not been given Seth’s laptop. Wheeler later sued Fox, claiming that Zimmerman made up his quotes. Seth’s parents wrote in the Washington Post last year that “Seth’s personal email and his personal computer were both inspected by detectives early in the investigation and that the inspection revealed no evidence of any communications with anyone at WikiLeaks or anyone associated with WikiLeaks.”
News organizations make mistakes all the time. Journalism is difficult, especially when trying to extract information from individuals, corporations, or government agencies who are trying to keep secrets or spin out their own false narratives. Retractions are, sadly, part of the business — even when reporters operate in good faith.
It’s hard to look at the Seth Rich case and see much evidence of good faith.
But good faith is the key. It’s hard to look at the Seth Rich case and see much evidence of good faith. The complaint makes searing, credible claims that the defendants deceived and exploited a grieving family. There is no doubt that Fox personalities took their deeply flawed reporting and ran with it — causing further harm to parents who had just lost their son. You can’t hide this conduct behind silly claims that you’re merely “asking questions.” The news reports and commentary weren’t just questioning, they were asserting. And they were asserting without foundation.
The quest to find the stories that the mainstream media won’t cover should never morph into gullible commentators spouting sensational claims. Conservatives have rightly decried newsroom cultures in legacy media outlets that make them prone to believe the worst about Republicans. A competing network featuring personalities who routinely make wild claims about Democrats is hardly an improvement. That’s not the “balance” the good folks at Fox aspire to create.
Update: In response to the lawsuit, Fox has issued the following statement: “We can’t comment on this pending litigation.”