The story of the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich captured the conservative media zeitgeist anew this month, thanks in part to news coverage from a Washington, DC, Fox affiliate and heavy rotation on the Fox News Channel by way of host, Sean Hannity.
Critics have excoriated Hannity over his days-long cable-news deliberation on Rich’s murder, which he continued despite calls for him to retract the story. Until late Tuesday, Hannity persisted, even after the network had issued its own retraction.
Here’s what’s behind the controversy:
Who is Seth Rich?
Last summer, 27-year-old DNC staffer Seth Rich was fatally shot in the back. Although the circumstances surrounding the murder are not entirely clear, local news outlets have reported he was the victim of a botched robbery. Rich was reportedly on the phone at the time, and had to quickly hang up. A torn watch band at the scene indicated that there was a struggle between Rich and the alleged suspect(s).
It was the first murder of that year in that particular neighbourhood. Two more armed robberies happened in the neighbourhood, within weeks of Rich’s murder, local news outlets reported.
Rich worked at the headquarters of the DNC as the voter expansion data director. Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s statement read that Rich was a “dedicated selfless public servant” and that “He saw the great potential of our nation and believed that, together, we can make the world a better place.”
How Rich’s death became a conspiracy that went viral
On July 22, nearly two weeks after Rich’s death, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of internal emails from the DNC. Following the release, some right-wing media personalities and outlets, including Breitbart and the Drudge Report, touted a conspiracy theory that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before he was killed, and that his murder was part of a cover-up.
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator associated with Rich’s family told a Fox News affiliate in Washington that there was evidence that proved the alleged contact between Rich andWikiLeaks. Wheeler also suggested that the Metropolitan Police Department attempted to cover up the nature of Rich’s death on behalf of the DNC, which the police department denied.
Fox News ran Wheeler’s story, which also referenced a “federal source” that claimed the FBI had examined Rich’s computer and found the emails from WikiLeaks.
However, a law-enforcement official told CNN that the FBI was never in possession of Rich’s laptop and that a forensic analysis of it was not conducted. Wheeler later backtracked, saying he had no evidence of a connection between Rich and WikiLeaks.
“I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” Wheeler told CNN.
Fox News host Sean Hannity spent several days promoting the Seth Rich/WikiLeaks conspiracy on Twitter and on his cable program.
“Congress, investigate Seth Rich Murder,” Hannity tweeted on Sunday. “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
“Snowflakes with anger issues and impulse control issues. U must believe the “robbery” gone bad story,” another tweet ;from Hannity read.
Other Fox News personalities helped promote the baseless conspiracy, including Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera who tweeted, “1) #SethRich shot in back(2)worked for #DNC which, (3)screwed @BernieSanders 4)#WIKILEAKS screwed DNC(5)Did #sethrich leak?(6)is it related?”
Kim Dotcom, a multimillionaire internet mogul who is subject to extradition to the US on charges of copyright infringement, money laundering, and wire fraud dedicated a large section of his website to the conspiracy. He called Rich a “hero” and appealed to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is now special counsel in the Trump-Russia investigation, to guarantee “safe passage from New Zealand to the United States and back,” in exchange for evidence he claims to have on the Seth Rich conspiracy.
As Hannity continued to spin the conspiratorial web, staffers at Fox News reportedly grew dismayed with their prime time star. The Daily Beast interviewed nearly a dozen employees, including hosts and reporters, who all expressed their dismay.
“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SH–,” one Fox News political reporter said in a message to The Daily Beast.
“The other reporters I’ve talked to [about this] are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox News reporter told the publication. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless [to spread this].”
Meanwhile, members of Rich’s immediate family conveyed their frustration over Wheeler’s “unsubstantiated claims.” The family asserted there “no facts” and that they had seen “no evidence” that Rich was communicating with WikiLeaks.
“We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth’s murderers,” a statement from the family read.
Brad Bauman, a representative for the Rich family, rebuked those seeking to politicize Rich’s murder.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” Bauman told Business Insider earlier this month. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
The latest updates
After nearly a week, Fox News removed its story on Rich, saying “the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny.”
“Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed,” Fox News’ statement read, according to CNN. “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”
To this effect, Bauman said that Rich’s family was grateful.
“The family would like to thank Fox News for their retraction on a story that has caused deep pain and anguish to the family and has done harm to Seth Rich’s legacy,” Bauman said in CNN’s report. “We are hopeful that in the future Fox News will work with the family to ensure the highest degree of professionalism and scrutiny is followed so that only accurate facts are reported serving this case.”
Rich’s brother Aaron wrote a letter on Tuesday to the executive producer of Hannity’s show and urged him to find the “decency and kindness” to reconsider their decision to peddle the conspiracy theory.
“Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother,” the letter read. “And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy.”
Rich’s parents also wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that was published on Tuesday:
“Imagine living in a nightmare that you can never wake up from. Imagine having to face every single day knowing that your son was murdered. Imagine you have no answers — that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers. Imagine that every single day, with every phone call you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case.
“Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.”
The op-ed continued:
“We also know that many people are angry at our government and want to see justice done in some way, somehow. We are asking you to please consider our feelings and words. 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. We ask those purveying falsehoods to give us peace, and to give law enforcement the time and space to do the investigation they need to solve our son’s murder.”
On Tuesday evening, Sean Hannity on his show said he would back off on the subject “at this time.”
“I totally and completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family, especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death,” Hannity said. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
Although Hannity expressed his condolences to Rich’s family, at the end of his program on Tuesday night, Hannity appeared to backpedal on it.
“There are so many issues here, not the least of which is the Democratic push of their Russia narrative … there’s something clearly happening here,” Hannity said. “The ‘destroy-Trump media’ … They have been pushing the Russian tinfoil-hat conspiracy story with zero evidence.”
Hannity tweeted minutes before his show ended Tuesday night: “OK TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available. Stay tuned!”
Maxwell Tani contributed to this report.
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