Fox Removes Story Based On Conspiracy Theory About Murdered DNC Staffer

Douglas C. Pizac/AP

Fox News on Tuesday removed a story based on an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about the unsolved murder of a DNC staffer.

“The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” Fox said in a brief statement. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”

The network did not apologize and said it “will continue to investigate this story.”

A link to a Fox News story originally titled “Slain DNC staffer had contact with WikiLeaks, investigator says” returned an error Tuesday afternoon, though the original iteration of the article remained available via the Wayback Machine.

Local Washington, D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG published a story last week about claims made by a private investigator under contract with the family of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was shot and killed in July 2016 two days before WikiLeaks released thousands of emails from top members of the Democratic National Committee.

In its story, WTTG claimed that Rod Wheeler, the investigator, said there was “tangible evidence on Rich’s laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death.”

Conservative outlets including the Drudge Report, Breitbart News and Fox News immediately blasted out WTTG’s story about Rich’s alleged communications.

A day later, Brad Bauman, a spokesman for Rich’s family, pushed back on the allegations, telling BuzzFeed that the family “only learned about this when contacted by the press.”

“Frankly,” Bauman said, “I believe there’s a special place in hell for the folks who are pushing the story.”

He told CNN that the family was reviewing possible legal action against the investigator, who could be “in breach of a non disclosure contract.”

Fox News updated its story the same day to reflect Bauman’s comments, without indicating that it had done so.

WTTG published an extensive update to the story the next day after Wheeler backtracked and told other news outlets that he got that information “from the reporter at Fox News” rather than from FBI sources, as the Fox affiliate claimed.

That didn’t stop top host Sean Hannity from promoting the conspiracy theory-based story for almost a week afterward. As of 3 p.m. ET Tuesday, Hannity was still tweeting about internet millionaire Kim Dotcom’s claim to have “communicated” with Rich and to have proof that he was involved with the theft of thousands of emails from the DNC.

Dotcom claimed in 2014 to have similar proof of a conspiracy against him. In March, the New Zealand Serious Fraud Office announced that the email Dotcom produced as evidence was a forgery.

In the meantime, Hannity’s entire Twitter profile is a testament to the power of confirmation bias in the form of rants against “sheep” and “snowflakes.”

The Daily Beast on Monday reported that other Fox News employees were less enthused by Hannity’s week-long crusade.

“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!” one unnamed reporter asked the Daily Beast.

“Mostly we’re keeping our heads down,” another said, according to the report. “I mean, have you seen some of the stuff we put on air?”

Hannity declined to comment to the Daily Beast, but had a tweet ready nevertheless.

In a statement Tuesday to CNN, Bauman said that Rich’s family was grateful for Fox’s retraction of the story.

“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,” he said.

Bauman declined to comment about Hannity’s ongoing promotion of the story.

Fox News did not immediately respond to TPM’s questions about whether it plans to speak to Hannity in light of the retraction.

On his radio show later Tuesday, Hannity insisted that he has “a moral obligation” to keep promoting the story.

“For those accusing me of pushing a conspiracy theory, you are the biggest phony hypocrites in the world,” he said, as quoted in Business Insider. “And all you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.”

In a tweet, he also accused critics of “liberal fascism.”

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Esme Cribb is a newswriter for TPM in New York City. She can be found on Twitter @emquiry and reached by email at esme@talkingpointsmemo.com.
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