A lawsuit filed Tuesday by a Fox News contributor alleges that the White House, and possibly President Donald Trump himself, were involved in pushing for a Fox News story on a conspiracy theory surrounding the murder of Seth Rich that the network was forced to retract.
The lawsuit obtained by NPR was filed by Rod Wheeler, a Fox contributor and former detective recruited by Ed Butowsky, an investor and ally of President Donald Trump, to help with his effort to investigate the murder. Wheeler alleged that Butowsky worked with him and a reporter at Fox News to publish a story reporting that Rich, who was a staffer at the Democratic National Committee, had been in contact with Wikileaks.
Butowsky and Wheeler met with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on their findings about a month before the story went up, the lawsuit alleged. Spicer acknowledged to NPR that he met with Butowsky and Wheeler, but said they were “just informing me” about the story.
About a week before the story ran, Butowsky told Wheeler that the White House had seen the story and that the President wanted it published, according to the lawsuit. Wheeler alleges Butowsky did this to pressure him into helping. Butowsky told NPR that he was just joking with Wheeler, and that he never shared the story draft with Trump.
In the lawsuit, Wheeler also alleged that the Fox News reporter on the story, Malia Zimmerman, made up quotes from him, and that Butowsky coached him to tout the story on television and push the narrative that Russians did not hack the DNC.
Fox News told NPR that it looked into whether Wheeler was misquoted in the story and did not find “concrete evidence” that he was misquoted.
The network retracted the story on Rich, which also cited an unnamed FBI official, shortly after it went up, but did not say why the story did not meet its editorial standards at the time.
In a statement Tuesday, Jay Wallace, the president of news at Fox News, said that the lawsuit’s allegation that Fox News pushed the story as a distraction from coverage of the Russia probes is “erroneous.”
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race,” Wallace said in a statement.
Fox News played a big role in pushing the conspiracy theory about Rich, who was murdered in Washington, D.C. in July 2016. Host Sean Hannity in particular pushed the bogus narrative, and his obsession was fueled by the bogus story published in May. Following the retraction and pleas from Rich’s family, Hannity pledged to stop talking about the DNC staffer, though he’s mentioned the conspiracy theory at least once more since then.
Read NPR’s full report here.
This post has been updated.