It’s the kind of statement that isn’t issued too often from U.S. media outlets, much less the legendarily stubborn Fox News:
On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.
We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.
That’s called a retraction, and it took a while to bubble up to the surface. Last Tuesday, FoxNews.com fanned one of the favorite conspiracy theories on the right — the killing last July in D.C. of 27-year-old Seth Rich, a staffer at the Democratic National Committee. The story floated the notion that Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and Fox News contributor, had found that Rich was in email contact with WikiLeaks prior to his death — echoing a Fox 5 story from the night before. Convenient: Evidence-free accounts on the conspiratorial Internet had posited that it was Rich — a Democratic insider — and not Russian hackers who had provided to WikiLeaks the pipeline of DNC emails that flooded the Web last year in the middle of the presidential campaign.
One problem: Wheeler later told CNN that he had no evidence of such contact and had heard about it through a reporter from Fox News. His backtracking forced Fox 5 to publish an editor’s note.
No bona fide evidence has surfaced to support the far-out theories about Rich’s murder, and last year a D.C. police department spokeswoman said, “At this time, there is no indication that Seth Rich’s death is connected to his employment at the DNC.” Though police have a hunch that it was a robbery gone awry, Rich wasn’t stripped of his credit cards, wallet and watch.
The Fox News piece fueled a weeklong frenzy among people like … Fox News host Sean Hannity.
And just why would Hannity be so deeply interested in a story about a DNC staffer and WikiLeaks? Because whoa, if true!
On his program last week, Hannity stated the possibility with greater detail: “If this is true and Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails which ultimately led to the firing — remember Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the eve of the DNC convention? — this blows the whole Russia collusion narrative completely out of the water.”
In another program, Hannity coined a line that he should trot out for every one of his conspiracy theories: “It gets more mysterious by the minute,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies are on record affirming that the DNC hack was the work of the Russians. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, however, helped amp up suspicion when he said in reference to Rich’s death: “Our whistleblowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often [face] very significant risks. A 27-year-old that works for the DNC was shot in the back, murdered just a few weeks ago for unknown reasons, as he was walking down the street in Washington, D.C.,” Assange said. WikiLeaks, however, issued a statement saying it doesn’t confirm or deny sources.
All of which is to say that Hannity is running on froth.
The FoxNews.com retraction enables a scientific experiment at the nation’s reigning cable news outfit. As we’ve noted in this space many times before, there’s an ever-sharpening distinction between the opinion side of the network — shows including “Fox & Friends,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity” — and its news holdings — “Special Report,” “America’s Newsroom” and others. The move to retract the Seth Rich piece came from the news side, meaning that it doesn’t necessarily bind Hannity. Indeed, the host was tweeting this afternoon in support of a source — Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom — who claims to have corroborating evidence for his side of the story:
As The Washington Post’s David Weigel has noted, this particular pillar crumbles upon contact.
So: Can anyone at Fox News rein in Hannity? Certainly Rich’s family has proven incapable of doing so. Aaron Rich, the brother of Seth Rich, has sent a letter to the executive producer of “Hannity,” appealing for an end to the rumor-mongering: “Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother. And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy.” The letter takes issue with Dotcom’s credibility.
Ergo, Hannity works outside of the network’s authority. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he trampled standards that bind his colleagues on the news side, as he participated in a Trump video promotion; gave advice to the campaign; and even paid to fly Newt Gingrich to Indiana for a vice-presidential interview. Now he is proudly and conspicuously trafficking in a story that the network’s news people have repudiated.
How long can the charade continue?
That’s a question that the Erik Wemple Blog would like to pose to Suzanne Scott, the recently promoted president of programming for Fox News. We’ve asked for an interview with her. Scott’s ascension came after the ouster of Bill Shine, who’d risen to co-president following the firing of Roger Ailes amid a sexual-harassment scandal. Shine was a close colleague and friend of Hannity, who Twitter-freaked upon hearing whispers that Shine was on his way out: “i pray this is NOT true because if it is, that’s the total end of the FNC as we know it,” wrote Hannity, in part.
With his endless hyping of the Rich conspiracy, perhaps Hannity is trying to make his prediction come true.