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Opinion What does it take for Sean Hannity to abandon a conspiracy theory?

On his program Tuesday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity bagged the story. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” said Hannity.

“This matter” is the Seth Rich story. Last July, the 27-year-old Rich, who worked at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was killed in the District in what police have said was a robbery attempt gone awry. Yet Rich’s credit cards, wallet and watch hadn’t been snatched. Thus germinated conspiracy theories that it was Rich, and not the Russians, who had supplied internal DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

Those theories got a fresh boost just last week, as Fox5 and Fox News both reported that a private investigator, Rod Wheeler, had seen evidence that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death. Hannity loved it — here was a story that could accomplish two pressing imperatives in a single swoop. For one, it eased the pressure on Hannity’s dear President Trump, whose campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with the Russians. For another, it could mean that someone in Democratic circles was responsible for killing Rich, a possibility that would fuel innumerable segments on “Hannity.”

“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,” Hannity said on his program last week.

Seth Rich came to D.C. to pursue a career in politics. He was shot dead in his Northwest Washington neighborhood on July 10. 2016. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“For now,” that narrative remains in the water. Over the longer term, however, the Seth Rich story provides a case study in just how much counter-evidence, how much pressure and how much outrage is required for Hannity to give up on a beloved story. Herewith a timeline/inventory of debunking considerations that should have stopped Hannity days before he finally acquiesced.

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Signpost No. 1: Even before Fox5 and Fox News last week re-engaged the Rich story, its flimsiness was well established, as no bona fide evidence had ever surfaced to support the outrageous theories. Any claims of foul play, accordingly, required some robust evidence.

Signpost No. 2: Fox5 and Fox News didn’t supply robust evidence. Their stories failed to run all the required traps. “When we asked Wheeler if his sources have told him there is information that links Rich to Wikileaks, he said, ‘Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed,'” reads a key part of the Fox5 piece. Here’s another example: “Rod Wheeler, a private investigator hired by the Rich family, suggests there is tangible evidence on Rich’s laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death.”

Signpost No. 3: The Rich family asks for retractions.

Signpost No. 4: A conservative financial adviser who has written for Breitbart News, Ed Butowsky, had financed the investigation carried out by Wheeler. Furthermore, Wheeler was barred from speaking to the media without the authorization of the family. When contacted by NBC News, Butowsky denied involvement, though he later confirmed it to CNN.

“Now a lie was attached to it by the person paying for it,” Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the family, told the Erik Wemple Blog this morning.

Signpost No. 5: Wheeler caves. Via CNN’s Oliver Darcy:

But Tuesday afternoon, Wheeler told CNN he had no evidence to suggest Rich had contacted Wikileaks before his death.
Wheeler instead said he only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through the reporter he spoke to for the story. He explained that the comments he made to WTTG-TV were intended to simply preview Fox News’ Tuesday story. The WTTG-TV news director did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” Wheeler told CNN.

Signpost No. 6: The Fox News assertion that Rich’s computer contained correspondence between Rich and WikiLeaks collapses. “Local police in Washington, D.C., never even gave the FBI Rich’s laptop to analyze after his murder, according to the current FBI official,” reported NBC News.

Signpost No. 7: Family sends cease-and-desist letter to Wheeler. “Your statements and actions have caused, and continue to cause, the Family severe mental anguish and emotional distress. Your behavior appears to have been deliberate, intentional, outrageous, and in patent disregard of the Agreement and the obvious damage and suffering it would cause the Family,” reads the letter from attorney Joseph Ingrisano of the Katuk Rock.

That’s legally loaded language. “That should have sent signal to Hannity that there might be a significant case in a court of law,” says Bauman.

Signpost No. 8: Kim Dotcom. Under pressure for promoting the Rich fantasy, Hannity glommed on to a comment from Dotcom, a New Zealand-based web entrepreneur, that he’d be willing to provide “written testimony with evidence” of the Rich-WikiLeaks connection. Dotcom comes with his own set of cautionary signage, including a conviction for hacking and other trickery. He’s also under an extradition order to the United States for fraud and racketeering.

Surprise: His promises notwithstanding, Dotcom issued a statement yesterday that failed to corroborate any of the conspiracies surrounding Rich.

“At this point, Hannity should have known that everything said was being directed by people of checkered character and an inability to tell the truth,” says Bauman.

That’s a charitable assessment, considering that Hannity never should have gotten as far as he did. While all these pieces of contrary evidence were piling up, Hannity was piling on. Last Thursday night, for instance, he teased a segment on the topic with this juicy stuff: “Still so many questions, this is getting more mysterious by the day, surrounding the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. One thing I will tell you, my opinion, strongly, guess what: It wasn’t a robbery. Was he talking to WikiLeaks? We’ll investigate. And if he did, does this blow the Russian collusion narrative out of the water?” Then, on Friday night: “And I am not backing off asking questions, even though there is an effort that nobody talk about Seth Rich.”

On Twitter, Hannity’s defiance was, perforce, a bit more concise:

On his radio show Tuesday, Hannity said, “I will do the mainstream media’s job like I have for most of my career. All you in the liberal media, I am not or I retracted nothing.”

And then, on his 10 p.m. show, Hannity flopped, vowing to drop the Rich story for the time being. Why did one of the most stubborn and fact-averse figures in U.S. media take that step? Perhaps he was moved by the essay that Rich’s parents published in The Post. “Conservative news outlets and commentators continue, day after painful day, to peddle discredited conspiracy theories that Seth was killed after having provided WikiLeaks with emails from the DNC. Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel,” reads the piece, in part, by Mary Rich and Joel Rich.

Perhaps Hannity was moved by the parents’ appeal. Perhaps he was moved by bosses who told him that if he continued with the nonsense, they wouldn’t protect him from any legal backlash. Or something like that. Whatever the backstory, Hannity did the right thing after doing the wrong thing over and over again. The Rich family thanked Hannity for his commitment, and Bauman told this blog: “The family believes that the retraction that they issued does satisfy the family’s desire for closure in this matter and we hope that Fox will continue to remind its viewers and others that the real world implications of these actions is the continued pain and suffering of the family.”

Now for the scary part of this episode. Hannity backed off of a conspiracy theory only after a mountain of contradictory evidence was thrust in his face; only after a family had to publish an op-ed in The Post laying out the case for their misery; only after his own network, not to mention a local TV affiliate, had bailed on his pet story; only after hordes of people on social media screamed about the affair; only after Media Matters Tuesday posted a list of his show’s advertisers; and only after some guy in New Zealand failed to deliver the goods he was betting on.

All that, apparently, is what’s necessary to get Sean Hannity to respect the truth.

Or maybe not. In is opening statements Tuesday night, Hannity not only vowed to drop the Rich story “for now.” He also later hinted that he might pick it up again. “To the extent of my ability, I am not going to stop trying to find the truth,” he said, noting that “at the proper time, we shall continue and talk a lot more.”

That was prefaced with this: “Please do not interpret what I’m saying tonight to mean anything,” said Hannity, maybe coining a useful new slogan for “Hannity.”