Mary Rich and her husband, Joel Rich, hold a photo of their son in their Omaha home in January 2017. (Matt Miller for The Washington Post)
Media critic

As if their lawsuit hadn’t already spoken firmly enough, Joel and Mary Rich put their feelings about Fox News on the record in an interview with ABC News. “I want the people who started the lies, who are responsible for the lies, held accountable. This has got to stop,” said Mary Rich in an interview regarding a Fox News story about her son, Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was slain on a D.C. street in July 2016. The unsolved murder — which D.C. police believe was a botched robbery attempt — provided grist for conspiracies: Maybe the hit was payback for Rich leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks!

Indeed, that’s the thread that Fox News investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman pulled in a May 2017 story that ended up with a retraction. “Slain DNC Staffer Had Contact with WikiLeaks Say Multiple Sources,” read the headline on the bogus piece. Fox5, a local TV station, ran with a similar story.

“They never called us to check any facts. They took a rumor and ran with it,” said Mary Rich, referring to Fox News.

Read the timeline laid out in the lawsuit itself. It describes how Zimmerman, working with a Texas-based investor and Trump supporter named Ed Butowsky, maneuvered this story into place over several months. (Butowsky told the Erik Wemple Blog on Wednesday that the suit was without merit.) The enterprise required extensive coordination with a former D.C. cop, Rod Wheeler, who commented on Fox News regarding law-enforcement matters and whom Butowsky paid to allegedly assist the family in getting “closure” on the death of Seth Rich. Just before the story surfaced, Butowsky, according to the suit, sent a message to various Fox News officials, saying, in part: “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.”

Funny how that takeaway aligned with what Fox News host Sean Hannity said on air: “It gets more mysterious by the minute. If it was true — we don’t know yet — if it was true that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails, wouldn’t that blow the Russian collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?”

The Riches’ lawsuit provides a granular description of Zimmerman’s activities. Fox News’s Zimmerman, according to the suit, did call the Riches, though the purpose of the call remains in doubt:

Fox’s Zimmerman reached out to Joel to request Joel and Mary’s comment, including on the “fact” that Zimmerman had “been in communication with a federal agent who reviewed an FBI report completed last July that showed Seth had been in communication with [Wikileaks] and that [Seth] had in fact transferred emails from the DNC to Wikileaks.”…Zimmerman’s statements to Joel were lies.

While Fox News was pursuing a story that aligned with its leanings, it was trampling a family that resides in Omaha — right smack in the middle of the America that Fox News claims to represent, to fight for, to reflect. “We lost his body the first time. And the second time, we lost his soul,” said Mary Rich in her interview with ABC News. “They took more from us with the lies. So we want our son’s life and his soul restored and I want our life back so we can move forward again.” Fox News on Wednesday declined to comment on the litigation.

Not to diminish the Riches’ standing as the primary aggrieved parties in this fiasco, but the republic suffers as well. It’s well documented that false and salacious stories travel faster on the Internet than the often more boring, truthful ones — like the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia, not Seth Rich, was responsible for the DNC hack. Sure, Fox News ended up retracting its grand Seth Rich falsehood, a week after publishing it. Who knows how many people got the first bulletin, not the second. And who knows how many people scorn other outlets for not having followed this “scoop.”

The Rich family didn’t file a libel suit, as we noted Wednesday. Fox News’s reporting sullied the reputation of Seth Rich, who is now deceased. The way the law works, the dead “can’t be defamed,” as legal eagle Dan Abrams pointed out on ABC News. So the Riches sued for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” among other things — a bar that’ll be tough to clear. “To get past this standard … you effectively have to be able to say, ‘They did this to hurt us. That’s why they did this,'” said Abrams. How about this: “They did this” without any apparent consideration of the family. Still no apology from the network.