Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity speaks during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) last year in Phoenix. (Rick Scuteri/Associated Press)

On Wednesday, Fox News finally took down from its website a ludicrous conspiracy theory relating to the tragic murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich (which may very well have been part of a botched robbery). The story remained up and was an ongoing obsession for host Sean Hannity long after it was debunked by a range of sources and despite pleas from family members to stop besmirching Rich’s memory. Not until Tuesday did Hannity announce he was dropping the issue “out of respect for the family’s wishes.” That’s a crock, as anyone who is following Hannity’s gambit knows, because he has previously ignored countless pleas to stop.

Fox’s jaw-dropping unprofessionalism and dishonesty were matched only by its cruelty in subjecting Rich’s loved ones to a grotesque political plot. Fox put up the following bland statement:

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.

There was no apology, no reference to Hannity. The statement raises more questions than it answers:

  • What is this “high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”? Who is responsible for maintaining such high standards?
  • Does the alleged high scrutiny apply to Fox’s nighttime shows?
  • How did the story manage to slip by this exacting scrutiny?
  • How did it remain on the website and on Hannity’s show despite widespread calls to cease airing a debunked story?
  • Who, if anyone, is going to be held accountable for this?
  • Will Fox real-news cover the incident?
  • How did widespread coverage of birtherism slip by Fox’s “high degree of editorial scrutiny”?
  • Are evening shows’ coverage of the Russia scandal subjected to a “high degree of editorial scrutiny”?

The Hill reports:

Media watchdog group Media Matters For America on Tuesday published a list of Hannity’s advertisers — a long list that includes major companies like Allstate, Angie’s List, Bayer, Capitol One, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Mercedes-Benz and Publishers Clearing House.

While the list was published with little context and no call to action, it comes as Media Matters continues to blast Hannity for claiming, without evidence, that Seth Rich leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks and suggesting that Democratic campaigns or groups were behind his killing.

Unfortunately, the task of policing Fox is mainly left to liberal groups. Conservative media watchdogs have no stomach, it seems, for tackling a media operation that has become the scourge of journalism and of principled conservatism. Talk radio is likewise infected by conspiracy mongering and aversion to empirical data.

Seth Rich came to D.C. to pursue a career in politics and last worked at the Democratic National Committee. Rich was shot dead on July 10, 2016. Here is what's known about the murder. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

By contrast, some responsible conservative voices have condemned Fox’s conduct and/or pleaded with Hannity  to end his plunge into the sewer of conspiracy-mongering. Max Boot, for example, wrote, “Twenty-one years after the creation of Fox News, America is more in need than ever of a principled conservative TV channel — one that will be loyal to conservative ideals rather than to populist demagogues and that will rely on actual facts instead of alternative ones. Maybe, just maybe, this is the role that Fox can finally play if it is radically revamped by Rupert Murdoch’s sons.”) Becket Adams at the Washington Examiner wrote a column entitled, “That report about Seth Rich, the slain DNC staffer, is hot hunk of hokum.”

The episode is the culmination of a long trend at Fox, which began as an antidote to perceived liberal bias and has devolved into a cesspool of anti-immigrant hysteria, climate-change denial, cultist support for President Trump and assaults on “elites,” including legitimate news operations. The skimpy offering of legitimate news (e.g. Fox News Sunday’s interviews, “Special Report with Bret Baier”) has been subsumed to right-wing froth and faux news designed to cement a-factual dogma (e.g. “Fox & Friends,” “The Five,” Hannity, Tucker Carlson). When much of Fox programming abandoned coverage of the biggest story in decades — the possible obstruction of justice by the president — the facade of legitimate journalism crumbled.

Too many supposedly respectable conservative outlets, which used to be gatekeepers to keep out the kooks and racists from the movement, shy away from confronting the conservative media behemoth. Worse, many play a supporting role in echoing Fox’s paranoia about elites, hysteria about illegal immigration and cultural resentment (as if white conservative males are the most persecuted group in the country). The debasement of conservative debate and dumbing down of the Republican Party cannot be blamed entirely on Fox, talk radio and absence of adult supervision in previously upscale conservative circles, but its role in transforming the party of ideas into the party of “alternative facts” — better known as lies, rumors and crackpottery — cannot be overstated.