Though the idea was outlandish on its face, Fox News embraced it in May 2017, publishing a story under the byline of Malia Zimmerman with the headline: “Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks, say multiple sources.” Prime-time opinion host Sean Hannity promoted the story to his audience of millions. “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. Another reckless blast came soon after: “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?” Hannity finally dropped the theorizing “out of respect for the family’s wishes.”
Though Fox News retracted the story, it had an impact on Rich’s parents, as recounted in a March 2018 complaint in a New York federal court. “They published, republished, and publicized the sham story — which they knew would be covered again and again, and republished, here and around the world — painting Joel and Mary’s son as a criminal and a traitor to the United States,” read the lawsuit. The complaint sought damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other charges.
A statement from Fox News addressed the development: “We are pleased with the resolution of the claims and hope this enables Mr. and Mrs. Rich to find a small degree of peace and solace moving forward.” The Erik Wemple Blog has asked a lawyer for the Rich family for a response and will update this post if we receive one.
Through the retraction and the Rich family lawsuit, Zimmerman, the sole byline on the conspiracy story, remained employed at Fox News, though her contributions dried up in September 2017. She pursued the Seth Rich “story” with the assistance of a financial adviser and private investigator — the ins and outs of that fiasco furnish a narrative all its own. Asked Tuesday about Zimmerman’s status, Fox News responded that she is no longer with the network.
The agreement puts an end to a hard-fought legal battle. News outlets such as Fox News commonly sustain civil suits over defamation and invasion of privacy. This complaint was a bit different: Seth Rich was deceased, leaving no grounds for a defamation claim. The emotional-distress claim hinged in part on the fact that Fox News dredged up this harmful nonsense nearly a year after his death. “Joel and Mary were beginning to show some improvement in coping with their loss,” reads the complaint. “But the Zimmerman/Fox Article, together with the Defendants’ dealings with Joel and Mary leading up to it, constituted an overwhelming assault causing Joel and Mary intense distress.”
Fox News rakes in revenue by the billions, meaning that it can pay for the very best lawyers in the industry. In responding to the Rich family’s complaint, Kevin Baine of Williams & Connolly LLP seized on the standard in emotional-distress cases that the conduct in question must be “extreme and outrageous.” “Even accepting as true the allegation that the Fox News article was a ‘sham,’… publication of a knowingly or recklessly false and defamatory statement of fact is neither extreme nor outrageous as a matter of New York law,” noted the defendants’ motion for dismissal. That quasi-concession echoed a ruling in a defamation suit against Fox News host Tucker Carlson: “[G]iven Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes,” wrote a federal judge dismissing a lawsuit brought by former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Judge George B. Daniels of the Southern District of New York tossed the Rich family’s complaint in August 2018 for failure to state a claim. An appeals court, however, overturned that ruling more than a year later. A lawyer for the Riches told NPR at that time, “We will now obtain documents from Fox News and other parties and take testimony under oath from those involved.“ Depositions of Hannity and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs were in the planning stages.
The terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed, but one thing is clear: Fox News had a gigantic moral obligation to the Riches in this case. Hannity’s actions alone would have led to his immediate dismissal from any ethical news outlet. Instead, he remains in his perch every night on Fox News.
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