Fox News and its Washington, D.C., affiliate, Fox 5, are standing by their conspiracy-mongering reports that slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was connected to WikiLeaks before he was shot to death in July ― even as those stories fall apart.
Fox News and Fox 5 published separate stories about the supposed links Tuesday. But since then, the main source has changed his story, D.C. police and the FBI have disputed the most explosive claims, and Rich’s family has called on the network and station to issue retractions, saying that “inaccurate reporting” is “damaging the legacy” of Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staffer who was slain as he walked to his Washington home.
Fox 5 didn’t respond to multiple HuffPost requests for comment about its report. A spokesperson for the station told DCist it was standing by the story.
Earlier Wednesday, Refet Kaplan, managing director of Fox News Digital, said in an email to HuffPost: “We continue to track developments in the story and will update further when the situation warrants. The network has not addressed the questions and apparent discrepancies surrounding its story.
Washington police believe Rich was killed in a botched robbery attempt and continue to investigate, the Metro Police Department said in a statement Tuesday.
But since Rich’s death, right-wing websites have pushed the conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party, DNC or Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was somehow responsible for the killing because of Rich’s supposed ties to WikiLeaks. The theory rests on WikiLeaks’ release of a trove of internal DNC emails weeks after Rich was killed.
There is no evidence to support the theories. U.S. intelligence officials said in January that the leaks were the work of Russian hackers, who provided the information to WikiLeaks. But Fox 5 and Fox News gave the theories fresh life in stories published Monday night and Tuesday morning, respectively.
The Fox 5 story was based on the claims of Rod Wheeler, a former D.C. homicide detective hired by a third party to privately investigate Rich’s murder. Wheeler’s bona fides were questionable from the start: A Fox News contributor since 2002, he has a history of making outlandish and baseless claims. During one appearance on Fox News, he asserted that armed bands of lesbians were roaming American cities and assaulting children.
Wheeler claimed to the local station that a source in law enforcement told him there was credible and confirmed evidence on Rich’s laptop computer that Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks before his death. Wheeler also said law enforcement officials told him that D.C. political figures had told them to “stand down” on his investigation.
Tuesday morning, Fox News published a version of the story that also relied on Wheeler as its sole named source. But it added information from an anonymous “federal investigator,” who said that “44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments between Democratic National Committee leaders, spanning from January 2015 through late May 2016, were transferred from Rich” to WikiLeaks.
The explosive headlines quickly spread across conservative media ― from Breitbart to The Drudge Report to Fox News’ Sean Hannity ― throughout the day Tuesday. But soon after the stories gained traction, they began to unravel.
Rich’s family, in a pointed statement, dismissed possible connections between their son and WikiLeaks, and accused Wheeler and the outlets of “pushing conspiracies.”
Metro Police said Wheeler’s claims were false. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called allegations of a cover-up “preposterous” in an interview with The Daily Caller.
Tuesday night, meanwhile, Wheeler changed his own story, telling CNN that he “only got” the information about a possible connection between Rich and WikiLeaks “from the reporter at Fox News,” and that he had no evidence of such a connection himself.
It was always clear that Wheeler was repeating information that he had heard from another source, instead of relaying the results of his own “probe.” But his revised version doesn’t necessarily mesh with the timeline of the stories’ publication. The Fox 5 story went live Monday evening; the first Fox News version posted on Tuesday, just after 6 a.m. EDT, and relied on the Fox 5 piece as a source.
It was only later that the Fox News piece was revised, adding investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman’s byline and reporting, including claims made by the anonymous federal investigator.
Zimmerman posted the article to her public Facebook page early Tuesday, and said she had “worked on this story for 10 months” ― a time frame that aligns with Rich’s July murder. Zimmerman’s Fox News archives, however, include no other published pieces about the Rich case.
Further, there are potential holes in the reporting Zimmerman added. Her story asserts that the FBI ran a “forensic report” on Rich’s laptop within 96 hours of his murder. NBC reported Wednesday that the FBI never possessed or examined Rich’s laptop, raising doubts about the forensic report and how the unnamed federal investigator would be aware of such details about the contents of Rich’s computer.
Efforts to reach Zimmerman by phone on Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful. She did not respond to an email request for comment.
Neither Fox 5 nor Fox News have issued corrections to their pieces, though Fox News altered its version Tuesday afternoon to note the Rich family’s dismissal of the claims and to remove a quote suggesting a cover-up by police. Fox 5 published a subsequent piece Wednesday morning titled, “Seth Rich Murder: What we know and what we don’t know.”
Late Wednesday, Fox 5 published another story (and aired a TV report) to “make an important clarification.” It acknowledged that Wheeler had “backtracked” on his claims and said that he “characterizes his on-the-record and on-camera statements as ‘miscommunication.’” Fox 5, however, still hasn’t fully retracted its initial story.
Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the Rich family, said Tuesday that the stories were an effort to spread a “political agenda.” He said the family was calling for a full retraction of both stories.
“They need to retract the story or issue an apology, or the family will consider other options, including legal, to clear their son’s name and get Fox to do what’s right,” Bauman told CNN.
UPDATED with the Fox 5 “clarification” aired late Wednesday.