Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee staffer who lived in Washington, died tragically on July 10 of last year, shot to death in what looked for all the world to be a botched robbery attempt. That’s the story, and this story ― while not being unimportant by any means ― should have been confined to local news and local authorities investigating the crime.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the family and friends that Rich left behind have seen their grief magnified as a result of a gallingly persistent bit of fake news. Rumors, hatched in some of the internet’s dodgier redoubts, were provided a megaphone by irresponsible right-wing media organizations ― most notably Fox News ― leading to a week of dubious, unhinged reporting that tortured Rich’s family members until they were forced to speak out about it. And to the surprise of no sane individuals, those outlandish claims have all fallen apart, leading to multiple retractions and a sudden “vacation” for Fox News’ primary purveyor of the conspiracy theories, Sean Hannity.
The whole ordeal has been entirely emblematic of the surreal media universe that the Donald Trump era has ushered in. On this week’s edition of the “So That Happened” podcast, HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron, who covered the way in which internet rumors became a Fox News spectacle in multiple dispatches over the last week, joins the show to talk about how it came to pass that a baseless claim ― that Rich had been killed on the orders of prominent Democrats for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks ― became a “news” story.
Trump launched his political career with a conspiracy theory: that Barack Obama hadn’t been born in the United States. Trump rose to power on this lie and a host of others, including one about New Jersey Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks. At the height of his primary campaign, Trump was as likely to gin up new, outlandish conspiracies as he was to furnish policy ideas or ideological talking points. His furtherance of the zany idea that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a good example of how he went back to that well, again and again.
And it’s hard to disassociate the Seth Rich story from Trump now, especially considering the way Hannity flogged the story for the express purpose of finding a theory behind Russian interference in the 2016 election that would provide Trump with some exculpatory wiggle room. That the Rich story filled Hannity’s news hole at the expense of other stories, less favorable to Trump, was an added bonus.
In the end, the otherworldly claims that Hannity and others attempted to promulgate disintegrated in the light of day. In a statement posted after its story was retracted, Fox News admitted that the piece “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” and that after “appropriate review, the article was found to not meet those standards.” As they say, “Too little, too late.” If anything, Fox’s retraction only shines a light on every other media organization that had the wherewithal ― as well as the standards ― to not run the story in the first place.
And it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the lesson will be learned in such a way to prevent the next toxic rumor from going mainstream. There’s something about the Trump era that suggests this sort of thing will happen again. After all, when Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who apparently still believes that this conspiracy theory may be true, was asked by CNN to furnish evidence to back up his claim, he responded by saying, “There’s stuff circulating on the internet.”