The false conspiracy surrounding Seth Rich’s murder is back, and it’s even messier, if you can believe it — because a (paid) Fox News commentator, Rod Wheeler, alleges that the White House cooperated with Fox News while the network crafted a conspiracy about the late DNC staffer’s death. Further, and according to NPR’s viewing of Wheeler’s lawsuit against the network, President Trump supposedly reviewed the coverage plan before it swas published, although there’s been some backtracking on this claim.
Back in May, Sean Hannity went buck wild spreading this conspiracy that was embraced by the far-right audience yet prompted the network’s issuance of a rare retraction. The family of Rich — who likely perished in a botched robbery, according to D.C. police — had already begged Hannity to stop spreading heartbreaking falsehoods about his alleged cooperation with Wikileaks to dump emails. Hannity eventually relented after Fox News retracted the story.
It must be noted that Snopes had already debunked the Rich conspiracy before Hannity’s wave of coverage. The new lawsuit, filed by Wheeler, alleges that the network worked alongside wealthy Trump supporter Ed Butowsky — an (unpaid) Fox News commentator who funded an “investigation” into Rich’s death and has ties to Steve Bannon — to concoct the conspiracy. Wheeler says that he and Butowsky visited the White House to discuss Rich’s death:
On April 20, a month before the story ran, Butowsky and Wheeler — the investor and the investigator — met at the White House with then Press Secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on what they were uncovering.
The first page of the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that President Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published.
Spicer now tells NPR that he took the meeting as a favor to Butowsky, a reliable Republican voice. Spicer says he was unaware of any contact involving the president. Butowsky now tells NPR he was kidding about Trump’s involvement.
The timing of Hannity’s rants about Rich coincided with the entire network’s apparent desire to ignore most stories involving Trump-Russia ties. Indeed, Wheeler accuses Butowsky and Fox News of conspiring to deflect from the Russia thing — and Wheeler also says that reporter Malia Zimmerman misquoted him to further the false conspiracy. Jay Wallace, Fox’s president of news, told NPR that no “concrete evidence” exists to support Wheeler’s misquoting claims. Wallace also declined to answer whether publication of the Rich story (or Hannity’s accompanying coverage) was partisan in nature.
You can read more about the lawsuit (and the weird relationship between Wheeler and Butowsky) right here.
In response to the lawsuit, Fox News has issued the following statement:
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
UPDATE: Adrienne Watson of the DNC points out, “The White House previously denied knowledge of Fox News’ false report on Seth Rich.”