The killing of a Democratic National Committee staff member captured the conservative media zeitgeist anew this month, thanks in part to news coverage from a Washington, DC, Fox affiliate and a heavy rotation on Fox News by way of host Sean Hannity.
Critics have excoriated Hannity over his multiday cable-news deliberation on the killing of the staff member, Seth Rich, which he continued despite calls for him to retract the story. Until late Tuesday, Hannity persisted, even after the network had issued its own retraction.
Here’s what’s behind the controversy:
Who is Seth Rich?
Last summer, Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staff member, was fatally shot in the back. Though the circumstances surrounding his killing are not entirely clear, local news outlets have reported he was the victim of a botched robbery. Rich was reportedly on the phone at the time and had to quickly hang up. A torn watchband at the scene suggested there was a struggle between Rich and his killer.
It was the first killing of the year in that particular neighborhood. Two more armed robberies happened in the neighborhood within weeks of Rich’s killing, local news outlets reported.
Rich worked at the headquarters of the DNC as the voter-expansion data director. A statement from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was then the DNC chair, called Rich a “dedicated selfless public servant” who “saw the great potential of our nation and believed that, together, we can make the world a better place.”
- Scott Audette/Reuters
How Rich’s death became a conspiracy that went viral
On July 22, nearly two weeks after Rich’s death, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of internal emails it said came from the DNC. Following the release, some right-wing media personalities and outlets, including Breitbart News and the Drudge Report, touted a theory that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before he was killed and that he was murdered as part of a cover-up.
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator associated with Rich’s family, told a Fox News affiliate in Washington that there was evidence that proved the alleged contact between Rich and WikiLeaks. Wheeler also suggested that the Metropolitan Police Department tried to cover up the nature of Rich’s death on behalf of the DNC, an allegation the police department denied.
Fox News ran Wheeler’s story, which also referred to a “federal source” who claimed the FBI had examined Rich’s computer and found the emails from WikiLeaks.
A law-enforcement official told CNN, however, that the FBI was never in possession of Rich’s laptop and that a forensic analysis of it was not conducted. Wheeler later backtracked, saying he had no evidence of a connection between Rich and WikiLeaks.
“I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” Wheeler told CNN.
Hannity spent several days promoting the conspiracy theory on Twitter and on his Fox News program.
“Congress, investigate Seth Rich Murder,” Hannity tweeted on Sunday. “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
“Snowflakes with anger issues and impulse control issues. U must believe the “robbery” gone bad story,” another tweet from Hannity said.
Other Fox News personalities helped promote the baseless theory, including Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera, who tweeted, “1) #SethRich shot in back(2)worked for #DNC which, (3)screwed @BernieSanders 4)#WIKILEAKS screwed DNC(5)Did #sethrich leak?(6)is it related?”
Kim Dotcom, a multimillionaire internet mogul who is subject to extradition to the US on charges of copyright infringement, money laundering, and wire fraud, dedicated a large section of his website to the conspiracy. He called Rich a “hero” and appealed to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who was named special counsel to lead the FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election, to guarantee “safe passage from New Zealand to the United States and back,” in exchange for evidence he claims to have on the Rich conspiracy.
As Hannity continued to spin the conspiratorial web, some staff members at Fox News reportedly grew upset with their prime-time star. The Daily Beast interviewed nearly a dozen employees, including hosts and reporters, who all expressed dismay.
“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SH–,” one Fox News political reporter said in a message to The Daily Beast.
“The other reporters I’ve talked to [about this] are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox News reporter told the publication. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless [to spread this].”
Members of Rich’s family conveyed frustration over what they described as Wheeler’s “unsubstantiated claims.” The family said the claims were “no facts” and they had seen “no evidence” Rich was communicating with WikiLeaks.
“We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth’s murderers,” a statement from the family said.
Brad Bauman, a representative for the Rich family, rebuked those he said were seeking to politicize Rich’s killing.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” Bauman told Business Insider earlier this month. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
- Fox News/YouTube
The latest updates
Fox News on Tuesday removed an article it had published nearly a week earlier on Rich, saying “the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny.”
“Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed,” Fox News’ statement said, according to CNN. “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”
To this effect, Bauman said Rich’s family was grateful.
“The family would like to thank Fox News for their retraction on a story that has caused deep pain and anguish to the family and has done harm to Seth Rich’s legacy,” Bauman said in CNN’s report. “We are hopeful that in the future Fox News will work with the family to ensure the highest degree of professionalism and scrutiny is followed so that only accurate facts are reported serving this case.”
Rich’s brother Aaron wrote a letter on Tuesday to the executive producer of Hannity’s show and urged him to find the “decency and kindness” to reconsider the decision to peddle the conspiracy theory.
“Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother,” the letter said. “And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy.”
Rich’s parents also wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post that was published Tuesday:
“Imagine living in a nightmare that you can never wake up from. Imagine having to face every single day knowing that your son was murdered. Imagine you have no answers – that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers. Imagine that every single day, with every phone call you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case.
“Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.”
The op-ed article continued:
“We also know that many people are angry at our government and want to see justice done in some way, somehow. We are asking you to please consider our feelings and words. There are people who are using our beloved Seth’s memory and legacy for their own political goals, and they are using your outrage to perpetuate our nightmare. We ask those purveying falsehoods to give us peace, and to give law enforcement the time and space to do the investigation they need to solve our son’s murder.”
On Tuesday evening, Hannity on his show said he would back off on the subject “at this time.”
“I totally and completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family, especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death,” Hannity said. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
Though Hannity expressed his condolences to Rich’s family, at the end of his program on Tuesday night, Hannity appeared to backpedal on it.
“There are so many issues here, not the least of which is the Democratic push of their Russia narrative … There’s something clearly happening here,” Hannity said. “The ‘destroy-Trump media’ … They have been pushing the Russian tinfoil-hat conspiracy story with zero evidence.”
Hannity tweeted minutes before his show ended Tuesday night: “Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available. Stay tuned!”
Maxwell Tani contributed to this report.