A controversial Fox News report about the death of a Democratic National Committee employee last summer — a story that had fueled a conspiracy theory that rocketed across right-wing media, but reportedly embarrassed some of the network’s staffers — was retracted by the network Tuesday afternoon.
The report attempted to tie the death of data analyst Seth Rich — who was shot in what Washington police believe was a botched robbery attempt — to the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks, which began publishing them two weeks later. The implication, spelled out most directly by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was that Rich had provided the emails and was assassinated in retaliation or as part of a coverup. The theory was taken up by right-wing sites like Breitbart and Infowars, and pushed by Fox’s Sean Hannity both on the air and on Twitter.
Hannity continued to push the story on Twitter even as Fox News was publishing its retraction.
“On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich,” read the statement. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
“We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted,” the statement concluded, leaving an opening for future reporting.
Rich’s family thanked Fox News for the retraction:
Statement from Rich family spokesman Brad Bauman: pic.twitter.com/8tVb4BTKEQ
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) May 23, 2017
Gingrich connected the conspiratorial dots on Fox News Sunday, asserting that if Rich had indeed given emails to WikiLeaks, it would clear Russia of any charges of hacking or colluding with Donald Trump’s campaign.
NBC News has reported that a key element in the conspiracy theory — that Rich’s laptop contained evidence he communicated with WikiLeaks before he was killed — has been denied by multiple sources.
Hours before the retraction, CNN published a letter sent from Rich’s brother, Aaron, to the executive producer of “Hannity,” pleading with him to stop airing “baseless accusations.”
“As the family, we would hope to be the first people to learn about any such evidence and reasons for Seth’s death,” wrote Aaron Rich. “It is a travesty that you would prompt false conspiracy theories and other people’s agendas rather than work with the family to learn the truth.”
Even after the Fox News retraction, Hannity was still tweeting about Rich. His latest source is Internet gadfly Kim Dotcom, who is under indictment in the U.S. for money laundering and copyright breaches. Dotcom, who is now living in New Zealand, has a history of forging documents in an attempt to prove conspiracies.
Aaron Rich mentioned Dotcom’s history of falsehoods in his letter.
“As such, we urge you to please, not provide a platform for a person who is known to have pushed false evidence in the past and not allow him to make a mistake like that here,” he wrote. “Nobody wants to solve Seth’s murder more than we do. However, providing a platform to spread potentially false, damaging information will cause us additional pain, suffering and sorrow. By airing this information, you will continue to emotionally hurt us. We appeal to your decency to not cause a grieving family more pain and suffering by allowing your platform to be used by someone to drag our family name through the mud.”
Fox News did not immediately respond to a question about whether Hannity would cover the Rich investigation on his Tuesday evening broadcast. On his radio show Tuesday afternoon, Hannity was defiant, saying, “For those accusing me of pushing a conspiracy theory, you are the biggest phony hypocrites in the entire world.”
Following his radio show, Hannity tweeted out that he is “trying to find the truth.”
I said publicly over and over to the Rich Family they are in my thoughts and prayers. I m trying to find the truth as the Mom Dad bro asked https://t.co/op11hVRlWW
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 23, 2017
Then Hannity teased his Twitter audience with further developments related to the Rich story.
Huge announcement tonight about Seth Rich, Trump/Russian Collusion corrupt media, the liberal effort to silence me. And my future at Fox!
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 23, 2017
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