A week after publishing a problematic account about the death of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — an article that said Rich made contact with WikiLeaks before he was shot and killed in Washington — Fox News retracted the story, saying it did not meet the organization’s editorial standards.
“The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” Fox said in a brief statement posted on its website Tuesday. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
The unsigned 73-word “Statement on coverage of Seth Rich murder investigation” added: “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”
Hours after the retraction was published, Sean Hannity, who had latched on to the idea that Rich — not Russia — was the source of the massive DNC email leak, told viewers of his prime-time Fox News show that “out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now,” he would not be talking about Rich’s death.
“I want to say this to you, my loyal audience, which is very important: Please do not interpret what I’m saying tonight to mean anything,” Hannity said. “Don’t read into this. I promise you I am not doing — going to stop doing my job to the extent of my ability.”
He added: “I serve at the pleasure of the Fox News Channel. And I am here to do my job every night. I’m under contract, as long as they seem to want me.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Hannity seemed defiant, even as Fox backed down from the story. He said on his radio show that he felt badly for Rich’s family, but added that it was his “moral obligation” to ask whether a DNC whistleblower was in touch with WikiLeaks.
“All you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or Foxnews.com; I retracted nothing,” he said on his radio show.
Fox News and its Washington affiliate, WTTG, reported last week that Rich had leaked 44,053 DNC emails and 17,761 attachments to a now-deceased WikiLeaks director. The stories immediately gained traction on social media and among conservative news outlets — even as Rich’s family rejected the reports.
The Fox News story was originally published on May 16 and cited “investigative sources” in reporting that Rich had made contact with WikiLeaks some time before he was killed — a case that remains unsolved. Fox’s story quoted a private investigator, Rod Wheeler, who claimed there was an email exchange between Rich and WikiLeaks — and suggested that “the answers to who murdered Seth Rich sits on his computer on a shelf at the D.C. police or FBI headquarters.”
As of Tuesday morning, the story was still on the Fox News site, though the headline had changed: “Family of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich blasts detective over report of WikiLeaks link,” it read. (The original headline: “Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks, say multiple sources.”)
By Tuesday afternoon, however, the story was gone from the site. There was no editor’s note attached to the original URL; just a message saying, “something has gone wrong. … It seems you clicked on a bad link and stumbled upon our 404 page.”
Rich’s family said it was grateful for the story’s removal.
“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,” the family said through a spokesman. “We are hopeful that in the future that 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 surrounding this case.”
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post on Tuesday, Rich’s parents described living out a daily “nightmare” perpetuated by inaccurate reporting.
As they anxiously await actual updates from investigators trying to solve their son’s killing, Mary and Joel Rich wrote that they’re forced to field conspiratorial questions from reporters peddling discredited news.
“Seth’s death has been turned into a political football,” they wrote. “Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy. It just won’t stop.”
“The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable,” they added. “With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.”
The reports cited Wheeler, the investigator who the affiliate and the cable network said was hired by the Rich family and had previously worked for D.C. police. Wheeler was also identified in the original Fox News story as a Fox contributor.
Fox News also cited an unnamed federal investigator who said Rich had transferred thousands of emails to a WikiLeaks director between January 2015 and May 2016.
WTTG kept the original story online but topped it with a lengthy editor’s note detailing Wheeler’s “verbatim exchange” with the TV station.
Wheeler told WTTG that “he had sources at the FBI confirming” communications between Rich and WikiLeaks, but “has since backtracked” from his original statements, the station’s story said.
The Daily Caller also has taken down a story on the alleged Rich-WikiLeaks connection; that story originally cited Fox News’s reporting.
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 23, 2017
Rich was killed on July 10, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington. Police said his death was the result of a botched robbery.
Law enforcement officials have said that Rich’s computer and email activity have been examined and suggest nothing that would connect him to WikiLeaks — which, 12 days after Rich’s death, published 20,000 emails that embarrassed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the DNC, and forced the ouster of its chairwoman.
Rich’s parents reiterated that point in their op-ed, writing that — as a data analyst — their son never had access to exclusive campaign communication.
“Seth’s job was to develop analytical models to encourage voters to turn out to vote. He didn’t have access to DNC emails, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee emails, John Podesta’s emails or Hillary Clinton’s emails,” they wrote. “That simply wasn’t his job.”
Fox News’s retraction came on the same day that Rich’s brother, Aaron, wrote a letter asking the producer of Hannity’s show to stop spreading the conspiracy theory surrounding the former DNC staffer’s death.
Hannity invited Kim Dotcom, a New Zealand-based Internet businessman now fighting extradition to the United States on copyright infringement and wire fraud charges, to appear on his Fox News show after Dotcom suggested that he had relevant details about Rich and WikiLeaks.
The letter from Rich’s family was in response to Hannity’s invitation to Dotcom.
“Nobody wants to solve Seth’s murder more than we do,” the letter said. “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.”
On Tuesday, after the Fox retraction, Hannity tweeted a statement from Dotcom, who said he knows Rich was involved in the DNC leak — and that Rich was killed because of that. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Dotcom may have tried to hack into Rich’s personal email account to create a fake archive of emails tying him to the DNC hacking.
The Daily Beast reported this week that some Fox News staffers are “embarrassed” that the network has continued to allow Hannity to promote and give airtime to the conspiracy theory. Hannity tweeted the story and said: “Very interesting. My heart is not troubled in the least.”
Rich’s parents ended their op-ed in The Post by acknowledging that some people do want authorities to resolve their son’s mysterious killing, but while simultaneously asking for people to stop using their son’s legacy for their “own political goals.”
“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,” they wrote.
The family’s plea, though, appears to have gone unheeded by some.
On Wednesday morning, the top story on Gateway Pundit’s homepage was about Dotcom. Its headline: “BOOM!! Kim Dotcom DROPS BOMBSHELL! — SETH RICH LEAKED DNC EMAILS TO WIKILEAKS.” There were seven other Rich-related stories on the conservative blog’s homepage.
Two stories featured a picture of Rich and a question: “Who killed Seth Rich?” A close-up of Hillary Clinton’s face, in red, appeared ominously in the background. The headlines read: “Family of Seth Rich Demand Police Reveal Details of Its Murder Investigation” and “Rumblings: Top DNC and Hillary Lackeys Fear Investigation of Seth Rich.”
Another story was about Tom Fitton, head of Judicial Watch, talking about his conservative watchdog group’s effort to uncover details on Rich’s death. Fitton said he had filed public records requests with D.C. police and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
— Judicial Watch (@JudicialWatch) May 23, 2017
Peter Hermann and David Weigel contributed to this story, which has been updated.