'It's blasted across America': How Fox and Sean Hannity amplified a Russia-fueled conspiracy

Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent

This is the fifth part in the Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” series. Read and listen to the first four parts here.

WASHINGTON — Early on the morning of May 16, 2017, the editors of the Fox News website were in a state of near panic. As they arrived at work at Fox headquarters in midtown Manhattan, they discovered that the network’s affiliate in Washington, D.C., had dropped a huge story the night before, based on the work of one of the Fox News website’s own reporters. It was a story that could turn the political world on its head — if it was actually true.

The story involved Seth Rich, the 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who had been shot and killed the previous July in what police believed was most likely a botched robbery. Malia Zimmerman, a Los Angeles-based reporter for the Fox News website, had sent her editors in New York a wild draft of a piece claiming that the FBI had uncovered evidence that Rich — and not Russian military-intelligence hackers — had been the real source of stolen DNC emails provided to WikiLeaks. If that was the case, that botched robbery in Washington would start looking very much like a political assassination.

The Fox News web editors hadn’t had a chance to vet Zimmerman’s article. They had not drilled down on her sketchy sourcing. But, according to three Fox News sources familiar with the handling of the story, the editors were so upset that such a big exclusive had been broken by a local affiliate, rather than the network itself, that they hastily rushed the Zimmerman piece onto the Fox News website, setting off a political and media firestorm.

Download or subscribe: “Conspiracyland” on Apple Podcasts

“Back with a Fox News alert: a brand-new bombshell in the murder of that guy right there, a DNC staffer,” proclaimed Ainsley Earhardt, co-host of “Fox & Friends,” as the cable network’s popular morning show went on the air.

“The narrative has been all along Russia, Russia, Russia,” chimed in co-host Steve Doocy. But this new story could change all of that. Doocy then read Zimmerman’s grabber of a lede: “The DNC staffer who was gunned down on July 10th on Washington, DC streets last July just steps from his home had leaked thousands of internal emails to Wikileaks, law enforcement sources have told Fox News.”

It was just the start of what would become a weeklong Fox News blitzkrieg in which the network’s biggest stars and commentators would hype the Rich story night after night. As if that weren’t enough, a wide-ranging Russian propaganda operation immediately swung into action to promote Fox News’ reporting — with a big boost from the Internet Research Agency, the shadowy St. Petersburg troll farm that specialized in social media manipulation during the 2016 campaign.

The backstory of the Fox News “exclusive” — and how it fell apart eight days later, forcing the network to erase it from its website — is the subject of “Fox News Fallout,” the new episode in Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast, released on Tuesday.

The Fox News promotion of the Rich story provided a powerful new megaphone for a baseless conspiracy theory that — as was revealed in Episode 2 of “Conspiracyland” — had been spawned by Russian intelligence operatives just three days after Rich’s death.

Screengrab from Fox News coverage of the death of Seth Rich.
Screengrab from Fox News coverage of the death of Seth Rich.

At the same time, it had painful real-world impacts. “I was furious,” said Deborah Sines, then the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich murder investigation. The Fox News account was, she said, a “complete fabrication” based on “lies” about a supposed FBI forensic report that didn’t actually exist — but that nonetheless forced her to waste time and resources investigating.

More tragically, the Fox News blitz caused new anguish for Rich’s parents, who watched as their deceased son was recklessly portrayed as a thief and a leaker who had betrayed his DNC colleagues.

“It’s blasted across America with Fox and Hannity … All they’ve done is, quote, ‘taken it down,’ but it’s still up there on the internet,” says Mary Rich, Seth’s mother, in an emotional interview on “Conspiracyland.”

“I wish they had the chance to experience the hell we have gone through. Because this is worse than losing my son the first time. This is like losing him all over again.”

The previous episode of “Conspiracyland” reported how Ed Butowsky, a Dallas-based financier and guest commentator on the Fox Business Network, had played a crucial role in the development of the Fox News story. He had persuaded Mary Rich and her husband, Joel, to let him hire a private detective, Rod Wheeler, on their behalf to investigate their son’s murder. He then put Wheeler in touch with Zimmerman and began urging them to pursue a story he claimed to have heard from a friend: that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had privately told a friend of his, radio talk show host Ellen Ratner, that Rich had made money off his supposed leak, selling the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. (Ratner said in an interview aired on Episode 4 of “Conspiracyland” that Rich never came up in her meeting with Assange.)

As soon as he got word that Zimmerman’s story was about to be published, Butowsky banged out an email to top Fox anchors and producers, alerting them to what was coming and taking credit for being “the one who’s been putting this together.”

Ed Butowsky at his office in Dallas, Texas in 2010. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)
Ed Butowsky at his office in Dallas in 2010. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)

And Butowsky left little doubt about his motivation. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and steal e-mails and there was no collusion — like [sic] Trump with the Russians,” Butowsky wrote in the email.

The morning-show hype was amplified that evening when Fox News superstar Sean Hannity led off his nightly top-rated show with a breathless account of the Rich story. The story of Rich and WikiLeaks “could completely shatter the narrative” of a Russia-WikiLeaks connection and “could become one of the biggest scandals in American history,” Hannity declared.

Over the next two nights, Hannity returned to the story with a special guest, lawyer Jay Sekulow. Hannity didn’t mention, and Sekulow didn’t volunteer, that Sekulow just that week had been hired as a member of President Trump’s legal team in the Russia investigation. Although there had been no public reporting about his new role, Sekulow used the Rich story as an opportunity to deride the Russia investigation — a probe that also that week had gotten a new leader with the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.

“It sounds like premeditated murder targeted at this individual,” Sekulow said about Rich’s death on Hannity’s show. “So it’s an unfortunate question to have to address, and that is, there’s a dead 27-year-old in Washington, D.C., who happened to be a DNC employee.

“I haven’t seen the files, you haven’t seen the files, but there’s one thing this undercuts … this whole Russia argument,” he said.

Also joining the Fox News chorus was one of the conservative network’s most high-profile regulars: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to the media in Trump Tower in New York in 2016. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2016. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000 — I’m sorry, 53,000 — emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said during one of his Fox appearances that week. “Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what was going on? Because it turns out it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee.”

But even as the Fox News promotion was reaching its zenith, the story itself was collapsing. Wheeler, the private detective hired by Butowsky, disavowed comments he had made to the Fox affiliate in Washington indicating he had personally “confirmed” that an FBI forensic report of Rich’s computer showed contacts with WikiLeaks.

In fact, Wheeler admitted that all he knew about the supposed FBI report was what Zimmerman had told him — and he actually knew nothing about the unnamed “federal investigator,” the main source for the story, who Wheeler understood to be either an “FBI guy” or “a former FBI guy.” (Zimmerman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Wheeler had initially told Hannity that the anonymous investigator was “credible.” In fact, he soon admitted he knew nothing about him. “Yeah, I don’t even know the guy’s name,” he said in a later interview with a website called crowdsourcethetruth.org. “I never spoke to the guy.”

Sean Hannity speaks with Rod Wheeler in this screengrab from Fox News' coverage of the death of Seth Rich.
Sean Hannity speaks with private detective Rod Wheeler in this screengrab from Fox News' coverage of the death of Seth Rich.

Then the Washington police and FBI officials went public, telling reporters they had no information to support the Fox News claims. In an interview, then acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe says that when he checked with his agents, they said there was nothing to the conspiracy claims about Rich’s death. “There’s no there there,” McCabe says he was told.

By the next week, advertisers started bailing on Hannity — in part influenced by a public plea by the Rich family that the Fox News anchor stop telling lies about their son. Finally, Fox News caved. On May 23 it retracted the story, saying the article “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting” and was being removed from the network’s website. It was an embarrassing retreat for a network that rarely issues corrections. (Fox News declined to comment for “Conspiracyland” beyond its May 23 statement, citing pending litigation against the network by the Rich family.)

A screengrab of Fox News' retraction for their coverage of the death of Seth Rich.
Screengrab of Fox News' retraction for its coverage of the death of Seth Rich.

And Hannity, even while bemoaning an effort to “silence me,” made his own partial retreat. “I totally completely understand how upset, how hard this is on this family, especially over the recent coverage of Seth’s death,” he declared. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”

But then, with a wink and a nod to his fans, he added: “I promise you I am not going to stop doing my job to the extent of my ability. I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.” The next day, on his radio show, he added: “For all you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.”

But even with the Fox News retraction, the bogus story did not die — thanks once again to the Russian disinformation campaign that had helped fuel the conspiracy theories about Rich in the first place. RT and Sputnik, the Russian government-owned international networks, played up every development in the Rich story as reported by Fox News. The Russian Embassy in London on May 19, 2017, even tweeted a photo of Rich with Hillary Clinton looming in the background — giving an official Russian government imprimatur to the conspiracy claim that the former secretary of state had ordered the DNC staffer assassinated.

And most significantly, the Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency churned out a relentless wave of tweets and retweets about Rich. “We will not stop until we have the truth about #SethRich,” read one by Tenn_GOP, a Twitter handle that pretended to be from the Tennessee Republican Party but was really a Russian troll working for the IRA in St. Petersburg. “Please hire the best bodyguards, we all know what democrats are capable of #SethRich,” read another.

And in Washington, the editors at the official Russian news agency, Sputnik, gave Andrew Feinberg, its White House reporter, an unusual order: Ask the White House for official comment on the Seth Rich case.

Feinberg refused, telling his Russian editors, “I’m not comfortable with that.”

While he considered the story “bulls***,” Feinberg said he fully understood why his Sputnik editors wanted to keep it in the news. “Seth Rich represents a major issue for what I like to call the Russia-right-wing media ecosystem,” he says. “Because there are a lot of people who are invested in the idea that Russia had nothing to do with swinging the election to Donald Trump. There are a lot of people invested in it, because if that didn’t happen, then Donald Trump’s victory was earned all on his own.”

The day after Feinberg refused the order, he says he was fired from the Russian government news agency.

The Fox News debacle produced lawsuits galore. Wheeler sued Fox News and Butowsky, claiming they deliberately doctored his quotes. It was a tough argument — given that Wheeler made some of his most problematic comments endorsing the phony story on TV. His lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge.

Rod Wheeler's 2017 lawsuit against Fox News. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Rod Wheeler's 2017 lawsuit against Fox News. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Meanwhile, the Riches sued Fox News for intentional infliction of emotional distress, forcing the network to respond in court papers that its reporting, though retracted, was still fully protected by the First Amendment. That case too was dismissed but is now under appeal.

Internally, the case produced no shortage of angst for Fox News executives. The network announced it was conducting an internal investigation into how the story got published in the first place, but it has never announced the results. A network source knowledgeable about the inquiry says that Fox News lawyers pressed Zimmerman to provide more information about the anonymous federal investigator who was her source, but her responses caused some editors at the network to question whether the source was in fact who she said he was, or even whether he existed. But Fox News editors were loath to question, much less discipline, Hannity, the biggest promoter of the bogus account. “There was extreme nervousness about Hannity,” said the source.

Most important, the conspiracy claims about Rich would not go away. Instead, they got new traction in the dark corners of the internet, promoted by strange and far nastier players, a subject that will be discussed in the sixth and final episode of “Conspiracyland,” to be released next week.

Cover thumbnail photo: Fox News host Sean Hannity and late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, via Twitter)


Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: