A week after publishing a thinly sourced, conspiracy-peddling article that linked slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to WikiLeaks, Fox News has issued a retraction and removed the story from its website.
The network’s statement, however, did not mention Fox’s television programming, where prominent commentator Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed the conspiracy theory since the story published. Hannity was still peddling the theory on Twitter just before the retraction was published, urging his followers to read a post from hacker Kim Dotcom that claimed Rich had definitive links to WikiLeaks. Earlier this week, CNN reported that Hannity had invited Kim Dotcom on his show.
Hannity didn’t back off the Rich conspiracy theory a couple hours later on his radio show. He played a Dutch TV interview in which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seemed to imply Rich was his source. Hannity also attacked those in the media criticizing his Rich coverage, calling them “phony hypocrites” because they’re reporting on investigations into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign associates and Russia.
Hannity, during the segment airing just before 4 p.m., notably didn’t mention that Fox News had just retracted its week-old story on Rich. But the host returned a few minutes later during a commercial break to defiantly state that he wasn’t walking anything back.
“And all you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or Fox News.com. I retracted nothing,” he said.
Fox News’ May 16 article, by investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman, “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” Fox News said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday. “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 added.
Rich was shot to death walking to his Washington, D.C., home in July 2016. Washington police have attributed the killing to a botched robbery.
But soon after Rich was slain, WikiLeaks published a trove of internal DNC emails and documents. Some users of online forums like Reddit, and right-wing commentators ― Hannity included ― seized on the timing to push the conspiracy theory that Rich was killed because of his ties to WikiLeaks, and that the DNC, Democratic Party and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton played roles in his death.
There is no evidence to support those theories. U.S. intelligence officials said in January that the leaks were the result of a Russian hacking operation that provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Zimmerman’s Fox News story originally played off of a similar article published by a Washington Fox affiliate, in which Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor who was privately investigating the case, claimed Rich had “confirmed” ties to WikiLeaks. Zimmerman and Fox News later added their own reporting, citing an anonymous federal investigator who reportedly said Rich had sent more than 40,000 DNC-related emails from his laptop to a contact at WikiLeaks.
That Wheeler, who was under contract with Rich’s family but was being paid by a third party, was the only named source in the Fox News report was always problematic. Wheeler’s claims were based on secondhand information, and he has a reputation for spreading baseless conspiracy theories in his role as a Fox News contributor.
The Fox News story began to fall apart almost immediately after it was published. Rich’s family criticized the articles for “pushing conspiracies” about their son’s death. D.C. Metro police said Wheeler’s claims were false. NBC News reported the FBI was not involved in the investigation and had never examined Rich’s laptop, contrary to what Fox News said it had been told by an anonymous federal investigator. Wheeler later backtracked on his original claims.
Fox News initially stood by its reporting, saying last week that it would “continue to track developments in the story and will update further when the situation warrants.” It repeatedly updated the story amid demands for a full retraction from Rich’s family. Fox 5, the local affiliate, last week updated its story to note that Wheeler had recanted, but did not retract its article.
Rich’s family issued a statement Tuesday saying it “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.”
“We are hopeful that in the future that Fox News will work with the family to ensure the highest degree of professionality and scrutiny is followed so that only accurate facts are reported surrounding this case,” the family said.
Hannity isn’t the only Fox television commentator to spread the Rich conspiracy theory since the story published online. The “Fox and Friends” morning show has pushed the story as well, and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich also raised it during an appearance on the network over the weekend.
This article has been updated to include Hannity’s radio show comments.
Michael Calderone contributed reporting.