With the revelation this week that Fox News helped Russian intelligence agents spread the vulgar conspiracy theory about Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich’s murder in 2016, we have entered a dark and dangerous place. We're at the point where a major American cable news channel teamed up with forces from a foreign adversary in order to damage a major political party in this country. What do we even call this? Treason? The fifth column inside the United States? We are so far beyond Fox News being a useful platform for Republicans to spread bits of partisan misinformation. We're talking about a huge, powerful media entity that essentially aligns itself with foreign agents to undermine American democracy from within. And no, that's not hyperbole. Those are the established facts, per a Yahoo News investigation.
"In the summer of 2016, Russian intelligence agents secretly planted a fake report claiming that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton, giving rise to a notorious conspiracy theory that captivated conservative activists and was later promoted from inside President Trump’s White House," Yahoo's Michael Isikoff writes.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, first circulated a phony “bulletin” — disguised to read as a real intelligence report —about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016, according to the U.S. federal prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. That was just three days after Rich, 27, was killed in what police believed was a botched robbery while walking home to his group house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., about 30 blocks north of the Capitol.
The "bulletin" was soon picked up by a Russian propaganda-friendly site, and during the next two years, Russian government-owned media organizations RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories that falsely claimed Rich, a junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that were leaked to WikiLeaks and dominated election campaign season news in 2016.
Back then, the ugly Rich smear was promoted by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who announced a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s murder, claiming ominously that “our sources take risks.” Simultaneously, online trolls working for a Russian troll farm pushed the conspiracy theory after creating fake accounts portraying American citizens. The trolls tweeted and retweeted more than 2,000 times about Rich, helping to keep the conspiracy embers burning. From there, the bile was scooped up by far-right websites and eventually trickled into primetime Fox News shows.
(Some Hillary Clinton critics on the left also wallowed in the Rich nonsense.)
Why did Russian intelligent agents want to amplify an ugly smear campaign that suggested Rich leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks? Because that would exonerate the Russians, who actually did leak stolen Democratic emails to WikiLeaks. (Guccifer 2.0, an online persona created by Russia’s military intelligence agency, sent WikiLeaks an encrypted file of DNC material on July 14, 2016, four days after Rich’s death.) “Let’s blame it on Seth Rich. He’s a very convenient target," explained Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich case until her retirement last year. The conspiracy was also a way to push a dark, Pizzagate-like narrative that maybe Hillary Clinton had Rich murdered, and that there was some sort of sprawling Democratic cover-up in play.
Later, the White House pushed the despicable storyline. "Huge story … he was a Bernie [Sanders] guy … it was a contract kill, obviously," then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted on March 17, 2017, according by Yahoo News.
Then on May 16, 2017, 10 months after Rich’s death, Fox News put its full weight behind the Rich smear (first engineered by Russian intelligence agents) with a bogus "exclusive" report and a series of on-air segments, which later had to be retracted. The claim was that Rich had been in contact with a WikiLeaks player before he died, he provided them with tens of thousands of DNC emails, and that a vast cover-up was keeping the story hidden from public view. Fox News star Sean Hannity tweeted an increasingly frantic series of tweets (now deleted, as you can see) about Fox's alleged Rich scoop.
What was particularly offensive about the Rich story “breaking” on Fox News was that it seemed like the network was hyping the hollow tale as a way to avoid dealing with the then-unfolding bombshell news of Robert Mueller being named special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. Desperate for a distraction and desperate not to acknowledge the bad political news for Trump, Fox opted to peddle concocted stories based on shrouded, anonymous sources.
After multiple Fox personalities pushed wild tales about Rich's murder, Rich's parents took legal action to try to stop the network's heartless behavior. "We lost his body the first time, and the second time we lost his soul," Mary Rich told ABC News. "They took more from us with the lies, so we want our son's life and his soul restored, and I want our life back so we can move forward again."
Fox News wasn't alone in its ghoulish behavior. Breitbart.com ran an article on its home page claiming that Fox’s claims may prove that the hack of DNC emails was “an inside job.” The Drudge Report ran a screaming banner headline claiming Rich “had contact” with WikiLeaks, and linked to the Fox article. “This is what happens when a murder victim becomes a pro-Trump meme,” lamented the Washington City Paper.
Of course, the Fox News exclusive was a “complete fabrication,” Sines told Yahoo News. Coming under attack even from some conservative commentators for the way Fox News, and especially Hannity, wildly hyped the bogus story about a murder victim, network executives announced they would conduct an internal review of the Rich story. Two years later, Fox News has not released any findings. But according to Yahoo News, Fox News editors concluded pretty early that the report, based on an anonymous "federal investigator" source, was likely a sham. "Fox editors came to have doubts that the [source] was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed."
These are dark days, indeed. And 2020 could get even worse.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.