Fox News defends reporting on conspiracy theory by calling Seth Rich a ‘hero’

The network takes no responsibility for inflicting emotional distress on Rich's family.

Fox News claims it portrayed Seth Rich as a 'hero' when promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory that claims Rich leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. (CREDIT: Matt Miller for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Fox News claims it portrayed Seth Rich as a 'hero' when promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory that claims Rich leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. (CREDIT: Matt Miller for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Earlier this year, the family of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich sued Fox News for inflicting emotional distress when it reported a conspiracy theory that Rich had been murdered for leaking documents from the DNC to Wikileaks. In its response filed Tuesday, the network argued that the claim didn’t hold up was because the network had portrayed Rich as a “hero.”

“Although Plaintiffs assert that the Fox News article caused them pain, other readers might well consider their son to be a hero,” the new brief argues. “Far from condemning Seth Rich for the purported leak, the Fox News article portrayed him as a whistleblower who released the DNC emails to expose that ‘top party officials conspired to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont from becoming the party’s presidential nominee.'”

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To further defend its reporting, the brief notes that the article “contained a photo of Rich in an American flag ensemble above the cutline: ‘Rich was fiercely patriotic, say family members.’ That readers could take markedly different views of Rich’s alleged leak underscores that Plaintiffs cannot satisfy the outrageousness element as a matter of law.”

Police previously ruled Rich’s death the result of a botched robbery. Five months later, in December 2016, Fox Business Network commentator Ed Butowsky reached out to Joel and Mary Rich, Seth’s parents, offering to hire Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former D.C. homicide detective, to investigate the murder. Despite a confidentiality agreement with them, Wheeler shared information about his investigation with Fox News, which proceeded to publish a report on May 16, 2017 connecting Seth Rich’s murder with Wikileaks and the DNC emails it had published.

Months earlier, the U.S. Intelligence Community had stated that it was “confident” that the emails had been obtained through Russian hacks, and not through a domestic whistleblower. Thus, there was nothing to substantiate Wheeler’s conspiracy theory.

Wheeler’s theory became popular with conservatives eager to embrace a version of events that didn’t involve Russian interference in the election, regardless. Fox News host Sean Hannity saw a massive spike in ratings the night he teased a “major announcement” about Rich the same day the network retracted the original article for failing to meet its “high degree of editorial scrutiny.”

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In Tuesday’s brief, Fox nevertheless defended its journalistic integrity, insisting, “Fox News’ reporter had a clear journalistic purpose for seeking information from Wheeler: a news story concerning a leak of DNC emails that may have affected a presidential election, as well as an unsolved murder that might have been related to that leak. This was classic ‘reporting on an issue of public concern,’ and there is no basis whatsoever to suggest that any purpose, much less the sole purpose, was to harm the parents of the murder victim.”

Fox is calling for the lawsuit to be dismissed for lack of a claim.