Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich joined Fox and Friends on Sunday to discuss the day’s major news stories — or in Gingrich’s case, to pivot from the deepening investigation into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia to baseless conspiracy theories about the death of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
After Gingrich and the hosts bemoaned the media’s “presumption of guilt” toward Trump, Gingrich was asked whether Robert Mueller, appointed this week as special counsel overseeing the investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, might shed some light on the truth.
Gingrich, a staunch Trump supporter, replied that it would depend on the scope of the investigation before quickly shifting gears to the unsolved murder of Rich, claiming without evidence that he was “assassinated.”
“At the same time, 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… 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said.
“Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s 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. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder. So I’d like to see how Mueller is going to define what his assignment is and if it’s only narrowly Trump the country will not learn what it needs to learn.”
As Dave Weigel detailed in the Washington Post, the spread of conspiracy theories around Rich’s murder, driven by Fox News, showcases how quickly fake news can take root. At the beginning of the week, Rod Wheeler, a Fox News legal commentator, claimed to have evidence linking Rich to Wikileaks, but no evidence followed and the story was quickly debunked.
Rich’s family denounced the rumors and demanded a retraction from Fox. On Thursday, the family’s lawyer sent Wheeler a cease and desist letter, saying his “improper and unauthorized statements, many of which are false and have no basis in fact, have also injured the memory and reputation of Seth Rich and have defamed and injured the reputation of the members of the family.”
Nonetheless, right wing media, led by Fox News, and social media continued to push the conspiracy theories. Even after the story was debunked, Sean Hannity proceeded to claim there were “explosive developments in the mysterious murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich that could completely shatter the narrative that in fact Wikileaks was working with the Russians, or there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
This week’s barrage of explosive reports regarding Trump’s handling of the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia presented a significant challenge for the pro-Trump media, Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel explained.
In the 17 hours following the report that Trump had disclosed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, Warzel identified four key phases of the pro-Trump media’s response: the quiet period, blaming the usual suspects/dismissal, changing the news cycle, close the loop/merge the dueling news cycles. Breitbart, Drudge, and Fox all seized on conspiracy theories around Rich’s murder and unproven ties to Wikileaks; the stories were then tied together with suggestions that “the initial Washington Post story was part of a nefarious plot to crowd out the news cycle and distract from the real news of the day — no matter that the Fox 5 report on Seth Rich came hours after the Washington Post scoop.”