On Tuesday, an investigator sued Fox News over the network’s story about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer who died last July. The lawsuit claims that Fox coordinated with Donald Trump to publish a “fake news” story with the intent of discrediting the Russia investigation. The story also defamed the investigator by presenting fabricated quotes attributed to him.
The investigator, Rod Wheeler, was hired by the Rich family to investigate the murder. He claimed that the Fox News article — published on May 16 of this year, and retracted a week later — included false quotes that he never said, and that by publishing these quotes under his name, the company dealt a great deal of damage to his reputation.
Here is his story, broken into five elements.
1. Who was Seth Rich?
Seth Rich, a 27-year-old IT staffer for the DNC, was fatally shot in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2016. While police are investigating his murder as a robbery, his wallet was not stolen. The man’s brother, Aaron Rich, has launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund the investigation into his death. As of Tuesday, it has raised over $31,000 of the $200,000 goal.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks published a huge dump of DNC emails, which caused a stir at the Democratic National Convention. While the intelligence community and private cybersecurity professionals have concluded that the DNC hack and WikiLeaks dump were directly attributable to Russian intelligence, many seized on the timing of Seth Rich’s death — and the fact his wallet wasn’t taken — as a suggestion that Rich was the source of the emails. Fox News Host Sean Hannity infamously championed this idea.
There are numerous problems with this theory. Most importantly, the technical methods behind the hack were similar to those used by two Russian intelligence groups, dubbed APT28 (or “Fancy Bear”) and APT29 or (“Cozy Bear”). Secondly, dumping large quantities of stolen political information is a signature move of Russian operations, experts said.
Furthermore, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has a well-documented relationship with the Russian government, and has hosted a television show on the state-owned network, RT.
As National Review‘s David French explained, this conspiracy theory requires multiple leaps in logic such as reading a cryptic non-committal comment by Julian Assange as “evidence” that he got the emails from Rich, and that intrepid Fox News reporters are the only ones asking the right questions.
2. Crafting a “fake news” story
Wheeler’s lawsuit alleges that Trump allies conspired to publish a false story in order to detract from the narrative that the president colluded with Russia in order to win the 2016 election.
Specifically, Wheeler named Ed Butowsky, a Trump supporter in Texas who has appeared frequently on Fox, and Malia Zimmerman, the Fox New contributor who wrote the May 16 Seth Rich story. Wheeler explained that he was brought into the case by Butowsky, who sought to connect Rich with the WikiLeaks email dump.
Zimmerman, with the knowledge and support of Butowsky, fabricated two quotations and attributed them to Wheeler, the plaintiff alleged. Here are the quotations:
“My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” said Wheeler.
“My investigation shows someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward,” Wheeler said. “That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
Before the publication of this article, Wheeler claimed that Butowsky pressured him on the story, claiming Trump had read the story and wanted it published quickly.
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” Butowsky allegedly wrote Wheeler in a text message. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.” This text came less than 36 hours before the article was published, according to the lawsuit.
Shortly before this text, Wheeler also said Butowsky left him a voicemail message conveying Trump’s interest in the article: “A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this. And, tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.”
If these allegations are true, this is incredibly damaging to Fox News. The president allegedly reviewed a Fox News article before its publication and sought to get it published “immediately.”
3. The only source quoted
According to the lawsuit, Wheeler was the only named source quoted in the article, and he claims he never made those statements. The lawsuit damningly explained, “According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article. Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.”
“Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public,” the lawsuit alleges. “Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.”
According to Wheeler, Zimmerman and Butowsky used his position as an investigator hired by the Rich family to lend credibility to a conspiracy theory. This theory would help President Trump by distracting from the collusion narrative, restoring legitimacy to Trump’s presidency.
“Butowsky and Zimmerman hoped that, if they could confirm that Seth Rich leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks, that would debunk reports the Russians were responsible,” the lawsuit alleges. “This would undermine reports of collusion between Russia and the Trump Administration.”
The lawsuit includes quotes from Butowsky and Zimmerman to this effect. According to Wheeler, Butowsky sent out an email declaring, “I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility.” He suggested that “one of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems … and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.”
When Wheeler confronted Zimmerman about the fake quotes, she reportedly sent him a text stating, “Reread the story we sent you last night [with the false quotes] and stick to that script.”
In response to these allegations, Fox said the idea that the story was published to detract from the Russia investigation was “completely erroneous.” Fox News President Jay Wallace said the story is still being investigated and that Fox has no evidence that Wheeler was misquoted, the Associated Press reported.
After the story went public, Wheeler’s reputation took a clear hit. The next day, The New York Times reported that “the Rich family regrets hiring Mr. Wheeler and has objected to his many public comments.” Aaron Rich, Seth Rich’s brother, told The Times that Wheeler had “discredited himself as an objective investigator.”
Fox removed the story from its website a week after it was published. The retraction message claimed the article “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting.” After the retraction, Fox Host Sean Hannity backed away from pushing the story on air.
But the retractions never explained that the quotes were fabricated. In fact, Butowsky actually went after Wheeler for refusing to own the allegedly false quotations.
“Fox News story was pulled b/c Rod Wheeler said [he] didn’t say a quote … How much did DNC pay him?” the Trump backer tweeted. In another tweet, he added, “This shows Rod Wheeler has a major battle with the truth. Everyone needs to hear this. He says the precise words he swears he didn’t say???”
If indeed Wheeler never said those quotes, this was a particularly nasty way for Butowsky to end the affair.
Wheeler’s lawsuit claimed that Fox News, Zimmerman, and Butowsky caused a great deal of damage to his reputation and career. The document did not place a concrete number on the damages, but it did place a number on how long Wheeler’s career has “remained stagnant” — 12 years.
Wheeler is not just suing Fox for defamation regarding this article, but also for racial discrimination.
“Throughout his career with Fox, Mr. Wheeler’s white colleagues with comparable or inferior skills, expertise and experience have received more air time, made more appearances, and been hired into full time positions,” the suit alleges. “As a result, these white colleagues make more money, receive more notoriety and, in many cases, receive valuable benefits.”
In contrast, “Mr. Wheeler’s career has remained stagnant for 12 years despite his repeated requests to be hired full time.” He last made this request in April 2017, but he has not received a response.
“Fox’s marginalization of Mr. Wheeler is simply part of its systemic pattern and practice of discriminating against people of color,” the suit alleges. “Indeed, since March 2017, no fewer than 16 Fox News employees of color have sued Fox News for race discrimination and/or filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC.”
It may prove particularly difficult for Wheeler to prove he never made those comments, but this lawsuit seems particularly damaging. Perhaps the worst part is the collusion between the administration — even President Trump himself! — and Fox News. When a news outlet passes an entire article by the president before publication, that seems rather suspicious.
If the testimony of Bill Browder is to be believed, Russia has attempted to infiltrate the U.S. government in many ways on multiple levels. Russian manipulation is by no means limited or conclusively linked to the campaign of Donald Trump, but the administration’s efforts to push this Seth Rich story makes it look like Trump has something to hide.