Fox News Settles Lawsuit After Conspiracy Theory Report

November 30, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Bike rack and plaque honoring Seth Rich outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters. (Photo by Johanna745 via Wikipedia Commons)

NEW YORK — Fox News is paying a reported seven-figure sum in a settlement reached this week with the parents of a Democratic National Committee staff member who was murdered in Washington, D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood in 2016.

A subsequent Fox News investigative story implied that DNC staffer Seth Rich was killed after he leaked politically sensitive emails to the website Wikileaks. Police denied the report, saying Rich appeared to have been murdered during a street robbery.

Rich, 27, died about an hour and a half after being shot twice in the back on July 10, 2016 as he returned to his home. No one has been prosecuted in the case.

Rich started working for the DNC in 2014 to oversee data intended to encourage more people to vote. His responsibilities included developing a computer application to help voters locate polling stations.

The Fox News story said a private investigator hired by the Rich family discovered that Wikileaks contacted Rich before he died. The story implied Rich leaked numerous DNC emails to Wikileaks and appears to have been killed in reprisal for the leak.

The email leaks helped the 2016 election campaign of Donald Trump by making his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and other DNC executives appear as bumbling and dishonest politicians.

U.S. intelligence agents traced the leaks to Russian computer hackers who sought to assist Trump after he announced his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The story was published on the Fox News website in May 2017 and referenced on-air by conservative political talk show host Sean Hannity.

It fell apart almost immediately when the private investigator and police denied its accuracy.

The Rich family accused Fox News and conspiracy theorists who seized on the story of exploiting their son’s death for political gain. Their lawsuit called the network’s news reporting “extreme and outrageous.”

Right wing online news service Breitbart News Network reported that “if proven, the report has the potential to be one of the biggest cover-ups in American political history, dispelling the widespread claim that the Russians were behind hacks on the DNC.” 

The Rich family’s lawsuit sought compensation for “mental anguish and emotional distress, emotional pain and suffering and any other physical and mental injuries.”

It accused the Fox News reporter of using “lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths” to depict “Joel and Mary’s son as a criminal and a traitor to the United States.”

Fox News published a retraction a week later but did not apologize publicly. The retraction said the story had not been appropriately reviewed by editors before publication and did not meet their standards.

Hannity briefly remained defiant after the retraction. “All you in the liberal media,” he said on his radio show. “I am not or I retracted nothing.”

As criticism mounted of him and the story, he finally backed off of it.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reinstated it last year. 

“We have no trouble concluding that — taking their allegations as true — the Riches plausibly alleged what amounted to a campaign of emotional torture,” the appeals court’s ruling said.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed but Yahoo News reported it was more than $1 million.

The company said in a statement, “We are pleased with the resolution of the claims and hope this enables Mr. and Mrs. Rich to find a small degree of peace and solace moving forward.”

Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich of Omaha,Neb., also issued a statement, which said, “The settlement with Fox News closes another chapter in our efforts to mourn the murder of our beloved Seth, whom we miss every single day. We are pleased with the settlement of this matter and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future.”

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