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Fox News Settles With Seth Rich's Parents For False Story Claiming Clinton Leaks

People pass the News Corporation headquarters building and Fox News studios in New York.
People pass the News Corporation headquarters building and Fox News studios in New York.

The Fox News Channel has reached a private settlement with the parents of the slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. The network had baselessly reported in May 2017 that Rich leaked thousands of Democratic party emails to Wikileaks during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The story, reported by Fox News' Malia Zimmerman and retracted seven days later, also suggested without any evidence that Democrats might have been linked to the killing of the 27-year-old Rich, a crime that has not been solved to this day. A Fox News spokesperson tells NPR that Zimmerman is no longer with the network.

"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," Joel and Mary Rich wrote in their statement. "We are pleased with the settlement of this and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future."

Fox News issued a statement through a spokesperson: "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."

Neither side disclosed whether Fox had made a payment to the Riches or had apologized to them.

Numerous U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded it was hackers with ties to Russian spy agencies - not Rich - who were behind the theft of the DNC emails that were posted by Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. The email disclosures threw Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign off balance. She never fully regained her footing. Even at the time, Democrats attributed the theft to Russian hackers.

Within weeks, however, Fox News hosts and guests were pursuing conspiracy theories centering on Clinton's campaign, Democrats, and Rich as a tortured Bernie Sanders supporter who went rogue - none of which they could prove. Zimmerman's story, which seemed to give heft to those claims, was posted online on May 16, 2017 and then discussed at length on Fox & Friends and shows led by Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.

Behind the scenes, her reporting depended heavily upon the involvement of investment advisor Edward Butowsky, then an unpaid Fox News commentator. In public, the story relied upon quotes from a private investigator that he never said, as both Zimmerman and Butowsky later acknowledged in a taped conversation. It also invoked "law enforcement sources" and "a federal investigator who reviewed an FBI forensic report." Fox never again mentioned the unnamed sources, the federal investigator, or the forensic report.

The story was retracted a week later. "The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting," the network's statement read. "Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards." (The statement of the retraction is no longer retrievable on Fox News's website. The link above, as with the retracted story itself, is to a cached version on the Internet Archive site.)

At that time, Fox News did not apologize or specify what went wrong or how it did so, and the statement did not bear the name of its author. But the network promised to continue to investigate the story and provide updates. No investigation or update ensued. Hannity told viewers he would at least temporarily stop talking about Rich on his show "out of the family's wishes." On his radio show, however, Hannity told listeners he retracted nothing.

Many details about the background maneuvering surfaced in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed against Fox News by Rod Wheeler, the private investigator the Riches had hired to probe their son's death. Butowsky arranged and paid for the involvement of Wheeler, a former Washington D.C. homicide detective who was at the time also a paid Fox commentator.

Butowsky also involved the White House. In April 2017, he met with then-White House secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer told NPR he did not take any action after learning of Butowsky and Wheeler's efforts to link Rich to the leak.

"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," Butowsky wrote in an email to Fox News producers and hosts, coaching them on how to frame the Rich story the night before it was posted, according to materials in the Wheeler suit. "One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion" between "Trump and the Russians."

The Riches also sued Zimmerman and Butowsky. The entire lawsuit was dismissed as part of the settlement. That ensures that Fox stars, including Hannity and Dobbs, will not have to give sworn testimony to the court that could be made public. Another lawsuit, brought by Seth's brother Aaron against Butowsky and others, is still pending.

In 2011, Rupert Murdoch, the controlling owner of Fox News, privately apologized to the parents of a murdered British 13-year-old after it became public that private investigators for his U.K. tabloid News of the World had hacked into her mobile phone. The meeting and Murdoch's apology was immediately disclosed by both sides; Murdoch was fighting to keep alive his hopes to win British regulators' approval for takeover of a huge U.K. based satellite television company it had a controlling stake in called Sky. It's now owned by Comcast.

Disclosure: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is the author ofMurdoch's World, the Last of the Old Media Empires. Edward Butowsky sued Folkenflik and NPR for his reporting on the Seth Rich stories. The case was dismissed with no admission of wrongdoing or payments by NPR, which fully stands by its reporting.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.