Mary Rich, the mother of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, at a news conference in August. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

A conspiratorial murder tale, with Fox News at the center

By Paul Farhi / The Washington Post

The conspiracy-choked story of Seth Rich’s killing has made a sudden comeback thanks to Fox News, but the latest reporting seems to have generated more controversy than credibility.

Rich’s family is demanding a retraction from Fox for airing unsubstantiated claims about the Democratic National Committee staffer, whose death last year generated a wild river of theories and innuendo about who was behind it.

Fox’s latest reporting on the unsolved crime has an odd twist: Much of its work relies on a private investigator who is also a Fox News contributor. The investigator, in turn, is being funded by a frequent Fox News guest.

Rich, 27, was fatally shot last July by an unknown assailant as he was walking home late one night. His death, which police say appeared to be the result of a botched robbery, has become the subject of a popular right-wing theory, driven primarily by social media, that alleges that he was killed as payback for handing off thousands of emails to WikiLeaks that revealed embarrassing details about the inner workings of the DNC.

The Rich story has taken on elements of the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy, a false tale involving Hillary Clinton and her supposed operation of a child-abuse ring at a D.C. pizza restaurant.

Fox News and WTTG-TV — the Fox-owned broadcast station in Washington — revived the buzz surrounding the Rich story with a series of reports beginning Monday night.

Most prominently, Fox News reported Tuesday that Rich sent more than 44,000 DNC emails to a source affiliated with WikiLeaks before he died. It based the claim on a federal investigator, whom it didn’t identify, and said it was confirmed by Rod Wheeler, a private investigator in Washington who has been working on behalf of the Rich family. But the family now sees Wheeler as someone who’s helped to smear the memory of their son.

Rich’s family slammed the Fox report as false, and Wheeler, a former D.C. homicide detective, appeared to back away from it on Wednesday. He said in an interview that he could not confirm the identity of a federal investigator making such an assertion and that he had no direct knowledge of it.

Fox’s reporting has an unusual background, given the tangle of relationships among some of the principal players. Wheeler is a Fox News contributor, and his private investigation of the Rich case is being financed by Ed Butowsky, a Texas money manager who sometimes appears as a guest on Fox to discuss economics and personal finance.

Butowsky — who said he was once under consideration to be a contributor at the network — confirmed in an interview that he is covering the expenses of Wheeler’s investigation. He said he is doing so out of sympathy for the Rich family.

It’s rare for a news organization to have such a close relationship with the people it is covering. Between them, Wheeler and Butowsky are playing three roles at once: as a Fox source, as a paid contributor to the network and as a supposedly independent investigator of the murder.

In a segment featuring Wheeler on Tuesday’s “Hannity” program, these multiple roles weren’t disclosed to viewers.

On Monday, Wheeler told WTTG-TV that he believes the D.C. police department, which is investigating the case, has engaged in a coverup. He said the department had been told by sources he didn’t identify to “stand down” in its investigation.

In his appearance on Sean Hannity’s program on Tuesday, Wheeler said he had found “some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” without providing specifics. He added, “I do believe that the answers to who murdered Seth Rich sits on his computer on a shelf at the D.C. police or FBI headquarters.”

The reports drew outrage and demands for a retraction from the Rich family’s representative, Brad Bauman.

“The family is officially asking Fox and Fox5 to retract the [stories] and to immediately apologize to the family for the damage they have caused,” Bauman said. “If they do not retract and apologize, we will consider our options to hold them accountable for the damage they have done. They have impugned and destroyed Seth Rich’s legacy through careless reporting.”

Bauman said the Fox stations aired at least 10 damaging and false statements; he cited, among others, the assertion that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks; that the FBI had custody of his computer; that the FBI was involved in the investigation; and that Rich ever had access to the emails in question through his work at the DNC.

“Fox can either distance themselves from this and do the right thing by the family or they can stand by it and litigate it in front of the entire country in a court of law,” he said. “It’s up to them.”

Fox News said in a statement that it is continuing “to track developments in the story and will update further” when there are new developments. It had no comment about the family’s reaction or about Wheeler and Butowsky.

Fox5 did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview, Wheeler alleged that Fox5 edited his comments about the federal investigator out of context, creating a false impression. Specifically, he said the station’s reporter asked if he could confirm that a federal investigator had seen the DNC emails on Rich’s computer. Wheeler said the edited footage made it appear that Wheeler himself had seen such alleged evidence; he said he has not.

Wheeler also acknowledged that his appearances on Fox to discuss the case could put him in breach of his contract with the Rich family. The contract states that “all information” developed by his firm in its investigation “shall be treated as strictly confidential” and cannot be released without the family’s approval.

Wheeler said his understanding was that he “was free to talk about the investigation as long as I don’t say I’m representing the family. I’ve been cautious not to do that.”

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