August 1, 2017 Last Updated 2:03 pm

Lawsuit claims Fox News fabricated quotes for Seth Rich story; but past claims by accuser have many reporters cautious

Once again Fox News finds itself at the center of another controversy (and a lawsuit), this time accused of working with a wealthy Trump supporter to create a story ‘intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration’s ties to the Russian government’

Today started with yet another major development in the story of the Trump White House, its relationship with the news media, and one of his biggest supporters, Fox News. David Folkenflik, Media Correspondent for NPR, reported on a lawsuit brought against Fox News, its parent 21st Century Fox, reporter Malia Zimmerman, and GOP supporter and investor Ed Butowsky.

Here is Folkenflik’s explanation of the lawsuit and its claims:

The Fox News Channel and a wealthy supporter of President Trump worked in concert under the watchful eye of the White House to concoct a story about the death of a young Democratic National Committee aide, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Wheeler alleges Fox News and the Trump supporter intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration’s ties to the Russian government. His suit charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.

Folkenfilk produced a report for NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as a longer written article that meticulously goes through the timeline of the tale of the creation of a story in which murdered DNC employee Seth Rich is at the center.

The bombshell element of the story, as Folkenflik mentions in his lede, is that Fox News knew its story was bogus, but to boost its credibility it manufactured two quotes from Rod Wheeler, a frequent contributor to Fox News and former D.C. homicide detective.

For that Wheeler is suing.

Jay Wallace, President of News at Fox News, responded in a statement released this afternoon:

“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”

 

For the early part of the morning many reporters combed over the lawsuit and expressed amazement. There is plenty in there (see document here).

Folkenflik’s article is well worth reading in its entirety to understand the story, as well as the timing of events. But it reads as if written very quickly, knowing that other reporters would soon be on to the lawsuit.

But Folkenflik is a good reporter, one of the very best.


It is easy to see why political reporters were intrigued by this story and the lawsuit. Earlier this year Fox News, and especially Sean Hannity, were heavily promoting the conspiracy theory that former DNC staffer Rich had possibly been the source of the email sent to WikiLeaks, and because of this may have lost his life.

The original story was first published on the Fox News website on May 16.

DC police had concluded that Rich died in a robbery gone wrong, but no arrests had ever been made (and still haven’t). Most mainstream news organizations saw nothing there, where was the evidence? But Fox News, and backed by right-wing news outlets, ran with the story at a time when the president was in real trouble following the firing of FBI director James Comey.

The lawsuit claims the motivation for the Rich conspiracy story was to “establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election.”

The lawsuit says that “Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.”

In the end, the Rich family pushed back, and on May 23, exactly one week after the story first was published,  Fox News retracted its story and issued a statement:

On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.

In its background to the lawsuit, Wheeler’s lawyers go beyond just blaming Fox News of poorly sourcing its story, it calls this episode emblematic of the way it works.

“The overt alliance between Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate and Donald Trump is longstanding,” the lawsuit states. “Notwithstanding Ofcom’s inquiries into Fox’s ability to convey news in a nonpartisan manner, the collaboration appears only to have deepened since President Trump’s Administration took over the White House. By way of example only, last week President Trump dined with Fox’s star host Sean Hannity, former Fox co-president Bill Shine and now former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.”

Although the claims that the White House collaborated on the Rich story are explosive if true, many news organizations have focused in on Fox News as the villain here. Others see the hand of the White House guiding things.

As the day has moved along, some reporters have started to say that caution flags need to be raised.

Who, after all, is Rod Wheeler? Is he credible? Can his credibility actually be damaged?

Wheeler first gained notoriety as a guest on The O’Reilly Factor in 2007. In a segment, Wheeler backed up a claim by Bill O’Reilly that there were roving gangs of pistol-packing lesbians terrorizing and raping women.

“Well, you know, there is this national underground group, if you will, Bill, of women that’s lesbians and also some men groups that’s actually recruiting kids as young as 10 years old in a lot of schools in the communities all across the country,” Wheeler said. “We’ve actually counted, just in the Washington, D.C. area alone, that’s Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, well over 150 of these crews.”

Several websites that today are touting Wheeler’s claims in his lawsuit, were then tearing Wheeler down for his absurd claims regarding lesbian gangs.


Wheeler’s claim, again, is that the Seth Rich story was promoted as a diversion from the Trump-Russia story. Now, some on the right are claiming that the Wheeler lawsuit and claims are a diversion from the Debbie Wasserman Schultz story (Imran Awan, who worked part-time for her was arrested for bank fraud).

Despite the politics of it all, there are some truths here: the Seth Rich story was bogus*; Imran Awan was still employed by Wasserman Schultz even after others had fired him and he was barred from accessing House computer systems; the IC unanimously believe the Russians interfered in the 2016 election; the president said on national television that he fired the FBI director over the Russia investigation.

But other things are also true: many of those making claims are tainted by their past actions and previous claims. It will take good reporters to get to the truth, and to do that they will need time and patience.

*The Rich family today issued a statement through their family spokesperson, Brad Bauman:

“While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth.”

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