NEW YORK — Fox News staffers expressed frustration on Monday that on-air personalities at their network like prime time host Sean Hannity are continuing to peddle a conspiracy theory about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
“I’m disgusted by it,” one Fox News employee told CNN.
Rich was shot to death last July in the streets of Washington, DC. The Metropolitan Police Department continues to investigate the murder and police say there is evidence to suggest Rich was the victim of a botched robbery.
But for months, right-wing media outlets have floated unproven theories that Rich was the person who provided Wikileaks with thousands of internal DNC emails, and suggested his death was retribution for the supposed leak. No real evidence has been provided to support such claims.
The theory resurfaced with a vengeance last week, in part due to an incorrect Fox News story the outlet has yet to retract. Hannity, along with the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” have used their large platforms to push the discredited theory, much to the dismay of the journalists who work at the network. Hannity, who stresses he’s not a journalist, posted a flurry of tweets pushing the theory over the weekend. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Fox News contributor who did not respond to requests for comment, floated the theory on the network Sunday.
Multiple Fox News employees told CNN that Hannity, who declined to comment, and others were hurting the credibility of the outlet by continuing to advance the theory, for which there is no real evidence.
“It is disappointing because it drags the rest of us down,” said a senior Fox News employee, who asked how Fox News leadership could continue to allow Hannity to spread an unproven theory on the network.
Another Fox News employee said he feels that Hannity isn’t letting go of the Rich story because he wants to “distract from any and all Trump scandals.”
“It hurts those of us who are legitimately focused on journalism,” added the first employee. “We have a chance to turn the corner at Fox, and perpetuating this conspiracy theory damages our integrity.”
Some Fox News contributors made their feelings on the issue public.
Julie Roginsky, a Democratic Fox News contributor who has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the network, asked in a video posted on Fox News’ website Monday for people to “please stop torturing the Rich family” with “politically motivated conspiracy theories.”
Another Fox News contributor, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, also appeared upset with Hannity Monday. He tweeted a link to a critical Washington Post piece about the Fox News host, later adding, “Shaming Hannity is my intention.”
The Daily Beast additionally reported on Monday that Fox News staffers were “embarrassed” by Hannity’s promotion of the conspiracy theory.
Brad Bauman, spokesman for the Rich family, told CNN last week that “anyone who continues to push this fake news story after it was so thoroughly debunked is proving to the world they have a transparent political agenda or are a sociopath.”
Bauman told CNN on Monday that Hannity had not reached out to the family. Hannity has, however, reached out to invite Kim Dotcom, the Megauploader founder, who is currently in New Zealand fighting extradition to the U.S., where he is wanted on charges of copyright infringement and money laundering, on to his show. Dotcom has claimed to have evidence Rich leaked documents to Wikileaks, though he has not provided such evidence to the public. He did not respond to an email CNN sent him seeking comment on Monday.
Last week, both Fox News and a Fox affiliate in Washington, WTTG-TV, published and aired reports, sourced to private investigator Rod Wheeler, that said evidence showed Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death. Wheeler later told CNN he had no such evidence and that he had only heard of some information attributed to him in a FoxNews.com story from a Fox News reporter with whom he spoke.
The FoxNews.com story on the case also cited a “federal source” who said the FBI had conducted a forensic analysis of Rich’s computer and discovered thousands of emails with Wikileaks. But a law enforcement official told CNN that the FBI never had possession of Rich’s laptop and did not conduct a forensic analysis of its contents.
WTTG-TV later walked back its story, noting that Wheeler conceded he had no evidence Rich was in contact with Wikileaks.
Fox News, however, has still not retracted its story. Requests for comment made to the outlet on Monday were not returned.
On Friday, Joseph Ingrisano, the attorney representing the Rich family, sent a cease and desist letter to Wheeler, saying his comments had caused “severe mental anguish and emotional distress.” Wheeler’s contract with the Rich family prohibited him from speaking to the media without authorization, the letter said.
“Your improper and unauthorized statements, many of which are false and have no basis in fact, have also injured the memory and reputation of Seth Rich and have defamed and injured the reputation and standing of the members of the Family,” Ingrisano wrote in the cease and desist letter. Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.