Fox News sued by parents of Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer from Omaha, over conspiracy theory about his death

The parents of Omaha native Seth Rich — the Democratic National Committee staffer who police believe was killed during a botched robbery in 2016 — have sued Fox News over a retracted story that peddled a conspiracy theory about his killing, claiming the network “intentionally exploited” the tragedy for political purposes.

The May 2017 story stated, falsely, that investigators had evidence showing that Rich leaked thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, just weeks before he was shot to death at age 27 in Washington. That story line — popular among conspiracy theorists — contradicts U.S. intelligence that Russia was behind the WikiLeaks email dump that damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Fox’s story fell apart after the FBI pointed out that a “federal investigator” and “FBI report” referenced in the story as sources did not exist. The second core source in the story, private investigator and Fox contributor Rod Wheeler, claimed that the Fox reporter fabricated his quote saying he had evidence of emails between Rich and WikiLeaks. He has since sued the network for defamation. (Fox News has denied all his claims.)

Fox News retracted the story six days after it was published, saying the story “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”

But Joel and Mary Rich of Omaha say the story has followed them ever since, wreaking irreversible damage on them and their son, whose legacy has become entangled in a conspiracy theory that Fox elevated “from the fringe to the front pages and screens of the mainstream media,” the lawsuit says. The couple are seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress. The suit claims that the couple have developed post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, among other afflictions, as a result of the viral conspiracy theory about Seth, a graduate of Central High and Creighton University.

“No parent should ever have to live through what we have been forced to endure,” Joel and Mary Rich said in a statement. “The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”

A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Another defendant, Malia Zimmerman, the reporter on the retracted Fox story, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Ed Butowsky, a Dallas businessman and a Fox guest who allegedly built the story behind the scenes, was also sued. Asked about evidence for the story’s claims, he said “there’s a lot out there,” but he offered no facts.

The lawsuit alleges months of planning among Zimmerman, Butowsky and Wheeler to convince the Riches that evidence linked Seth Rich to the DNC leaks. The political motivation behind the story, the suit alleges, was to absolve the Trump administration of the investigation into Russian collusion by showing that the hacking instead came from within — from Rich.

The suit and a defamation lawsuit filed against Fox by Wheeler in August 2017 both point to messages from Butowsky that they say made clear his and Fox’s political motivations. On the day the story was published, Butowsky allegedly wrote to Wheeler, “If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest.” He also allegedly wrote to various Fox producers saying, “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and steal emails and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians [sic],” according to emails cited in the lawsuit.

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