The Washington Post published a moving column on Tuesday that, for good reason, became one of the most widely read articles on the site. It was written by Mary and Joel Rich, who are public figures only insofar as they’re the parents of Seth Rich, the 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee who was shot dead late one night last year in Washington, D.C. Police, who haven’t solved the case, believe it was a botched robbery. But because of Rich’s place of employment, and some reckless (and retracted) suggestions by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, denizens of the right-wing fever swamps have concocted a conspiracy theory that Rich was murdered for supplying DNC emails to WikiLeaks. And they won’t let it go.
“Imagine that every single day, with every phone call,” the Riches wrote, “you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case. Imagine you have no answers—that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers. Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.” There is no evidence “that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job,” they added. “Still, conservative news outlets and commentators continue, day after painful day, to peddle discredited conspiracy theories that Seth was killed after having provided WikiLeaks with emails from the DNC. Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel.”
That article was published at 6:04 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted this to his 2.4 million followers:
This qualifies as “unspeakably cruel,” but came as no surprise to Hannity observers. He has used his three powerful platforms—Twitter, an afternoon radio show, and his primetime Fox News gig—to spread the demonstrably false conspiracy theory about Rich’s death, causing unimaginable grief to the slain young man’s family and friends. Now is the moment of truth for his employer: Fox News must fire him.
I should make clear that I have no expectation that Fox News will fire Hannity, and I fear that calling for the network to do so could make a martyr of the vile host. Nevertheless, when it comes to journalism ethics, there are hints that Fox the network is capable of doing the right thing—especially if it’s in their best interest from public relations perspective.
Fox’ website ran a story on May 16 that said there is “tangible evidence” from Rich’s laptop “that confirms he was talking to WikiLeaks prior to his murder.” The source of the story was Fox 5, the D.C. affiliate, which in turn was sourced to a private investigator who also happens to be a longtime Fox News contributor. Fox 5 has since appended a rather unapologetic editor’s note to the article, and on May 23 FoxNews.com took down its own article and issued an equally unapologetic statement saying the report was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
Some rightly argue that Fox News’ retraction was too little, too late. “They were airing it so steadily, and so stubbornly, that the retraction now will have extremely little effect,” The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote. “The impression of Seth Rich as an agent of conspiracy, rather than a victim of violence, is out there, among the public. It will be there for his family and friends to see; it will be there forming and informing public opinion.... So what Fox has provided is a retraction of something that can no longer be taken back. The network waited too long. It didn’t care enough.”
But at least Fox News, however weakly, admitted wrong. Hannity has done no such thing. On his radio show on Tuesday, he said, “All you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.” After being contacted by Rich’s family, Hannity did refrain from discussing the case on his show on Tuesday night. “Out of respect for the family, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” Hannity told his TV audience. “But to the extent of my ability I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.” Near the end of the show, he tweeted:
Despite the heart-rending pleas of Rich’s family, Hannity continues to create a conspiracy theory circus, one in which he is both the real victim and a martyr journalist, the only one brave enough to risk his job to tell the truth. Except that the truth is a pure fiction, one that exploits the sad death of a promising young man and which exists solely to distract from the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
One could argue that Hannity and Fox deserve each other. After all, the network has a long history of spreading conspiracy theories, dating back to its origins in the 1990s as an anti-Clinton outlet. Still, the struggling network is an a new phase after the forced departure and death of founder Roger Ailes, and it showed some sense in forcing out Bill O’Reilly last month after it was revealed he’d been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. Retracting stories is not enough, nor is prohibiting Hannity from discussing Rich on his show. As long as Fox News employs him, it is responsible for his journalistic malpractice. The choice is clear: Fire Hannity, or be further tainted by yet another reprehensible host whose leash was unforgivably long.