On May 16, the day after The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump had divulged intelligence secrets to two Russian officials in the Oval Office, Sean Hannity devoted much of his show to the murder of 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Using a report from Fox 5, a Fox News affiliate in Washington, D.C., Hannity relayed the allegation that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks prior to his death—the suggestion being that Rich was the source of the hacked DNC emails in the 2016 election, not Russian hackers. Hannity would continue to talk about Rich’s murder for the next week. Breitbart and the Drudge Report also led with the Rich story, not the story about Trump.
Then it all fell apart. It took Fox News over a week to retract this baseless story, during which it devoted a significant portion of its primetime hours to disseminating it. The final nail in the coffin of the Seth Rich-WikiLeaks story was driven home earlier this week. NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that private investigator Rod Wheeler—who was prominently quoted in the story–was suing Fox News, Fox News investigative journalist Malia Zimmerman, and GOP financier Ed Butowsky (who hired Wheeler, supposedly on behalf of the Rich family). Wheeler’s lawsuit alleged that Zimmerman and Butowsky had invented his quotes and that, shockingly, Butowsky had discussed the story with White House officials, including Trump, before it was published.
The White House’s involvement is scandalous, but beyond that the Seth Rich story provides a window into how Fox News spreads explosive but flimsy stories. Malia Zimmerman, the reporter accused of fabricating the quotes, has a history of publishing questionable stories for Fox News, which uses them for hours of rabid programming.
Before joining Fox News in 2015, Zimmerman spent two very controversial decades as a conservative-leaning investigative reporter in Hawaii. Zimmerman was well-known for her close relationships with Republican donors and politicians, her selective use of sourcing and documents, and for her pursuit of conspiracy theories. Her relationship with Republican state Senator Sam Slom was particularly problematic. “She would report on him favorably by praising his pro-business conservative stance,” Ian Lind, an investigative reporter based in Hawaii, told me. According to Lind, he would then praise her reporting, and his organization, Small Business Hawaii, would give her awards. “Meanwhile, they were sharing a home and lived together for about a decade,” Lind said.
Since Zimmerman joined Fox News in 2015, Fox News has repeatedly picked up her reporting and used it to legitimize the larger counter-narratives that form Fox News’s fevered worldview. These stories touched on alleged issues like voter fraud, gun confiscation, the Benghazi terrorist attack, the unmasking of Trump transition officials in confidential documents, and the murder of Seth Rich.
In June 2016, shortly after the attack on the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando that killed 49 people, Zimmerman reported that the shooter, Omar Mateen, had been radicalized by an imam and ex-con named Marcus Dwayne Robertson. Citing anonymous law enforcement sources, Zimmerman alleged that Robertson had been “rounded up” in the wake of the attack and that Mateen had been radicalized while attending an online seminary run by Robertson.
But Robertson and Mateen had never met. Furthermore, Robertson had never been “rounded up” by anyone. That didn’t stop Fox News from running with the story—or other outlets, including The Daily Beast, from picking it up—until it was finally debunked. Robertson was forced to defend himself on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show On the Record. As reporter David Gauvey Herbert wrote in Quartz, his explanation satisfied Susteren. But the damage was done. Zimmerman’s shadowy unnamed sources—whom Herbert and others have been unable to identify—fingered a man who had nothing to do with the terror attack and upended his life. Robertson lost his job and faced a barrage of death threats, despite having no connection to Mateen.
On November 7, 2016—a day before the presidential election—Zimmerman and Fox reporter Adam Housley published an “explosive charge” on FoxNews.com: that security contractors hired by the State Department provided a security detail made up of “hastily recruited locals with terror ties who helped carry out” the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They cited multiple unnamed sources.
There were numerous problems with the story, the first being that Fox News had already reported it—in 2012. Information that had come out in the intervening four years had largely put these allegations to bed. The second was that, as Media Matters reported, Zimmerman and Housley’s sourcing was highly questionable. In what forms a pattern in Zimmerman’s work, the lead source was anonymous.
The second source, John Tiegan, was a military contractor at Benghazi, but the account he gave Zimmerman and Housley contradicted the account he gave in his own book, 13 Hours. And the third source came from the Citizens Commission on Benghazi, which Media Matters notes “is staffed by multiple birthers, anti-Muslim activists, and conspiracy theorists.” Between the sourcing and the actual newsworthiness of the claim, it’s clear that this report was published for little reason other than to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on the eve of the election.
These types of flourishes are present in other Zimmerman articles. In 2015 a lawsuit to retrieve confiscated guns in Torrance, California, was used to suggest that the federal government was ramping up similar efforts. The story was given air time on Fox News. In February of this year, Zimmerman reported that California was susceptible to large-scale voter fraud, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that large-scale voter fraud has occurred in the state.
And then there’s the Seth Rich story. That story, which allegedly was based on fabricated quotes and drafted under the watchful eye of the White House, is a perfect example of how Fox News uses objective-seeming investigative reporting to drive bogus or exaggerated narratives. In this case, words were allegedly put into Wheeler’s mouth that he did not say to make the story seem more credible: Despite Fox News’s claims, Wheeler had never seen an FBI report linking Rich to WikiLeaks.
An unnamed “federal investigator who reviewed an FBI report” is cited. Wheeler’s quotes suggest that his investigation uncovered a link between Rich and WikiLeaks and that the link was being covered up by the DNC. “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” Wheeler’s first quote read. His second: “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee, or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.” Butowsky’s belief that such an FBI report exists seems to have come from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who has been looking into Rich’s death. “I hear gossip,” Hersh told NPR on Monday. “[Butowsky] took two and two and made forty-five out of it.”
That Zimmerman was working closely with Butowsky, a GOP operative and fundraiser, is part of another pattern in her reporting. That the most egregious of her stories all rely on anonymous sources is enormously troubling, since there are plenty of people who would be more than happy to use Zimmerman to plant a kernel of a story that can be blown up into something far more sinister.
Fox News, meanwhile, is happy to use Zimmerman’s reporting to give its stories an illusion of actual journalism. As Herbert wrote in Quartz, the network “frequently uses Zimmerman’s reporting as a sort of feedback loop to establish a patina of credibility to on-air segments.” The larger narrative is the true impetus for the reporting, which gives that narrative credibility, and is then shouted back at Fox News’s audience for several hours in the afternoon and evening. This almost amateurish attempt to gin up stories was bound to be exposed, but it’s surprising it took this long. What’s less surprising? Zimmerman hasn’t stopped reporting for Fox News.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Zimmerman as a local reporter with a Fox News affiliate. She is a reporter for FoxNews.com. We regret the error.