WASHINGTON — The family of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer whose 2016 murder was twisted into a right-wing conspiracy theory, has finally received its first public apology.
On Sunday evening, the Washington Times published a lengthy retraction and apology for a March 1st opinion column that promoted the theory that Rich and his older brother, Aaron, stole thousands of DNC documents and gave them to Wikileaks, which published a trove of hacked Democratic Party emails in the summer and fall of 2016. The retraction and apology are part of a settlement between the Times and Aaron Rich, who had sued the paper for defamation.
The op-ed, written by retired Navy admiral James Lyons, claimed that it was “well known in the intelligence circles” that both Seth and Aaron Rich had “downloaded” the thousands of emails taken from the DNC in 2016 and that Wikileaks paid them for the data. Lyons is a fixture in conservative political circles and he served on Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi, a volunteer effort to find “the truth about Benghazi that even Republicans on the Hill won’t touch.”
The paper now says that Lyons’ piece “does not have any basis to believe any part of that statement to be true.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Aaron Rich says: “The last two years have brought unimaginable pain and grief to my family and me. I lost my only brother to a murder that to this date has not been solved, only to then have politically-motivated conspiracy theorists falsely accuse me of grotesque criminal acts. I accept the Washington Times’ retraction and apology, and I am grateful that the Washington Times has acknowledged the indisputable truth that these allegations are, and always have been, false. As to the remaining defendants, I look forward to my day in court.”
In July, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into the DNC and the email accounts of members of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The 29-page indictment lays out in detail how those agents carried out the hacks.
The now-retracted op-ed also suggested that Aaron Rich was not cooperating with law enforcement officials investigating his brother’s murder. The Times has retracted that statement as well, saying it now “understands that law enforcement officials have interviewed Mr. Rich and that he has cooperated with their investigation” and that it “did not intend to imply that Mr. Rich has obstructed justice in any way.”
The retraction ends by saying that the paper has deleted all versions of the op-ed. “The Washington Times apologizes to Mr. Rich and his family.” This is the first public apology for the Rich family, according to Michael Gottlieb, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner who represents Aaron Rich.
Seth Rich was 27 when he was killed near his house in Washington, D.C., on July 10th, 2016, two weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Police say they believe the killing was the result of a botched robbery, but no suspects have been named. In the days and weeks that followed, Rich’s death became a viral conspiracy theory on the right, with Fox News talking heads and commenters on Reddit, Twitter and 4Chan ascribing more sinister motives to Rich’s death. These theories claimed it was Rich, not Russian-affiliated hackers, who had stolen DNC emails and fed them to Wikileaks, and that Rich was murdered for acting as a supposed whistleblower. “There wasn’t a robbery. They weren’t even trying to get his information,” Fox News host Eric Bolling said in August 2016. “This was a hit.”
This theory reached its apex when FoxNews.com published a story in May 2017 that cited an anonymous federal investigator who said Rich had contacted Wikileaks. The story was touted by Sean Hannity and Fox contributor and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among many others. The Rich family asked for a retraction, and a week later, Fox took down the story, saying it didn’t meet the company’s editorial standards. (Fox has yet to apologize to the Riches.)
Fox’s retraction didn’t stop the conspiracies surrounding Rich’s death from spreading.
On March 26th, Aaron Rich sued the Washington Times for defamation. Rich’s complaint noted that, despite claims to the contrary, he had appeared before a grand jury and had spent “countless hours” assisting state and local law enforcement officials investigating his brother’s death. The suit also named two other defendants, a Fox guest named Ed Butowsky and a pro-Trump blogger named Matt Couch, who have spread theories about Seth and Aaron Rich. Butowsky has sought to dismiss the case, which is pending in D.C. federal court.
Rich’s parents filed their own lawsuit in March against Fox News, Malia Zimmerman, the author of the now-retracted FoxNews.com story and a Fox guest who pushed the theories about Rich. The suit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying that the conspiracies about their son caused post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. A federal judge in New York dismissed the suit in August; the parents have appealed the decision. A onetime spokesman for the Rich family, Brad Bauman, has also filed a defamation suit against several right-wing figures for comments made about him. His suit is also pending in D.C. federal court.
The three lawsuits are part of a wave of recent legal actions seeking justice against individuals and organizations that peddle harmful viral conspiracy theories. In April, several parents who had a son or daughter killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting sued Infowars host Alex Jones for defamation. Jones had said the shooting was “completely fake” and a “giant hoax” created by foes of the Second Amendment.
Taken together, these lawsuits represent a nascent legal strategy in which victims of viral conspiracies turn to the legal system to seek justice against the people who spread those theories. It’s too soon to say how that successful that strategy will be.