WASHINGTON — The parents of murdered Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich have settled their blockbuster lawsuit against Fox News just as key figures inside the network, including hosts Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, were slated to potentially give testimony in the case.
Joel and Mary Rich said in a statement sent via their lawyers that they were “pleased with the settlement of this matter and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future.”
The statement continues: “The settlement with Fox News closes another chapter in our efforts to mourn the murder of our beloved Seth, whom we miss every single day. It allows us to move on from the litigation we initiated in response to Fox News’ May 2017 article and televised statements concerning Seth’s murder.”
The settlement announcement does not contain any details about the terms of the settlement. Brad Bauman, a spokesman for Joel and Mary Rich, declined to comment further on the settlement, referring back to the statement. A spokeswoman for Fox News sent Rolling Stone the following statement: “We are pleased with the resolution of the claims and hope this enables Mr. and Mrs. Rich to find a small degree of peace and solace moving forward.” The Fox spokeswoman declined to comment on the terms of the settlement.
Joel and Mary Rich’s statement says their litigation was dismissed for all the defendants in the case, including a FoxNews.com reporter who wrote a now-retracted story about Seth Rich and a former Fox commentator who helped develop and promote the story. The Fox spokeswoman confirmed that the Fox reporter who wrote the now-retracted story about Rich and the radical transparency group WikiLeaks is no longer with the network.
Seth Rich was a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was gunned down in the early morning hours of July 10, 2016. As Rolling Stone reported in August, Rich’s murder — which remains unsolved more than four years later — became instant fodder for conspiracy theorists, online trolls, and political opportunists who tried to claim that Rich, not Russia, had leaked tens of thousands of internal DNC documents to WikiLeaks, the radical transparency group, during the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Others on the right, including Trump adviser Roger Stone, insinuated that the Clinton family was somehow behind Rich’s murder.
There is no evidence to support these theories. Investigations by the Trump administration and two Republican-led congressional committees have concluded that Russia carried out the hack-and-leak attacks on the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for those cyberattacks; Mueller’s final report says WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, made statements “designed to obscure” the source of the DNC leaks while also having “implied falsely” that Rich was his source.
The conspiracy theories about Rich spread globally, amplified by domestic and international sources. But they didn’t reach a boiling point until May 16, 2017, when FoxNews.com published an explosive story alleging that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for the DNC emails. If true, Fox’s story was a bombshell, undercutting the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked the DNC and revealing a possible cover-up at the highest levels of American government. Fox’s story relied on just two sources: One was an anonymous “federal investigator” who had supposedly read an FBI report detailing Rich’s communications with WikiLeaks, and the other was a former D.C. cop and Fox News contributor — hired by Rich’s family to privately investigate the murder — who confirmed the WikiLeaks connection.
The biggest names at Fox — Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs — fell over themselves to hype the story. But no Fox personality did more to promote it than Sean Hannity. Hannity touted it on his radio and primetime TV shows for multiple days in a row, telling his viewers that if a “disgruntled” Democrat had leaked the emails, it “could completely shatter the narrative that, in fact, WikiLeaks was working with the Russians.” He went even further by saying the new revelations could mean that Rich was murdered “under very suspicious circumstances.”
But within hours of its publication, Fox’s Rich-WikiLeaks story began to fall apart. The private investigator hired by the Riches changed his tune and said he’d seen no evidence of a Rich-WikiLeaks connection; a spokesman for Joel and Mary Rich denied the story; and the D.C. police department said there was “nothing that we can find that any of this is accurate.” The FBI has said it played no part in the Rich murder investigation, and went on to state under penalty of perjury in court that it searched its records and found nothing of investigative significance about Rich like the supposed forensic report. A week after its publication, Fox retracted the story about Rich and WikiLeaks, saying it was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting.”
Despite the retraction, Fox’s actions amplified the conspiracy theories about Rich to new heights. Mary Rich described the emotional toll of watching Seth’s life and death exploited by Fox News and partisan operatives like this: “We lost his body the first time, and the second time we lost his soul.”
Nearly a year after Fox News published its discredited story, Joel and Mary Rich filed their lawsuit in federal court in New York. Their complaint alleged that Fox; the author of the retracted FoxNews.com story, Malia Zimmerman; and a former frequent Fox on-air guest named Ed Butowsky who had helped with the story had “intentionally exploited [their] tragedy — including through lies, misrepresentations, and half-truths — with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause.” The suit laid out a months-long sequence of events describing how Zimmerman, Butowsky, and Wheeler had allegedly acted in concert to try to find evidence supporting the unproven theory that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source, an effort that culminated with Zimmerman’s May 16th FoxNews.com story. Hours before that story appeared, Butowsky gave a heads-up to producers and hosts at Fox:
“If you have any questions about the story or more information needed, call me. I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility. One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.”
Joel and Mary Rich claimed in their suit that their mental and physical health had suffered as a result of Fox’s story and commentary about Seth. Mary had been unable to accept a new job offer that came on the same day the FoxNews.com story appeared, and said that the ordeal had aggravated a pre-existing neurological condition. They alleged that Fox, Zimmerman, and Butowsky had engaged in what’s known as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A district court judge initially dismissed the Riches’ lawsuit, but the decision was overturned by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. “We have no trouble concluding that — taking their allegations as true — the Riches plausibly alleged what amounted to a campaign of emotional torture” by Fox, Zimmerman, and Butowsky, the appeals court wrote in its opinion.
Fox News went on to argue in court that Zimmerman’s retracted Rich-WikiLeaks story was not a “sham.” The network’s lawyers denied Fox engaged in “outrageous behavior” because Fox was “pursuing a story that was substantially true.” Butowsky, for his part, has told Rolling Stone that he did nothing wrong, that he was trying to help the Rich family find answers, and that he believed Zimmerman’s retracted story was “completely accurate.” (Zimmerman, who has said in court that Butowsky was one of her sources, has not spoken publicly about the case.) In recent weeks, Butowsky has dismissed multiple lawsuits that he brought against reporters, news outlets, and lawyers for the Rich family that related to Seth Rich’s murder.
Aaron Rich, Seth’s older brother, filed a separate lawsuit in D.C. federal court in March 2018 alleging defamation by Butowsky and a pro-Trump blogger named Matt Couch for baseless statements they made about him related to Seth. Aaron has denied those claims as baseless and defamatory. His suit is ongoing.
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