Fox Agreed to Pay for Telling Lies. But It Insisted on One Unusual Condition.
On October 12, 2020, Fox News agreed to pay the family of a murdered Democratic National Committee employee millions of dollars, implicitly implying what more sane minds knew long ago: that the network had repeatedly hyped a false claim that the boy had Employee Seth Rich was involved in relaying DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. (In fact, Russian intelligence officers had hacked and leaked the emails.)
Fox’s decision to settle down with the Rich family came just before the marquee hosts Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, on which the case was sworn, came what may be an embarrassing moment. And Fox paid so much that the network didn’t have to apologize for the May 2017 story on FoxNews.com.
But there was one strange provision that Fox insisted on: The deal had to be kept secret for a month – until after the November 3rd election. The exhausted plaintiffs agreed.
Why was it important to Fox to keep the wealthy settlement a secret for the final month of the Trump re-election campaign? Why was it important to the company that calls itself a news organization that one of the biggest lies of the Trump era remains unsolved for this period? Was Fox afraid that admitting it was wrong would arouse the President’s ire? Do network managers fear setbacks from their increasingly radicalized audiences focused on other conservative media?
Fox News and attorney Joe Terry declined to answer that question when I asked her last week. Two people close to the case who gave me details of the settlement were also confused by this provision.
The unusual arrangement underscores how deeply Fox is involved in the Trump camp’s disinformation efforts and the dangerous paranoia they sparked, culminating in a deadly attack on the Capitol 11 days ago. The network has parried lies from Trump and his sinister allies for years, ultimately compounding the president’s enormous delusions about the election results and further radicalizing many of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
The man arrested after ravaging the Capitol in handcuffs proudly posted a photo on Facebook with his shotgun and Fox Business on a giant screen in the background. The woman, who was fatally shot huddling in the house chamber, had engaged Fox employees dozens of times on Twitter, NPR reported.
Not only did high-profile Fox votes, with the occasional exception, fuel the unfounded belief that the election had been stolen, but they also helped shape January 6th as a pivotal reckoning day when their audience’s dreams of the election came true fall, could be realized. And the network’s role in promoting pro-Trump extremism is nothing new: Fox has long been the channel of choice for pro-Trump fighters. The man who posted pipe bombs on CNN in 2018 saw Fox News “religiously” according to his attorneys’ memorandum, believing Hannity’s claim that Democrats were promoting “mob violence” against people like him.
Yet, as we in the media reckon our role in the current disaster, Fox is often left out of history. You can see why. Dog bites man is never new. Fox’s vitriol and distortions are now simply viewed as part of the landscape. The cable channel has been a Republican propaganda outlet for decades and has been under President Trump’s thumb for years. While the mainstream media loves beating itself up – it’s sometimes a way to elevate our own importance – we’ve mostly looked for less obvious angles during this winter’s self-examination. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post concluded last week that the mainstream press “is flawed and stuck in outdated conventions for too long” but “has gotten the job done”. MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan said the media “failed” with Trump normalizing.
It was my turn last week to write about how a man I worked with on BuzzFeed played a role in the uprising. A thoughtful reader, a former Corning engineer, wrote to me that she expected a similar sense of complicity. The engineer was part of the team that developed the thin, bright glass that enabled the ubiquitous flat panel televisions that rewired politics and our minds. She now wonders if “this glass made it possible”.
When I shared the engineer’s email with a few others in the Times, Virginia Hughes, a science editor and long-time colleague, replied, “Everyone wants to blame themselves except the people who actually deserve the blame.”
So let me take a break from bashing well-intentioned journalists and even the social media platforms that greedily opened Pandora’s box for profit.
There is only one billion dollar media company that has deliberately and aggressively spread these falsehoods. This is Fox Corporation and its chairman, Rupert Murdoch. his moronic son Lachlan, who is nominally CEO; and the Chief Legal Officer Viet Dinh, a kind of regent who mostly runs the company on a daily basis.
These are the individuals who are ultimately responsible for keeping a certain and harmful lie about the death of a 27 year old man floating around for years. The elderly Mr. Murdoch has led Fox, insofar as anyone actually leads it, through some sort of malicious negligence for a long time, and letting that lie stand seems to be only his last, lavish gift to Mr. Trump.
The company paid well for it, according to Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, who first covered the settlement and covered the case in depth.
The Murdoch Organization did not start the lie, but it embraced it and served an obvious political purpose: to divert suspicions of Russian involvement in supporting the Trump campaign. This is why the story was so appealing to Fox hosts like Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, who they hyped for days after it collapsed under the slightest control. There was never a trace of credible evidence that Seth Rich had any contact with WikiLeaks, and a series of bipartisan investigations found that the DNC had been violated by Russian hackers.
The story of Fox’s influence on the rupture of American society and the concept of truth is too big to contain in a single column. But the story of its impact on a family is unique and devastating. Seth Rich’s brother, Aaron, pondered this Friday from his Denver home, where he is a software engineer. Seth was his little brother, seven years younger and two inches shorter, but more comfortable with people, more popular, better at football in high school.
Seth Rich was murdered on a sidewalk in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC, early morning Sunday, July 10, 2016. Aaron was still grappling with the shock, wavering from the worst week of his life when a friend told him that something was going on on Reddit. A message mentioned that Seth was a member of the Democratic National Committee. While some of the top comments were condolences, the bottom of the page was filled with unsubstantiated speculation that the young DNC employee – not the Russians – was the source of WikiLeaks’ hacked emails. WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange encouraged the speculation, but little chatter about confusing theories remained for about 10 months. At the time, Fox alleged an anonymous federal investigator linked Seth Rich to the leak.
The story began. It was like “throwing gasoline on a small fire,” recalled Mr. Rich’s brother in a telephone interview from his Denver home. “Fox blew it out of everyone’s little echo chamber and made it mainstream.”
The story immediately and spectacularly collapsed. Former Washington, DC police officer Rod Wheeler, whom Fox used as a source for files, declined his own quotes alleging links between Mr. Rich and WikiLeaks and a cover-up, and said in a statement earlier this fall that The Fox News article was “pre-written before I even got involved”.
“It fell apart in public in 24 hours,” recalled Aaron Rich, “but Hannity pushed it for another week.” Eventually, Aaron Rich said he emailed Mr. Hannity and his producer and the barrage stopped, but he said he never received an apology from the Fox host.
“He never reached out to me to say that I was sorry for ruining your family’s life and pushing something on which there was no basis,” he said. “Apparently ‘sorry’ is a tough five-letter word for him.”
A Fox News spokeswoman, Irena Briganti, declined to comment on Mr. Rich’s apology.
Fox also pulled the story down a week after it was published, making an opaque statement that “the article did not initially receive the high level of editorial scrutiny we need for all of our reports.”
The damage had been done. The story is still rife on the right, to the point that Mr. Rich was unwilling to share a photo of himself and his brother with the New York Times for the story. Every time he did that, the photo – for example, of the brothers at Aaron’s wedding – was reused and spoiled by conspiracy theorists.
Aaron Rich, who grew up with his brother in Nebraska, said he didn’t think much about who, beyond Fox’s talent, was responsible for the lies about his brother. When I asked about Rupert Murdoch he wasn’t sure who he was – “I’m really bad at little things.” This is the genius of the Murdochs’ management of the place: They collect the money, shirk responsibility, and let their hosts work mainly for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Rich is not involved in the settlement with his parents and he declined to discuss the details. His parents said in a lawsuit that the flurry of conspiracy theories had damaged their sanity and that his mother, Mary, had cost her ability to work and socialize.
But he said he just doesn’t understand why Fox couldn’t simply apologize for its harmful lie – not in May 2017, not when it reached the settlement in October, and not when it finally made the post-election settlement public and wished its family “some degree of peace”.
It reminds me of a well-known political figure who is now stepping off the stage and being conspicuously allergic to apology, empathy, or soul searching to seek out his role in mobilizing the ugliest American impetus.
“I was glad you stopped,” said Seth Rich’s brother, a little hopelessly. “But they never admitted they lit the fire.”