This article originally appeared on Media Matters.
CNN’s headline on Tuesday pretty much captured the latest example of how the fact-free conservative media often hype hollow conspiracies: “Story On DNC Staffer’s Murder Dominated Conservative Media — Hours Later It Fell Apart.”
To recap: No, Seth Rich, the 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was killed last summer in Washington, D.C., the victim of an apparent botched robbery, did not provide WikiLeaks with more than 44,000 DNC emails. (Those emails were hacked by Russians, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.) No, the Clintons did not have Rich murdered. And no, there hasn’t been a sprawling political cover-up.
None of the salacious allegations that Fox News, with the help of a local affiliate, peddled this week were based in reality, as the GOP outlets tried to jump-start a dormant conspiracy theory about the murder victim. (For good debunkings of the sorry charade that unfolded this week, see here, here, and here.)
That conservative media would wildly overhype a bogus story for partisan reasons is hardly a revelation. (It’s kind of why they exist.) But the Rich story was especially galling because it fits a vile pattern.
“The family is officially asking for a retraction and an apology from Fox News and from the Fox 5 DC affiliate for inaccurate reporting and damaging the legacy of their son,” a Rich family spokesperson told CNN.
It’s one thing to pile on politicians and other very public partisan figures, lobbing made-up allegations and trying to connect conspiratorial dots. But to try to destroy the memory of a staffer who met a violent death is really just gross.
What was particularly offensive about the Rich story this week was that it seemed like Fox was hyping the hollow tale as a way to avoid dealing with the unfolding meltdown at the White House this week. Desperate for a distraction and desperate not to acknowledge the news bombshells exploding around President Donald Trump, Fox opted to peddle bullshit concocted stories, based on shrouded, anonymous sources.
“Not only that, but this investigator says there could be a cover-up. Wow,” host Brian Kilmeade exclaimed Tuesday morning of the private investigator who claimed to a Fox affiliate that Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks (a point he later retracted). Meanwhile, on the Fox News website the headline blared “DC MURDER MYSTERY.”
From there, the awfulness shifted into overdrive throughout the Trump-loyal media:
Breitbart.com ran an article on its home page claiming that Fox’s article may prove that the hack of DNC emails was “an inside job.” The Drudge Report ran a screaming banner on its site claiming Rich “had contact” with WikiLeaks and linked to the Fox 5 DC article.
And more awfulness:
A spokesman for Seth Rich's family said "There is a special place in hell" for spreading conspiracies about Seth. Hannity is leading with it pic.twitter.com/v0U4jCLxvl
— Nathan McDermott (@natemcdermott) May 17, 2017
Hannity remains undeterred by the family’s pleas — as of Thursday, he was still devoting time on both his radio show and Fox News program to peddling conspiracies about Rich’s death, using it to undermine the idea that Russia was behind the DNC email hack. “Apparently I care more about why this kid was murdered than you do,” Hannity told his critics.
Basically, it was the “alt-right” idiocy of Pizzagate all over again. “This is what happens when a murder victim becomes a pro-Trump meme,” noted the Washington City Paper.
True. But here’s a key point to remember: Conservatives, and specifically right-wing media, have been sponsoring these occasional campaigns for decades.
For instance, the push to politicize the death of the former U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was especially cruel. And the relentless, years-long smear campaign against Vince Foster and his legacy after the longtime friend of the Clintons committed suicide in 1993, helped define the Clinton Derangement Syndrome years of the 1990s.
In all three cases, the Rich, Stevens and Foster families begged conservatives to stop using their dead sons and brothers in a morbid and fact-free way to push their own partisan agendas. Basically, they beseeched conservatives to show a little decency – and they were ignored.
Almost from the moment Stevens was killed in 2012, two things happened simultaneously: His family asked that his death not be politicized, and Fox News immediately began politicizing his death, using it as cudgel to try to bludgeon both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Last year, Stevens’ mother again called for for an “immediate and permanent stop” to the use of her son’s name by GOP leaders and Trump, calling the efforts “opportunistic and cynical.”
That came in response to Trump’s stunningly tasteless campaign rhetoric during a written speech attacking Hillary Clinton. Echoing years’ worth of Fox News Benghazi hysteria, Trump said, “Her decisions spread death, destruction and terrorism everywhere she touched,” Trump said. “Among the victims [was] our late ambassador, Chris Stevens. … He was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed.”
Incredibly, Trump also discussed Vince Foster last year when the cable pundit-turned-candidate toldThe Washington Post that the circumstances of Foster’s death were “very fishy” and that Foster “knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
Foster’s sister immediately criticized Trump: “For Trump to raise these theories again for political advantage is wrong. I cannot let such craven behavior pass without a response.”
In 1993, Foster was the then-deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in Northern Virginia’s Fort Marcy Park, just outside of Washington, D.C. His death, which sparked controversy when conservatives accused the president and his wife of being part of a plot to murder their friend, quickly came to symbolize the outlandish and despicable claims that were at the center of the anti-Clinton campaigns during the 1990s. (Independent counsel Robert Fiske’s 140-page report on Foster’s death concluded definitively that Foster had killed himself and that he had depression.)
Without Fox News to broadcast and amplify every wild allegation (the network launched in 1996), the tasteless Foster conspiracies were spread via emerging online bulletin boards, faxed newsletters, self-published exposés, and VHS tapes, like The Clinton Chronicles, which portrayed the president as a one-man crime syndicate.
At the top of the Foster-feeding media pyramid stood Rush Limbaugh (“A report … will be published that claims Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton. … The Vince Foster suicide was not a suicide”), The New York Times’ William Safire (“What terrible secret drove Vincent foster, the Clintons’ personal lawyer, to a put a bullet in his head?”), and Robert Bartley’s team of editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal, who spent eight years lost in a clueless Clinton pursuit.
And the ’90s witch hunt continued well into the new century. In 2007, for instance, Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted a segment about the “mysterious death” of Foster, hinting that the Clintons might have pulled off “a massive cover-up.”
More recently, when the health official who had verified President Obama’s birth certificate was killed in a plane crash in 2013, conspiracy outlets were quick to suggest foul play. The future president, of course, was not far behind. “How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived,” Trump tweeted.
This week, surveying the moral wreckage in the wake of the Seth Rich cover-up hoax, the family spokesperson condemned the media players behind the cruel offensive: “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
Sadly, those people already have a place at Fox News.