Late Monday night, Washington’s WTTG, or Fox 5, dropped a dud in the tragically convoluted saga of Seth Rich’s death. Fox 5’s Marina Marraco reported that Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor Marraco reported was moonlighting as an investigator for the Rich family, believed there was “tangible evidence on Rich’s laptop that confirms he was communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death.” The story quickly fell apart as the Rich family, DC police, and the FBI rejected it.
It was CNN who drove in the final nail. Oliver Darcy reported that Wheeler said he had no evidence suggesting Rich contacted Wikileaks. “I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” he told CNN. Wheeler said he was only trying to “preview” the news for Fox 5, but, according to his story, they ran with it. Wheeler’s explanation is certainly convenient for him, but it doesn’t make any sense.
For one, a separate Fox News story by Malia Zimmerman claims Wheeler was the original source. Then there are Wheeler’s own words. When asked by Fox 5 if he had sources connecting Rich to WikiLeaks, Wheeler said: “Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed.”
Wheeler also said he had a source inside the police department who looked him “straight in the eye and said, ‘Rod, we were told to stand down on this case and I can’t share any information with you.’ … I don’t think it comes from the chief’s office, but I do believe there is a correlation between the mayor’s office and the DNC and that is the information that will come out.” (Wheeler stuck by Zimmerman’s Fox News’ story on Sean Hannity’s show last night.)
That’s not to say that Fox 5’s story held together before Wheeler bailed. As Washingtonian reported yesterday, Fox 5’s initial story was filled with holes and shaky sourcing. The police quickly called Wheeler’s assertions “unfounded,” the FBI denied involvement, and the Rich family rejected the allegations as yet another case of people spreading unsubstantiated rumors about their son’s death.
Marraco continues to tie Rich to WikiLeaks, and the station re-aired its Wheeler clips in its 10 o’clock broadcast (after CNN’s story ran.) She also said that DC police chief Peter Newsham has not responded to a request for comment, despite the fact that the police department had already put out a statement. More concerning, Marraco said she hadn’t been able to set up a follow up with the source behind her initial story—saying that Wheeler had not responded to calls, texts, or emails. The accompanying online story had a more modest headline than Fox 5’s first report: “Seth Rich Murder: What we know and what we don’t know.” (It was credited to Maracco and veteran crime reporter Paul Wagner, whose contributions were limited to a timeline of his reporting over the past 10 months based on DC police sources and interviews with the Rich family.)
But the damage was already done. As the mainstream media reported on Donald Trump sharing highly classified intelligence with Russian officials, Hannity, Breitbart News, and countless trolls fixated on Rich. After being forced out of the Trump administration for promoting the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy theory, Michael Flynn Jr., the son of the former National Security Adviser, tweeted, “So many stories to take away from the #SethRich bombshell.”
Lost in all this, once again, is the pain of the Rich family. “It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” the Rich’s spokesman Brad Bauman told Business Insider. In an interview with Washington City Paper last year, Joel Rich, Seth’s father, posed it as a question: “How can people stoop so low?”
Update: The Rich family has requested that Fox 5 retract its story immediately. Bauman told DCist: “At this point, with the body of evidence that is out there, and with the private investigator thoroughly recanting his story, it shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity for them to continue running this story.” He also said that if the story is not retracted “we will be looking into other ways we can compel Fox 5 to do the right thing. At this point, everything is on the table.”
In Fox’s 5 10 o’clock broadcast on May 17, Marraco said that Wheeler has backtracked since Monday. Wheeler now says his on-camera statements were the result of a “miscommunication.”