News & Politics

Family of Seth Rich Sues Fox News Over Debunked Wikileaks Story

The slain DNC staffer's parents are suing the network over a May 2017 report that fell apart within minutes of its publication.

The parents of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee employee who was killed in a still-unsolved July 2016 murder, are suing Fox News Channel and two of its contributors over the network’s perpetration of an unproven conspiracy theory about Rich’s death that originated from far-right corners of the internet.

Joel and Mary Rich‘s suit, filed in federal court in New York City, was first reported by ABC News.

The suit claims that Fox News, reporter Malia Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky, a Republican donor and Fox contributor from Dallas, “intentionally exploited” Seth Rich’s death by cooking up a 2017 Fox News story that suggested the 27-year-old was in contact with Wikileaks, which published emails stolen from DNC servers during the 2016 election. (A popular conspiracy theory on the far right claims Rich was Wikileaks’s source and was killed in revenge; US intelligence agencies stated in 2016 that the emails were hacked by operatives working for Russia.)

Fox aired the story last May 16, and published an accompanying story on its website under Zimmerman’s byline titled “Slain DNC Staffer Had Contact with WikiLeaks Say Multiple Sources.” The story was pushed by multiple Fox News personalities, including Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, Fox Business Channel host Lou Dobbs, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Sean Hannity, who promoted it on his nightly show for nearly two weeks until stopping after public pleas from the Rich family. But the story collapsed within minutes of its initial publication when law-enforcement officials challenged claims about their investigation of Rich’s death and Fox’s principal source, a private investigator named Rod Wheeler, said quotes attributed to him were fabricated. (Wheeler filed his own lawsuit against Fox, Zimmerman, and Butowsky last August; Fox is seeking to have the case dismissed.)

DC Police are investigating Rich’s death as the result of a botched armed robbery outside his home in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. Contrary to Fox’s debunked reporting last year that the FBI was involved in the investigation, the case is under the sole jurisdiction of city cops.

Although Fox retracted the story a week after its initial broadcast and publication, the emotional damage was already done, the Riches’ lawsuit states. Fox, Butowsky, and Zimmerman, the complaint reads, acted “with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary.” The suit accuses Butowsky of ingratiating himself with the Riches in December 2016 by “[using] Joel and Mary’s Jewish heritage and community ties to gain a favorable introduction to them.”

Despite Joel Rich’s dismissals of Butowsky’s claims about Wikileaks, the suit continues, Butowsky was able to convince the Riches to hire Wheeler as a private investigator. From there, the complaint alleges, Butowsky, Zimmerman, and Wheeler cooked up the story about Seth Rich communicating with Wikileaks and discussed it with then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. (Wheeler’s lawsuit makes similar claims.)

The suit also says the Riches are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on from reading the avalanche of false stories, tweets, and other internet material, which they say they must do in order to defend their late son’s reputation. “On a daily basis, Joel and Mary feel that they are being attacked from all sides, and they have no indications that this will ever come to an end,” the suit reads. It also states that Mary Rich is unable to work due to the stress caused by the false accusations about Seth.

Butowsky called the Riches’ lawsuit “one of the dumbest” cases in an interview with ABC News, and said “Mr. and Mrs. Rich should come forward and be honest with people.” Fox News did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The Riches are seeking a jury trial to award punitive and compensatory damages.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.