In an astonishing story broken by NPR today, a lawsuit has been filed alleging that the White House collaborated with Fox News and a wealthy Republican donor push the fake news story about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich.
Here's what we know thus far (via CNN):
The story was pushed in an attempt to discredit the US intelligence community's determination that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and obtained the emails released by Wikileaks, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by NPR, was filed in US District Court in the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff is Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former homicide detective hired to investigate Rich's death, who alleges that he was misquoted as part of the effort to put the story together. Douglas Wigdor, who is representing current and former Fox employees in other lawsuits against the network, is Wheeler's lawyer.
21st Century Fox, the Fox News Channel, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and Republican donor Ed Butowsky are named as defendants. Butowsky denies the allegations in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says in part, "The motivation behind the article: establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election. ... Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump's agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover."
Fox News is strenuously denying the allegations, claiming it retracted the story due to reporting errors and are investigating what went wrong internally.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” said Jay Wallace, president of news for Fox News. “The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.”
It's hard to know what to make of this given virtually all parties here are unreliable, but it isn't exactly a stretch to think that there was a degree of communication between Fox and the White House. As the CNN report states:
Included in the lawsuit is a text message from Butowsky to Wheeler in which Butowsky writes, "Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure."
Butowsky has claimed this was a joke, but if true, the story is incredibly significant as it shows Trump is getting a look at Fox stories before they go out -- and more importantly having direct input into them. The story went out 36 hours later, and Wheeler apparently called to complain about the quotes he claims he never made. The response from Butowsky was astonishing:
"The quotes were included because that is the way the President wanted the article"
"I didn't tell you yet but the federal government is involved at this moment, behind the scenes and believe your story".
The Huff Post also reports that Butowsky and Wheeler met with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer in April, but Spicer has (predictably) shot down the notion that Trump was aware of the story:
Both Butowsky and Wheeler met with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer in April; the latter also met with Department of Justice director of public affairs Sarah Flores, according to the lawsuit.
Spicer told NPR that he met with Butowsky as a favor to the president’s supporter and said he wasn’t aware of Trump being involved in the process. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer told NPR. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”
The story was taken down after it was completely debunked, but the damage had already been done and the upsetting conspiracy theory was given new legs. And if Wheeler is to be believed, the President of the United States had a direct hand in pressuring a news network to promote it, knowing full well it was utterly ridiculous and devoid of substantiated evidence.
The implications for American democracy here are serious and should not be underestimated. While Fox ultimately did the right thing and took the story down, their editorial process is deeply flawed from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, if Trump did have a hand in pushing the story out, the network can no longer be regarded as a news network and must be considered a propaganda arm of the current administration. If Trump didn't, then their editorial process is still appalling as an article as clearly stupid as Zimmerman's should never have been given the green light. The mistakes were beyond amateurish and no one involved with it should still have a job.
What does seem clear is that both Fox News and the White House are desperate to distract the public from the ongoing investigation into Trump's ties to Russia. It is a story that won't go away, and Wheeler's lawsuit is yet more evidence that the Trump administration's lies surrounding it don't hold up to scrutiny.
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