As Fox News scrambled to contain the damage from its discredited reporting on murdered Democratic staffer Seth Rich in 2017, a top editor at the network stuck by the retracted story, going so far as to predict that the baseless coverage of Rich’s murder would eventually be “vindicated.”
That revelation comes via newly released emails from FoxNews.com’s then-deputy managing editor Greg Wilson, as well as others recently unsealed in litigation between Rich’s parents and Fox. Those emails offer a glimpse into the internal fallout from Fox’s story, as newsroom figures tried to figure out how groundless claims about the DNC hack that summer had ever made it on air and one source offered a surreptitious office meeting to Fox editors in an attempt to salvage the story.
The emails were unsealed this month as part of an order from Federal Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn, who ruled that parties in the case had been filing motions and evidence under seal without first getting her approval. The ruling forced both sides of the case to make public some documents, including multiple internal Fox emails about the story, that had previously been under seal.
The story from Fox baselessly claimed that Rich “had leaked thousands of internal emails to WikiLeaks.” In this telling, internal Democratic emails had been stolen not by Russian hackers but by Rich himself.
While police in Washington, D.C. have blamed Rich’s death on a botched robbery, conspiracy theorists have claimed without evidence that Rich was murdered on the orders of Hillary Clinton or other top Democrats for providing stolen emails to WikiLeaks.
The May 16 Fox online story from reporter Malia Zimmerman would have vindicated those conspiracy-minded Trump supporters. But within hours after it first ran, the item began to fall apart, and even prompted an op-ed from Rich’s grieving parents begging Fox and hosts like Sean Hannity to stop promoting it.
The network retracted the story on May 23, a week after it first ran. But 17 days later, Wilson, who court records show was involved in the planning of the Fox story, insisted privately that it would still be “vindicated.” In a June 9, 2017, email to Ed Butowsky—a wealthy Republican and Fox guest who served as a source for Zimmerman on the Rich story—Wilson didn’t appear to have been chastened by the retraction.
“I hope all is well, and am sorry about how things worked out,” Wilson wrote. “I still believe we will be vindicated.”
“Thank you and I agree,” Butowsky replied.
But Wilson’s stock has not been damaged. He has since been promoted to managing editor of FoxNews.com. Wilson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Wilson’s email came after weeks of turmoil among some at Fox over what to do with the Seth Rich story. Within hours after its publication, a Fox media relations staffer emailed Jay Wallace, Fox News’s president of news, with more than a dozen other outside media reports disputing the validity of the Rich story.
“Please let me know when you have a couple minutes to discuss this dotcom report regarding Seth Rich,” Fox media relations manager Jessica Jensen wrote in the email, which was among the newly unsealed emails. “We have received several inquiries about the validity of this report.”
The credibility of Fox’s story quickly began to unravel as former Washington detective Rod Wheeler, who Butowsky had hired to investigate the case and was key to Fox’s article, began disputing the story. Less than a week after it ran, on May 22, Zimmerman emailed Wilson and claimed that Butowsky was coming to New York in an attempt to defend the story’s veracity.
“Ed Butowsky is coming to New York to show you all the text messages with [Rich family spokesman] Brad Bauman and the Rich family and Rod Wheeler,” Zimmerman wrote to Wilson. “He said the picture is not complete without showing that to you and whoever else should see it.”
Even after the retraction, Butowsky appears to have kept up his attempts to salvage the story. On June 27, Butowsky wrote to Wilson and Refet Kaplan, now an executive editor at Fox News, and claimed to have information Kaplan would be interested in.
But Butowsky appeared reluctant to be seen at Fox with Kaplan, writing that it was “best not to appear on your floor.” Instead, Butowsky said he could meet Kaplan elsewhere in Fox’s New York City headquarters.
“Refet, I have some information that I know will be very helpful,” Butowsky wrote to Kaplan. “I am on the 3rd floor in cafeteria near fitness center. I thought it best not to appear on your floor. If you have a moment or any other appropriate person, please visit for 2 mins. I truly believe this will be helpful and it is very time sensitive.”
Asked whether his email to Kaplan was an attempt to being seen with the Fox bigwig amid the backlash to the Rich story, Butowsky, now a co-defendant in Rich’s parents’ lawsuit against Fox and a defendant in another lawsuit from Rich’s brother, denied he was trying to be surreptitious.
“At no time was I ever trying to avoid being seen at Fox,” Butowsky wrote in a text message to The Daily Beast.
Originally published: 2020-08-25 09:11:26