Fox News' high-profile retraction on Tuesday of a report surrounding the 2016 death of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer has left one of the network's biggest stars, Sean Hannity, at odds with its decision. But if you're just catching up with this story now, you may be confused as to why the Hannity and Seth Rich situation is sparking so much discussion.
As reports broke focusing on reports that President Donald Trump disclosed classified intelligence to Russian officials (which he has defended as his legal right) in the first weeks of May, conservative networks instead zeroed in on an unfounded theory alleging Rich, who was shot and killed in his D.C. neighborhood in July 2016, might've been connected to leaking emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign to Wikileaks. Their reports also implied heavily (though, again, baselessly) that his death was a form of retribution for the leaks from high-ranking officials within the Democratic party. Rich's family has heavily disputed these unfounded theories.
Days after Rich's family sent a cease and desist letter to Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and the Fox News contributor behind the original report, Fox News explained the retraction of the related story in a statement:
The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.
Shortly after, Hannity — who covered the theory on his show throughout the week — disagreed publicly with Fox's decision on his radio program, stating "I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com, I retracted nothing."
Hannity and other conservatives who have spread the theories believe that proving Rich was a "whistleblower" in the email leaks would end investigations into the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia.
However, as Rich's family members wrote in letters to the press condemning the unfounded theories and those who published them, police and investigators have not found evidence of that connection and still believe Rich was killed in a botched robbery attempt.
Aaron Rich, Seth's brother, also wrote a letter to Hannity's producer urging him to consider the family's feelings. Per CNN, he wrote in the letter:
Think about how you would feel losing a son or brother. And while dealing with this, you had baseless accusations of your lost family member being part of a vast conspiracy ... As the family, we would hope to be the first people to learn about any such evidence and reasons for Seth's death. It is a travesty that you would prompt false conspiracy theories and other people's agendas rather than work with the family to learn the truth.
Although they didn't specifically name Hannity in their column in the Washington Post, Seth's parents Mary and Joel Rich also wrote about how individuals "[peddling] discredited conspiracy theories" and "politicizing" their son's death have negatively impacted their grieving family:
We have seen no evidence, by any person at any time, that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job at the Democratic National Committee or his life in politics. Anyone who claims to have such evidence is either concealing it from us or lying. Still, conservative news outlets and commentators continue, day after painful day, to peddle discredited conspiracy theories that Seth was killed after having provided WikiLeaks with emails from the DNC. Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel.
Then, on Tuesday night, after first decrying those who criticized his pursuit of the story as examples of "liberal fascism," Hannity tweeted out the aforementioned column from Rich's parents and promised in subsequent tweets to "address this suffering family" on his show.
And address them he did. Sort of. During a monologue at the beginning of his program, he said he would honor the wishes of the Rich family (for now) but implied he wasn't giving up on the story completely.
"Out of respect for the family's wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time," Hannity said. "Please do not interpret what I'm saying tonight to mean anything. Don't read into this. I promise you, I am not going to stop doing my job. To the extent to my ability, I am not going to stop trying to find the truth."
While Rich's family thanked Hannity "for respecting their wishes" in a statement from their spokesman following his broadcast, they also expressed the hope that he would leave the investigating to the authorities. Whether or not he chooses to honor those wishes remains to be seen.