By May of 2017, Seth Rich was a regular topic of discussion on right-wing websites, social media, conservative talk-radio, and even cable news. It had been almost a year since the 27-year-old DNC staffer had been murdered in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., but his name was now more recognizable than ever.
Police believed (and still believe) that Rich’s death was the result of a botched robbery attempt, but his unsolved homicide lent voice to an alternative theory — a conspiratorial and disturbing scenario suggesting that he had in fact been killed by agents of presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
The outlandish premise was that Rich, not the Russian government, was responsible for leaking the infamous “hacked” DNC emails (that became a big political story in the closing months of the 2016 election) to WikiLeaks (who later published them). And whether it was an act of retribution or an attempt to keep Rich from divulging additional information, Clinton operatives had him silenced.
Despite there being absolutely no evidence linking Rich to the emails, the thesis gained an enormous amount of traction, receiving its inarguably biggest boost from Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who made the “murder mystery” a nightly segment on his highly-rated show. Hannity obsessed over the Rich tale, promoting it to his audience with the help of shady guests and “sources,” despite protests from Rich’s grieving family who were pained by their loved one’s memory being dragged through political dirt.
One of Hannity’s go-to guys was WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who, at the time, was hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid sexual assault charges by Swedish authorities. Assange had been cryptically suggesting in interviews that Rich was indeed the source of the emails.
This was not the first time (nor the last) that Hannity had granted legitimacy to Assange. The two had formed somewhat of a relationship during the 2016 election, as both were working to discredit Donald Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. Hannity even had Assange on his program a couple of times, which was pretty odd considering that just a few years earlier, Hannity had called on President Obama to arrest Assange for publishing secret diplomatic cables that had put American lives at risk.
But politics makes strange bedfellows, and apparently all had been forgiven. Hannity’s fawning treatment of Assange helped transform the WikiLeaks founder into somewhat of a folk hero among President Trump’s base, many of whom suddenly viewed the man as an ally to America.
Earlier this year, however, Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in our 2016 election confirmed what most rationale political observers had already figured out: Assange had been secretly working with the Russian government, and was behind the fabricated link to Seth Rich — the purpose being to draw suspicion away from Russia’s role in helping Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Additional information came out just this week, with the release of an independent Yahoo News investigation into the origins of the Seth Rich hoax. The probe discovered that the story was first disseminated by none other than the Russian government’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR. And it happened just days after Rich’s death.
The investigation was extensive, and the report is certainly a compelling read. It details the false story’s spread from a prominent Russian propaganda website to fake social-media accounts (designed to look like they belonged to Americans) to Amercian conspiracy-theory websites (like Alex Jones’s Infowars). From there, it received the attention of Trump ally, Roger Stone. Stone advanced the story though social-media outlets, and months later, it was even being tossed around inside the White House, where then-chief strategist Steve Bannon promoted it to a 60 Minutes producer.
A few weeks later, as the Yahoo News article describes, the story found its biggest audience yet:
“The conspiracy claims reached their zenith in May 2017 — the same week as Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in the Russia probe — when Fox News’ website posted a sensational story claiming that an FBI forensic report had discovered evidence on Rich’s laptop that he had been in communication with WikiLeaks prior to his death. Sean Hannity, the network’s primetime star, treated the account as major news on his nightly broadcast, calling it ‘explosive’ and proclaiming it ‘might expose the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history,’”
The Fox News report quickly came under heavy scrutiny and was soon discredited (eventually being retracted by the network), but Hannity stuck with it for days… not relenting until Seth Rich’s family spoke to him directly and finally convinced him to stop.
Fox announced an internal probe into how the fabricated story had made it all the way to their website and even their on-air reporting. The network also reportedly looked into Hannity’s conduct throughout the Seth Rich debacle. The findings of that investigation have never been publicly released.
It’s hard to miss the irony of Hannity, who has spent the last couple of years accusing the rest of the media of pushing a Russian-related conspiracy theory, turning out to be a Russian asset himself, having unwittingly mainstreamed and magnified Russian propaganda to a level rarely seen in this country.
While people in the media do make honest mistakes, it’s difficult to categorize what Hannity did as a good-faith misstep. It’s one thing for a partisan working for a news organization to sell his audience on a slanted view he may honestly subscribe to. It’s another to eagerly promote unsubstantiated Internet hearsay, and the word of people as despicable and compromised as Julian Assange, just because it’s politically helpful to do so.
Hannity has long been a reckless media figure, but with the Seth Rich fiasco, he reached a new low. He should be ashamed of the tremendous disservice he did to Fox News viewers, Fox News colleagues, and the Rich family. He pumped adrenaline into a dark and painful fairy tale that should have never been given a platform on a legitimate news network. But because it was, a lot of righties bought into it (perhaps millions more than would have otherwise even heard of it), and still believe it’s real.
To this day, Hannity has yet to apologize or even acknowledge his role in Russia’s misinformation campaign. Now that the SVR has been identified as the source of the story he aggressively lent credence to, it’s time for Hannity to finally own up to his mistake… publicly.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for him to do it.