Just when things looked like they had calmed down at Fox News Channel, it was blindsided by a cover headline in the New York Daily News, “Fake News Channel,” and questions about the independence of its journalists on Wednesday. Even NPR (not known for breaking stories) stepped up with a very big one that has put the network back in the hot seat.
Chris Cuomo did an interview with the wealthy Republican donor in the middle of this mess (Ed Butowsky) asking him some questions, the Texas-based money manager wasn’t ready to answer.
A defamation lawsuit filed this week accuses the network of making up quotes and pushing a false story that benefits President Donald Trump, even inviting the chief executive into the editorial process.
In essence, Fox is accused of creating fake news to debunk a story Trump has complained is fake news.
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“The charge is a very serious one, if substantiated,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It speaks to the credibility of Fox as a news organization.”
In a year, Fox has been hit by the forced departures of its late chairman, Roger Ailes, and most popular personality, Bill O’Reilly, following harassment charges. Ailes’ successor, Bill Shine, resigned, prime-time hosts Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren left and there have been several sexual harassment and race discrimination lawsuits.
Yet the network’s conservative audience has remained mostly loyal. While not as dominant as it was before MSNBC’s resurgence in the past few months, Fox ranked as the most popular prime-time network on cable television in July for the fifth time in the past seven months, the Nielsen company said.
Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and the team on Trump’s favorite morning show “Fox & Friends” make no secret of their opinions, and those shows have strongly backed Trump in his first six months. Fox, though, is different from some politically oriented news organizations in maintaining a staff of respected journalists who try to play it straight – people like Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and John Roberts.
That’s the side of Fox that would be most damaged if the allegations are proven true, since they involved the reporting of an investigative news story on the network’s web site, not material from its opinion programs.
“Any news organization that has any aspirations of being bona fide expects the public to take what they are saying seriously, not that they are being fed something that is being made up,” said Paul Levinson, chairman of Fordham University’s communications department.
“I’m no fan of Fox, but I’m hoping this turns out not to be the case.”
The private detective who filed the lawsuit, Rod Wheeler, said he was paid to investigate the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich by a wealthy GOP donor anxious to establish a link between Rich and the leak of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton‘s campaign. The idea was if that could be done, it would end stories about Trump’s possible collusion with Russians.
The donor, Ed Butowsky, is depicted as being intimately involved in a story on the Rich case being prepared by Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman. Butowsky met with outgoing White House press secretary Sean Spicer to talk about the investigation’s findings. The lawsuit also claimed Trump read Zimmerman’s story two days before publication and was anxious to see it run – even backing the inclusion of two quotes from Wheeler that the investigator claims he never said.
Wheeler said that he complained to Zimmerman that he did not make the remarks that his investigation showed email contact between Rich and WikiLeaks, and that it appeared someone in power was blocking an investigation into Rich’s July 2016 death. He said Zimmerman told him by phone that she tried to remove his quotes, but was blocked by her bosses. He said that Butowsky told him that “one day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say.”
Fox News president Jay Wallace said the network had no evidence Wheeler was misquoted but that it was still investigating. Since the story is more than two months old, Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, questioned if the investigation was serious.
Fox said the accusation that Zimmerman’s story was published to help detract from coverage of the Russian collusion issue is “completely erroneous.” The White House has denied involvement in the story and Butowsky has said he has never met Trump. He has said that Wheeler is out for money. Zimmerman, a Los Angeles-based reporter, posted several pictures of her past journalism awards on her Facebook page Wednesday.
Fox, however, hasn’t specifically addressed the issue of any Trump administration involvement in the story. Reporters frequently get tips from people working out of their own self-interest, but don’t involve them in the editorial process. Generally, reporters don’t show news sources what they’ve written unless to specifically check a fact.
Wigdor said he would seek to depose both Trump and Spicer.
Wheeler is also likely to face his own credibility questions.
In an interview with Fox’s Hannity on the day the story was released, Wheeler said he had “very little communication at all” with Butowsky, but the lawsuit outlines several conversations and said they attended a meeting with Spicer together. In the interview, Wheeler also described an unnamed source who backed the Rich-WikiLeaks connection in Zimmerman’s article as “very credible,” although the lawsuit questions whether the source even exists.
He said on Hannity that he didn’t know the DNC staffer’s involvement for a fact, “but it sure appears that way.”
Wigdor said that Wheeler was careful in his choice of words and that he didn’t convey as fact things that he didn’t know.
If Wheeler needs a character witness for his case, however, he may want to rewind to the beginning of his interview with Hannity.
“I’ve known you for a long time, Rod,” Hannity said. “You’re a man of honor and integrity.”
The Seth Rich Timeline:
* July 10, 2016: Rich, 27, is shot to death in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC. He was shot several times including at least once in the back just after 4 am. Police said at the time of the murder they believed Rich was murdered after resisting an attempted robbery. Rich was involved in voter participation activities at the DNC.
* July 12, 2016 The conspiracy theories of Rich’s death begin to circulate — primarily via Reddit. The fact that the valuables Rich was carrying were not taken in the attempted robbery are seen as the key to the conspiracy, although it could also be because the robbery was botched.
* July 22, 2016: WikiLeaks releases more than 19,000 DNC emails obtained via a hack. A few of the emails paint DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as dismissive of Bernie Sanders‘ presidential campaign, confirming what many Sanders’ supporters had long believed. (Wasserman Schultz is later forced to resign.)
* July 25, 2016: The FBI announces it is opening an investigation into the DNC hack. Word also leaks out that federal investigators had warned the DNC about the possibility of a hack back in 2015.
* July 27, 2016: Trump holds a press conference during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in which he openly urges Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump says.
* Fall 2016: Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist, gets in touch with the Rich family. He puts up more than $100,000 in reward money for anyone with knowledge of Seth’s murder.
* Jan 3. 2017: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tells Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Russia didn’t provide his organization with the hacked DNC emails. (By this time, the CIA, FBI and NSA are all unanimous in their belief that the WikiLeaks’ hacks originated in Russia with the express purpose of helping to elected Trump.) One way the emails could have gotten from Russia to Wikileaks is through a “cut-out” or middle man.
* February 2017: Butowsky, the Dallas businessman, calls Wheeler and, it appears from the lawsuit, offers to pay him to look into the circumstances surrounding Rich’s death. Separately, according to the lawsuit, Wheeler shows up at a February 28 meeting with Butowsky and is “surprised” that Malia Zimmerman, the Fox News reporter, is there as well. He’s then told Butowsky and Zimmerman are working together.
* April 20, 2017: Butowsky and Wheeler meet with White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Wheeler says in his complaint that they provided the press secretary with a summary of Wheeler’s investigation’s finding to date.
* May 14, 2017: Butowsky tells Wheeler that President Trump has read the Zimmerman story and wants it published immediately, according to Wheeler’s lawsuit. Butowsky has said his note to Wheeler was a friendly joke.
* May 15, 2017 : Butowsky sends an email to a variety of on-air talent and off-air producers for Fox News letting them know the Zimmerman story is about to post, according to Wheeler’s complaint. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and steal emails and there was no collusion like Trump with the Russians,” he writes. It’s not clear who, if anyone, read or used this email at Fox News.
* May 16, 2017: The Zimmerman story is published on Fox News’ website. In it, Wheeler is quoted as saying “my investigation up to this point shows that there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” Wheeler is also quoted as saying that someone within the DC government or the DNC is blocking the investigation into the Rich murder from going forward. Wheeler almost immediately begins to backtrack. In the lawsuit, he insists the quotes attributed to him were fabricated.
* May 16, 2017: Spicer is asked about the story in the White House daily press briefing. “I don’t — I’m not aware of — generally, I don’t get updates on DNC — former DNC staffers,” he says. “I’m not aware of that.”
* May 21, 2017: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich picks up on the report in an interview with “Fox & Friends.” “It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians,” says Gingrich. “It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.” Gingrich is one of a number of conservative commentators who spread the story; Hannity and Breitbart News also play the story up as confirmation that the Russian meddling narrative was a ruse and that the hacking was an inside job.
* May 23, 2017: Fox News retracts the Zimmerman story. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” reads a statement on the Fox website. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.” Fox News says it’s still investigating internally and has no evidence that Wheeler was misquoted
* May 23, 2017: The parents of Rich write a piece in the Washington Post headlined: “We’re Seth Rich’s parents. Stop politicizing our son’s murder.” In it, they write:
“Law-enforcement officials told us that Seth’s murder looked like a botched robbery attempt in which the assailants — after shooting our son — panicked, immediately ran and abandoned Seth’s personal belongings. 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.”
They also note that their son’s personal email and computer were searched by police and “revealed no evidence of any communications with anyone at WikiLeaks or anyone associated with WikiLeaks.”
May 23, 2017: Hannity says he will stop talking about the Rich murder after an appeal from Seth’s brother. “Please do not interpret what I’m saying tonight to mean anything,” Hannity adds. “Don’t read into this. I promise you I am not going to stop doing my job. To the extent of my ability, I am not going to stop finding the truth. … At the proper time we should continue and talk a lot more.”
August 1, 2017: NPR’s David Folkenflik is first to report about the existence of Wheeler’s lawsuit. He talks to Spicer who admits that he met with Butowksy and Wheeler on April 20. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,”Spicer tells Folkenflik. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”
August 1, 2017: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabeee Sanders is asked about the Wheeler lawsuit. “The President had no knowledge of the story, and it’s completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story,” she said. “Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.”