Conservative media took another step backward this week with the reemergence of the recycled Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
Rich, a 24-year-old DNC operative, was discovered dead near his D.C. apartment at 4:19 am on July 10, 2016. Authorities attributed the murder to a robbery gone wrong, but the fact that nothing was stolen from Rich raised eyebrows. And when Julian Assange hinted that the young man had leaked the DNC e-mails to WikiLeaks, even normally cautious observers wondered if there was a connection. Since that time, the story has been debunked by the police, the media, and Rich’s own family. And—until last week—it seemed to have receded into the fever swamps for good.
But then the story reemerged, not coincidentally during the same week that Donald Trump was embroiled in still more scandals. Conservative media have plenty of good center-right journalists who have excelled at setting the record straight. But when Fox News (the most egregious example being Sean Hannity) joins the chorus from the web and talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, “alternative facts” can "Frankenstein" together and reanimate.
In case you missed it, a bizarre series of events led to this story’s reemergence.
The local “Fox 5” station in Washington, DC, ran an investigation featuring a single source: Rod Wheeler. Wheeler, a former DC detective who also happens to be a Fox News contributor, was serving as a private investigator for the family. (It turns out that a different Fox News regular contacted the Rich family, told them to hire an investigator, and offered to pay for it.) When pressed by CNN, Wheeler said, “He only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through the reporter he spoke to for the FoxNews.com story.”
To recap, it appears that the fake story—set in motion by Fox News regulars—resurfaced from a local Fox News affiliate. It was then promoted nationally by Fox News hosts and contributors.
While devoting much airtime to the Rich “mystery,” the network seemed to go out of its way last week not to spend much time covering the major news stories that every other network was obsessively covering (leaks to Russia, Comey’s memo, etc.).
Networks need content, and the Seth Rich story certainly offered dramatic counter-programming. Think of it in terms of a campaign (which is the way Fox often views itself): If a Democrat is talking about crime, he’s probably losing. If a Republican is talking about health care, he’s probably losing. And if Fox News is talking about Comey’s memo… well, you get the point.
There’s definitely an audience for this story. It’s no secret that there exists— gasp! —a paranoid wing on the right. This fringe group has been around for a long time; see Vince Foster’s suicide. And like the Foster story, the Rich story reinforces the beloved narrative of a high “Clinton body count.”
But the final bow on the top of this deceptive present is this: the Seth Rich story helps solve (indirectly) a tricky problem for Republicans.
The Russia scandal hinges on the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 elections.
The Seth Rich story, despite no evidence at all to back it up — is being used to undermine this premise. Here’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox & Friends: “[I]t wasn't the Russians. 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.”
And Limbaugh, using Rich to get to his pre-ordained bottom-line conclusion, said that “the only colluding and rigging here, folks, is the Democrats’ primary election.”
Rational people know this sort of misdirection is corrosive, yet there is still a powerful incentive by major figures to play into this game when it's (arguably) working.
“Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless,” one Fox News journalist told my Daily Beast colleagues. “It’s just gross.”
Beyond the embarrassment is the realization that what helps Trump in the short term isn’t likely to make for a successful post-Roger Ailes Fox News. The thing about conspiracy theories is that they will always be a part of the landscape, especially in a decentralized social media world.
But the only way a major media operation adds value is by separating fact from fiction. Otherwise, why not go to Infowars and get your conspiracy straight from the source?
In the long run, Fox News can't win a race to the bottom.