The fatal shooting of a young Democratic Party aide named Seth Rich early in the morning of July 10, 2016, brought incalculable loss to his parents.
Within days, Joel and Mary Rich then had to endure an unimaginable, additional blow: the eruption of a cottage industry of conspiracy theories and outright lies around their son’s life and death. Police in Washington, D.C., never identified his killer, and there was a vacuum of reliable information. Hot takes, destructive speculation and false claims about Seth rocketed around the internet and found a warm embrace on many Fox News shows.
“We’re just beside ourselves,” Joel Rich says. “With all the international stories and all the national media, how do you live with that, when you know it’s all false about your son and his legacy?”
Our interview represents the first public remarks the Riches have made since they reached a confidential settlement in fall 2020 with the Fox News Channel and its parent company, Fox Corp., over its role in peddling those false claims. Under the terms of that deal, they cannot directly speak about Fox or its stars.
As the Riches’ experience shows, conspiracy theories can be brought to heel, but not without, in this case, a grievous emotional toll. Years later, the Riches’ devastation endures, in part because of the pain inflicted by Fox. The network has pulled back from talking about Seth Rich. Yet Fox shows little sign of being chastened more broadly. Under the ultimate leadership of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, who control its parent company, Fox News continues to invite guests on its programs who embrace conspiracy theories. Some of its most popular stars openly promote false claims that have already been discredited.
“We have said from Day 1, we will follow the truth and whoever provides the truth, we will follow that path,” Mary Rich says. “So far, there’s been nothing to follow.”
Fox News and its president, Jay Wallace, who oversees the network’s journalism, declined requests for interviews for this story. Fox additionally would not address detailed questions — sent via email at Fox’s request — days ahead of the story’s publication.
After Seth’s death, Mary Rich says the family became “a pawn in the game”
After Seth’s death, many people offered to aid the Riches. Some carried hidden motivations. A man with ties to Fox News who promised to help the Riches solve their son’s murder, for example, later plotted to tap their phones and hack their computers to find “the truth” about Seth, according to a sworn deposition.
That revelation was, Joel and Mary Rich say, a fresh nightmare.
“You’re going, ‘Oh my God, it can’t be’,” Mary Rich says. “And you’ve been taken advantage of. You’re a total sucker. You’re a pawn in the game. And I think every day: Who’s going to bug us? What’s coming at us? I will always think that.”
Police say they believe Seth Rich’s killing was the result of a botched robbery at gunpoint.
Our interview took place at a house rented through Airbnb — their choice to guard their family’s privacy — in a city where they’ve bought a second home. They are sincere, unpolished, warm, giving me a hug as we meet in person for the first time. They sit side by side on a plush couch, looking at one another fondly, and sometimes sadly, as they speak, often finishing one another’s sentences.
After Seth’s death, figures friendly to former President Donald Trump portrayed him as a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter. They peddled false claims that he had secretly stolen thousands of emails and given them to WikiLeaks to try to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency. They suggested Clinton and the Democrats had arranged his killing. And that the Riches themselves were in on some kind of cover-up. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fueled the suspicions, aided by such extremist blogs as Gateway Pundit.
None of this was true. As intelligence agencies in the Obama and Trump administrations, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller concluded, hackers were deployed by the Russian government to disrupt U.S. elections. But the falsehoods helped deflect growing evidence that the Russians had interfered in Trump’s election win.
Fox sought to yoke the intensity of passion of Trump’s voters for its own programming as he ascended to power. And the channel served as the most consequential and influential force driving the Seth Rich conspiracy story by far; the intersections with Fox were multiple and, for the Riches, invariably cruel.
Fox stars including Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Fox News contributor, were among those who baselessly suggested that Seth Rich had been the leaker and that he was murdered because of those leaks. Fox aired the claims without providing any evidence and ominously warned that Democrats might have been behind his death. (Bolling said his killing stemmed from “not a robbery” but “a hit.”)
“They didn’t know him,” Joel Rich says, rejecting all of the conspiracy theories about his son.
The kid who watched C-SPAN and wore red, white and blue
Prior to 2016, Mary and Joel Rich lived quietly in Omaha, Neb., with no connection to the national political scene other than the idealistic aspirations of their younger son. Before they retired, Joel ran commercial sales for several printing businesses, while Mary managed advertising sales teams.
Seth was wide open, embracing of all, guileless, his parents remember. When going to a ballgame, he would get the whole section cheering. On one July Fourth, he wore a full red, white and blue suit — out of patriotism, they say, no trace of kitsch or irony.
He had been the kid who watched legislative debates on C-SPAN in high school and who found his calling with politics at Creighton University in Omaha. By July 2016, he was a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee, working on ways to use data to help the Democrats increase voter participation. But he played no favorites among the party’s presidential contenders, the Riches say. Once Clinton won the primary, they say, Seth Rich looked forward to moving to Brooklyn to work at her campaign headquarters, even as he was nervous about leaving his girlfriend behind in D.C.
Mary Rich cites a line from Seth’s acceptance letter for the job: “How proud he was ‘to be able to work to make a change’. Those words are who my son was,” she says. “Those words are also on his cemetery stone.”
“He wanted to make a difference,” Joel Rich gently intercedes.
“He wanted to make a difference,” Mary Rich repeats.
Since his death, the Riches have found strength with friends and in their synagogue in Omaha. They spoke with me, they say, to honor his memory. They also spoke with the producers of a new documentary series for Netflix called “Web of Make Believe,” scheduled for release Wednesday. (I served as a consulting producer on the episode of the series focusing on Seth Rich.)
Joel Rich says they were “gullible and trusting” of strangers who offered help
The Metropolitan Police Department’s efforts to find Seth’s killer soon stalled. The Riches did not have much personal wealth or connections to move the case forward. They welcomed the offers of help from strangers.
“We were probably a little more gullible and trusting,” Joel Rich says, “having lived in Omaha and feeling that people — if they reach out to try to help you — that they mean it.”
One of those who reached out, Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman, promised a $100,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest. He hijacked the attention to promote conspiracy theories about Seth’s death. The Riches, repeatedly forced to answer reporters’ questions about each new Burkman claim, pulled away when Burkman staged a reenactment of the deadly shooting.
“We said, ‘This kind of help is helping him more than helping us’,” Joel Rich says.
Among others offering aid as the Riches recoiled from Burkman was a Fox News commentator and investment adviser named Ed Butowsky. He offered to hire a private detective at his own expense to try to help them solve the case. Without their knowledge, Butowsky pressured the private investigator, who was also a Fox News commentator, to develop evidence that Seth Rich had fed the emails to WikiLeaks as a way of lifting any taint of Russian involvement in Trump’s win.
In an interview in August 2017, Butowsky told me that he believed he was helping the Riches by showing their son was a whistleblower against Clinton and the Democrats. Instead, they were outraged.
“This whole blown-up BS has taken the eye off the ball” of the investigation, Mary Rich told me back then. “[That] just buckles me to my knees that they’ve damaged so much of trying to find who his murderer is.”
A Fox story breathed fresh life into baseless conspiracies
Months after his death, in May 2017, Fox News posted a story from one of its investigative reporters, Malia Zimmerman, that invoked unnamed law enforcement sources to claim that Seth Rich had been tied to the leak. The story breathed fresh life into those claims and bestowed seeming heft. The Riches protested immediately.
The story had been orchestrated behind the scenes by Butowsky, as NPR has previously reported. He arranged for the private investigator to serve as a key source for Zimmerman’s story.
“I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know, I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility,” Butowsky wrote in an email advising hosts and producers at Fox News on how to frame the story. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion between Trump and the Russians.”
The story kicked off a firestorm on Fox News’ programs and in other conservative media outlets.
The private investigator disavowed the quotations ascribed to him almost immediately. A week later, Fox retracted the story. The network would cut ties with its commentators (Butowsky and investigator Rod Wheeler) and later on with its reporter (Zimmerman). A senior editor for Fox News’ website involved in approving the story would leave the network as well.
Fox never explained or apologized to the Riches
Despite its promise in retracting Zimmerman’s piece that it would “continue to investigate this story and provide updates as warranted,” Fox never reported again on Seth Rich’s death.
Despite the resolution of all lawsuits about its discredited story, Fox has never explained what went wrong journalistically. (Fox previously pointed to all the related litigation in declining to comment to NPR and others.) Fox has never publicly said, for example, whether it found proof that the federal law enforcement sources Zimmerman cited ever existed. Zimmerman did not respond to NPR’s queries seeking comment.
Despite reporting the false claims about their dead son, Fox never publicly apologized to the Riches. Instead, it limited its public statement to the “hope” that the Riches receive a degree of “peace and solace” from their settlement. (By contrast, Rupert Murdoch directly apologized to the family of a slain British girl whose phone his British tabloid hacked into, and both sides acknowledged the apology immediately after.)
Butowsky has angrily denounced Fox for backing off the story and sought to generate proof. Along with a blogger named Matt Couch who amplified Butowsky’s theories and raised money online off the murder, Butowsky suggested Seth’s elder brother Aaron Rich was involved in leaking to WikiLeaks too, according to a lawsuit filed subsequently. Butowsky’s claims were also recycled in an opinion piece by a retired admiral in The Washington Times.
That was preposterous on every level, Joel and Mary Rich say. Aaron was in tech; he wasn’t involved in partisan politics. He was a prankster who would tease his younger brother, the Riches say. Seth would be the best man at his wedding.
“As they got out [of college] you could then see them starting to think about a life and a family,” Mary Rich says. She says they talked about their kids someday playing together.
A lawsuit leads to a deposition about an elaborate attempt to spy on the grieving parents
All these allegations about Seth Rich and the Rich family sparked a flurry of litigation. Wheeler sued Butowsky, Zimmerman and Fox. Joel and Mary Rich sued Fox, Zimmerman and Butowsky. Aaron Rich sued Butowsky, Couch and The Washington Times. Butowsky sued me, along with NPR and other journalists, for reporting on his activities. Other suits were filed too. (The suit against NPR and me was dismissed with no admission of wrongdoing or payments by NPR, which fully stands by its reporting.)
And some shocking information emerged as a result of the litigation. In Aaron Rich’s lawsuit, lawyers deposed Thomas Andrew Schoenberger, a consultant who had founded a digital reputation restoration firm promising “decentralized discreet solutions.” Butowsky had hired the firm, called ShadowBox. He later acknowledged he was prompted to do so by NPR’s unwanted scrutiny of him over his role in Fox’s discredited Seth Rich story.
Schoenberger testified, under oath, about a meeting convened by Butowsky at Butowsky’s home in Plano, Texas, in September 2017, months after the story was retracted by Fox and weeks after Wheeler’s lawsuit was filed against Fox and Butowsky.
In addition to Schoenberger, the meeting was attended by his partner in ShadowBox, Zimmerman and Couch, among others. Schoenberger testified that Butowsky said he wanted Schoenberger and his partner to equip a van, drive it to Omaha and eavesdrop on the Riches.
“No matter what room in the house it was, he wanted the phones tapped, the computer tapped, the cellphones tapped,” Schoenberger testified. “He said he wanted to be able to hear a pin drop in the kitchen.” Schoenberger testified that Butowsky also asked how to get into the Riches’ bank accounts.
In an interview with The Daily Beast in early 2020, Butowsky denied asking to spy on the Riches but did confirm the meeting took place. The Daily Beast reported that three people attending the meeting confirmed that they discussed the possibility of eavesdropping on the Riches.
There is no evidence that any such eavesdropping occurred.
Asked for comment by NPR, Butowsky did not address the meeting or the conversation about eavesdropping. Instead, he disparaged Schoenberger and shared a link to an online story claiming ties between Schoenberger and QAnon.
The Riches say the disclosure that a man who promised to help them may have wanted to spy on them instead was a fresh shock.
“It’s changed how you act, who you will listen to, what you do when you’re at home,” says Joel Rich. “Will you go to the store? And that’s part of the damage that these conspiracies can do.”
In 2018, The Washington Times apologized to Aaron Rich and the Rich family for its op-ed that relied on Butowsky’s claims.
In January 2021, Butowsky apologized to Aaron Rich and the Riches, tweeting, “I never had physical proof to back up any such statements or suggestions, which I now acknowledge I should not have made.” Couch apologized too. They kept the apologies in a prominent, pinned place on Twitter for months.
None of the lawsuits against the reporters covering the treatment of the Riches stuck. Fox settled the lawsuit filed by Mary and Joel Rich just before Hannity and Dobbs were set to testify. Zimmerman and Butowsky settled as well. As reported first by The New York Times, Fox insisted that news of the settlement not be reported until after the November 2020 elections.
The settlement fails to stop Fox News from amplifying new conspiracy theories
“[Zimmerman’s story for Fox] took rumors and innuendo that appeared in the dark corners of the internet and took it and mainstreamed it,” says Michael Gottlieb, who was Aaron Rich’s attorney. “It was amplified all over.”
“It obviously had a devastating effect on the Rich family and everything they know about their whole life and lived experiences,” he says.
Joel and Mary Rich say they have stood up for their son. But the wild conspiracies around him — whipped up for personal and ideological agendas — have stripped away his good name.
In Jewish tradition, babies often are named after loved ones who have died. “Seth would have been so proud to have a child named for him,” Mary Rich says. That can never happen, she adds.
“If you had the name Seth Rich, you would be harassed all through your lifetime,” she says. “Even if you were a baby and didn’t know crap about any of this, you would endure the harassment.”
Fox News’ settlement with the Riches did not lead the network to shy away from circulating baseless claims on other matters of intense public interest. Fox is currently fighting multibillion-dollar defamation suits brought by two voting technology companies over false claims of fraud in the 2020 elections that aired on Fox. (In its defense, Fox has said it was merely covering newsworthy public disputes among public figures, including Trump.) Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, has promoted previously discredited conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol.
There is a way to perceive a silver lining to the Riches’ tragedy. Through their litigation, the conspiracy theories about Seth Rich have abated. Fox reportedly paid the Riches a multimillion-dollar settlement.
“We are still glad we did this, because you get a settlement,” Joel Rich says about suing Fox. “It may not have the words ‘I’m sorry.’ But [in effect] you have the admission they did something wrong.”
The Riches’ experience also helped to inspire a new initiative from the nonprofit legal center Protect Democracy to use libel and defamation laws to combat misinformation.
Even so, the Riches say that their ability to trust people outside their close circle has been shattered. Mary Rich says the dual trauma of Seth’s death and being the target of conspiracy theorists has changed them forever.
“We thought that when the lawsuit was over, our lives would be able to go back” to a sense of normalcy, she says. “People would know and understand that there was a big lie. And I have realized since then, our lives will never ever be able to return.”
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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