No Apology, No Explanation: Fox News And The Seth Rich Story Several months after Fox News retracted its story about the death of Seth Rich, the network has done nothing to explain what went wrong.
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No Apology, No Explanation: Fox News And The Seth Rich Story

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No Apology, No Explanation: Fox News And The Seth Rich Story

No Apology, No Explanation: Fox News And The Seth Rich Story

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fox News has questions to answer about its journalistic practices. The network is being sued over a story it published and then retracted. It was about the unsolved killing of a young Democratic Party staffer named Seth Rich. Up until now, the network hasn't explained what went wrong, but that may be about to change as it defends itself in court. NPR's David Folkenflik has the back story of the case.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Let's just recap what Fox News reported earlier this year.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So more on the story of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.

FOLKENFLIK: It was May 16. That morning on Fox News' website, Malia Zimmerman reported that Rich had secretly shared thousands of e-mails of Democratic Party leaders with WikiLeaks. Popular Fox shows amplified Zimmerman's story.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A bombshell new report on the mysterious death of a DNC staffer 10 months ago at the height of the presidential campaign.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Suggests he was in communications with WikiLeaks prior to his murder.

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LOU DOBBS: Rich's contact with WikiLeaks corroborated by private investigator.

FOLKENFLIK: The big scoop involved presidential politics, international intrigue and a person's death. But Fox had to take it back. When a story of this scale crumbles, most news organizations feel obligated to explain what happened and why. Fox didn't do that. So let's take a look at what Fox did - not legally but journalistically. Lesson one, any investigative report has to be ironclad. And that goes double when it involves a murder. Tom Bettag is a former top news executive for CBS and ABC.

TOM BETTAG: With a family at stake, the journalistic rule, like the medical rule, is first do no harm.

FOLKENFLIK: Seth Rich's parents tell NPR the Fox piece devastated them. Here's his mother, Mary Rich.

MARY RICH: It was like burying Seth all over again. And we need to stay focused on finding his murderers.

FOLKENFLIK: Lesson No. 2, Make sure your sources are saying what you think they're saying. In this case, there was just one named source, Rod Wheeler, a private eye who had been hired on behalf of the Rich family. Fox News quoted Wheeler, confirming Rich had shared emails with WikiLeaks. Wheeler immediately denied it. And last month, Wheeler sued Fox for defamation. Before the story ran, the Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman sent a draft of her story with quotes she intended to attribute to Wheeler. But there's zero evidence Wheeler ever said those words or gave her permission to use them. And if Zimmerman did invent the quotes, that's a big problem, even if Wheeler did give her the green light.

Lesson No. 3, make sure each source stands on its own. A wealthy Trump supporter named Ed Butowksy helped to orchestrate the Fox News story. Butowsky was the one who picked Wheeler to work for the Riches. Both Butowsky and Wheeler were Fox News commentators. And Butowsky fed Wheeler and the Fox reporter tips.

BETTAG: All of this screams potential conflict of interest.

FOLKENFLIK: Tom Bettag says the ties were just too cozy.

BETTAG: In this case, you have an investigator who's been hired by somebody who has a link to Fox. And the investigator himself has a link to Fox. And they have a stake in giving Fox what it wants to hear.

FOLKENFLIK: The night before the Fox News story ran, Wheeler told a local Fox reporter that a law enforcement source had confirmed Rich's involvement with WikiLeaks. But Wheeler objected, saying Butowsky and Zimmerman told him they found that law enforcement source days earlier. Wheeler said it was that source - their source - that he was confirming to the local Fox station. And in a taped conversation later that day, Butowsky and Zimmerman conceded Wheeler had actually never said any such thing.

Lesson No. 4 arrives courtesy of media lawyer Charles Glasser.

CHARLES GLASSER: Transparency and trust are the absolute lifeblood of any mainstream media organization. And I'll call Fox that.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox failed to disclose Butowsky's role in the story. And Fox also didn't share what went wrong. Here's Fox Business host Lou Dobbs that night.

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DOBBS: A federal investigator telling Fox News that an FBI forensic report of Rich's computer showed he made contact with WikiLeaks.

FOLKENFLIK: That unnamed investigator was the story's second key source. Yet the FBI tells NPR the agency has not participated in investigating the Seth Rich case. Fox never mentioned the source again. And the network declines to say whether it stands by the source. Fox now says it cannot comment because of Wheeler's lawsuit. Again, Charles Glasser.

GLASSER: There is a critical role that newspapers and publishers and broadcasters have to clean up the record. And they have an ethical responsibility as a pillar of democracy.

FOLKENFLIK: The late Fox chairman Roger Ailes used to boast that Fox had never retracted a story. He saw that as weakness. Yet Fox News' behavior since the Seth Rich story has little recent parallel for a big news organization. And Fox's choices have had repercussions. The British culture minister this week put the brakes on a $15 billion deal sought by media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his family. She questioned the Murdochs' commitment to fairness and accuracy. Rupert Murdoch directly controls Fox News.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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