Lawsuit Alleges Fox News And Trump Supporter Created Fake News Story A lawsuit alleges the Fox News Channel worked with a wealthy Trump supporter to concoct a false report about the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer.
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Behind Fox News' Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale

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Behind Fox News' Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale

Behind Fox News' Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new lawsuit filed this morning makes a remarkable claim, that the Fox News channel and a wealthy Trump supporter worked together to concoct a false report earlier this year about the death of a young Democratic party aide. The person making those allegations is Rod Wheeler, who's a paid Fox commentator and private investigator. Fox News withdrew the discredited story a week later, but Wheeler alleges the story's creation took place with the knowledge of the White House. NPR's David Folkenflik has this exclusive report on the making of a fake news story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Seth Rich was a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee when he was fatally shot in the back in the early morning hours of July 10 of 2016 in Washington, D.C. Twelve days later, WikiLeaks posted thousands of emails among Democratic Party officials and their allies, knocking Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign off track. Conspiracy theories spring up about Rich's death, tying it to WikiLeaks and the DNC emails. Here's Fox News's Eric Bolling last August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC BOLLING: It clearly was not a robbery. There wasn't a robbery. They weren't even trying to get his information. This was a hit.

FOLKENFLIK: Top U.S. intelligence officials publicly determined in October - a month before the election - that the Russian government was behind the hacking. Washington, D.C., police called Rich's murder a botched armed robbery, yet it remains unsolved. In February of this year, a Dallas investor named Ed Butowsky reaches out to Seth Rich's parents. Here's Butowsky on the David Webb talk radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED BUTOWSKY: And I said, well, maybe you should hire somebody to work for you like a private detective. And they said, well, that would be amazing, but we just don't have the money to do it. And at that moment, I thought, you know what? I'm going to help these people out.

FOLKENFLIK: Butowsky, a vocal Trump supporter, has been a familiar presence on Fox. He introduces himself to Wheeler and arranges to pay his fees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTOWSKY: That is what happened, and that's how I got involved - simply trying to help a man and a lady find out who killed their son.

FOLKENFLIK: Wheeler offers a very different narrative in his lawsuit against Fox News, Butowsky and the network reporter involved, alleging defamation of character. His lawyer is Doug Wigdor.

DOUG WIGDOR: Rod Wheeler unfortunately was used as a pawn by Ed Butowsky, Fox News and the Trump administration to try and steer away the attention that was being given about the Russian hacking of the DNC emails.

FOLKENFLIK: In his lawsuit, Wheeler alleges Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman partnered with Butowsky from the outset to create what turned out to be an unfounded story. And Wheeler alleges he was told the Trump administration was monitoring their progress. Butowsky arranged a meeting at the White House with the president's press secretary, Sean Spicer, on April 20. Butowsky and Wheeler, the investor and the investigator, present their findings. Spicer tells NPR he took the meeting merely as a courtesy to Butowsky, a reliable Republican surrogate. Butowsky says Wheeler was eager to land a job with the administration. Spicer says was the topic of jobs never came up.

In subsequent exchanges with Wheeler, before the story breaks, Butowsky repeatedly refers to the White House's interest. Butowsky now tells NPR those references were obviously jokes. In an interview, Butowsky says that he had no political aim in hiring Wheeler and that the allegations in Wheler's suit are lies.

The pace intensifies in May. On May 9, Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the Russia inquiry. The next day, Butowsky and Fox's Zimmerman tell Wheeler they had found an FBI source linking Seth Rich to WikiLeaks. On the night of May 14, Butowsky calls Wheeler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTOWSKY: Hey, Rod. It's Ed.

FOLKENFLIK: Butowsky leaves a voicemail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTOWSKY: A couple minutes ago, I got a note that we have the full attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow, let's close this deal.

FOLKENFLIK: Butowsky then texts Wheeler to say that President Trump has read a draft of the story and wants it out there, according to the lawsuit. Spicer tells NPR he was unaware of any such contact. The night before the story is to run, Butowsky allegedly coaches Wheeler and the host for the popular show "Fox & Friends" on how to talk about this story. An online piece by Fox's Malia Zimmerman is posted on May 16. It forms the basis of much of the network's on-air coverage. She quotes Wheeler, saying he had found Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks and that Democrats may have blocked the investigation of his murder.

A controversy erupts, and Wheeler tells other outlets he was misrepresented. According to the lawsuit, Wheeler never said those things. In a three-way phone call that day with Butowsky and a chagrinned Wheeler, Zimmerman says Fox News forced her to write a letter to the Rich family putting the onus on Wheeler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROD WHEELER: That's not accurate though 'cause much of the information did not come from me.

FOLKENFLIK: Zimmerman seems to acknowledge that what he says is true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALIA ZIMMERMAN: Well, not the story - not the part about the connection to WikiLeaks.

FOLKENFLIK: Jay Wallace, the network's president for news, tells NPR that Fox does not have enough concrete evidence to determine whether Wheeler was misquoted. Both Butowsky and Zimmerman urge Wheeler to stick to the script. On "Hannity" that night, Wheeler goes along to a point, saying he doesn't know personally about Rich's emails, but says that a very credible federal investigator says, quote, "he laid eyes on the case file." Instead of certitude, Wheeler serves up energetic speculation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

WHEELER: When you look at that with the totality of everything else that I found in this case, it's very consistent for a person with my experience to begin to think, well, perhaps there were some emails communications between Seth and WikiLeaks.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox News retracts the baseless story a week later. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK JEKABSON'S "STREAMLINED OSTINATO")

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