Even by the standards of the new Washington crowd, NPR reporter David Folkenflik’s scoop today on how a Trump booster and a Fox News consultant conspired to create a phony story about the “murder” of a young aide for the Democratic National Committee is shocking and frightening.
None of it, of course, would have worked without the gullibility of the American people, who will believe whatever they’re told if it’s what they want to believe.
Donald Trump supporter Ed Butowsky tried to pay Fox consultant Rod Wheeler to investigate the death of DNC aide Seth Rich. They met with Sean Spicer at the White House, Folkenflik reports, and the president reportedly reviewed Fox’s story before it aired.
“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 e-mails,” said Douglas Wigdor, Wheeler’s lawyer. Wheeler has filed a lawsuit against Fox.
Wheeler’s story suggested Rich was killed in an inside job after he allegedly gave WikiLeaks the famous DNC emails.
He didn’t. And police say Rich died in a botched armed robbery.
But that wasn’t the story Butowsky wanted Fox to run.
“If this is true and Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC e-mails…this blows the whole Russia collusion narrative completely out of the water,” Sean Hannity declared.
Wheeler, a private investigator, is suing now, saying Fox defamed him when it pulled his story, and reporter Malia Zimmerman made up quotes like this one, used in the Fox story:
“My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
The sequence of events leading up to the story is a study in lousy journalism.
Butowsky sends an email to Fox News producers and hosts coaching them on how to frame the Rich story, according to the lawsuit. Recipients included Fox & Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade, among others.
“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, as reflected in the Wheeler suit. “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 night before the story ran and the day of the story itself, Butowsky coached Wheeler on what to say on the air: “[T]he narrative in the interviews you might use is that you and [Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman’s] work prove that the Russians didn’t hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our elections.” In another text; “If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest.”
Folkenflik says the reporter on the story wanted to take the allegedly phony quotes from Wheeler — the only thing that gave the story the faint aroma of credibility — out of the story but Fox news bosses told her to keep them in.
It wasn’t long before even Fox News couldn’t ignore the fact the story was bogus, posting a retraction that did everything but take responsibility.
“The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” the statement reads. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
Butowsky, the man who orchestrated the story, suggested in emails that the DNC paid Wheeler off, a story FoxNews fans are most likely to believe.
Related: Read the lawsuit alleging Trump had a role in the Fox News story on Seth Rich (Los Angeles Times)