Did Fox News collude with the Trump administration to spread a malicious lie?
That is the explosive allegation behind a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a former Fox contributor and police investigator.
The story is complicated.
Seth Rich was an ambitious 27-year-old who worked for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Last summer he was murdered in Washington in what police think was a botched robbery attempt.
Surfing the tide of social media in the most febrile atmosphere Washington has known for decades, Sean Hannity of Fox News promoted a conspiracy theory about the death.
He claimed Rich was assassinated because he had shared classified information from Hillary Clinton’s campaign with the website WikiLeaks.
This theory was taken up by Alex Jones of InfoWars, and former House speaker for the Republicans, Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich went on Fox News to say: “It wasn’t the Russians [who hacked the DNC’s emails]. It was this young guy who was disgusted by the corruption of the DNC”.
Why would Hannity and Gingrich advance this view? To hurt the reputation of Hillary Clinton and distract attention from claims that the Trump White House was in cahoots with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
Fox News later retracted the story with the admission that the story was not “subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”.
Hannity only abandoned his pursuit of the conspiracy when Rich’s parents asked that their son’s name not be continuously dishonoured.
A presidential link
All this would be shocking enough, frankly, but things are so far gone in Trump’s Washington that this story has inevitably developed further still.
Wheeler’s lawsuit alleges that Sean Spicer, former spokesman to the president, not only knew about Fox’s story, but shared it with the president – who encouraged Fox to run with it.
This despite the fact that on the day of publication – 16 May – Spicer told journalists he was “not aware” of it.
Ed Butowsky, a Republican donor and Fox contributor, sent Rod Wheeler a text message saying: “Not to add any more pressure but the President just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”
Butowsky says this text message was a joke.
All the defendants in this case vehemently deny Wheeler’s allegations. They are: 21st Century Fox; Fox News Channel, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman; and Ed Butowsky.