Despite retracting its own article linking last summer’s murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to the DNC’s hacked emails and WikiLeaks, Fox News did not pressure host Sean Hannity to do the same, a person with direct knowledge of the situation told POLITICO.
Hannity is considered an opinion host at the channel, separate from the news division, and therefore not subject to the same editorial standards, the network has said in the past.
Hannity announced on Tuesday night that he would stop pushing the story on his TV show “at this time” out of respect for Rich’s family, but then sent out tweets suggesting he wasn’t backing away from the theory that Rich was somehow connected to WikiLeaks posting thousands of hacked DNC emails.
Hannity’s decision to keep pushing the story has now caused him to lose at least one advertiser, and prompted liberal groups to push for a boycott similar to the one that helped drive Bill O’Reilly off the air.
The 27-year-old Rich was killed last year in Washington, D.C., in what police have said was likely a botched robbery. But Hannity has promoted the idea that Rich’s supposed involvement with WikiLeaks could establish that neither the Russians nor the Donald Trump campaign had any role in those leaks.
It’s not the first time Hannity’s editorial standards have differed sharply with those of his colleagues. During last year’s presidential campaign he pushed unscientific online opinion polls, even as Fox News’ own vice president of public opinion told staff that such polls didn’t meet Fox News’ editorial standards.
A Fox News spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both Fox News and the local D.C. Fox affiliate had published stories saying evidence existed that proved Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death. To those who believed the theories that Rich’s death was orchestrated by the Democratic party, the articles provided concrete evidence.
The local Fox affiliate quoted a private investigator, paid for by a third party but working with Rich’s family, who said the police and the FBI were not being forthcoming in their investigation and that he had sources who said Rich’s death was connected to the hacked DNC emails.
The FoxNews.com story cited a "federal source" who said the FBI had conducted a forensic analysis of Rich’s computer and discovered tens of thousands of emails were transferred from Rich’s computer to that of the late Gavin McFayden, who then sent them to WikiLeaks.
Hannity covered the story extensively, devoting numerous segments to it and interviewing the private investigator. Though Hannity quoted the family’s statements pushing back on the story and saying the investigator was not authorized to speak to the media unless they had given permission, Hannity continued to probe the story and the possible connections between Rich and WikiLeaks.
But both stories soon unraveled as CNN, NBC and other outlets debunked the reports. Rich’s family asked those involved stop spreading conspiracy theories, and his brother sent a letter to Hannity’s executive producer, pleading with him to stop spreading "potentially false, damaging information.”
The local Fox 5 station, which operates separately from Fox News, chose not to retract its story and referred POLITICO to a clarification posted last week noting that the private investigator had backtracked on his story. But Fox News did retract its version of the story on Tuesday.
On his radio show, Hannity proclaimed, “I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.” On his Fox show that evening, Hannity said that “out of respect for the family’s wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
But on Twitter, Hannity said "Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available. Stay tuned!”
Hannity spent much of Wednesday tweeting about liberal groups like media watchdog Media Matters, which has turned its sights on Hannity and his advertisers.
"Spoke to many advertisers. They are being inundated with Emails to stop advertising on my show,” Hannity tweeted.
That tactic, calling out advertisers who run commercials with controversial hosts, had proved successful in the past. O’Reilly lost dozens of advertisers after a New York Times investigation in April revealed that millions of dollars had been paid to women in settlements after they had accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment.
"The fact that we advertise on a particular program doesn’t mean that we agree or disagree, or support or oppose, the content. We don’t have the ability to influence content at the time we make our advertising purchase. In this case, we’ve been watching closely and have recently made the decision to pull our advertising from Hannity,” the company said.
But Hannity may have the upper hand. He’s one of the last veteran primetime anchors at Fox News, gets some of the highest ratings in cable news and has a contract that gives him the ability to leave the network should he wish to. Hannity has told his staff he plans to stay, and on Tuesday told his audience he’s at Fox “as long as they seem to want me.”
Disclaimer: POLITICO media writer Hadas Gold is a contributor to Fox 5, the Washington D.C. Fox affiliate.