Why Sean Hannity Needed the Seth Rich Conspiracy

With Trump flailing and viewers fleeing, it was the perfect alternate-reality distraction.


Fox News host Sean Hannity in the White House briefing room in Washington, on Jan. 24.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Update, 10:27 p.m.: Sean Hannity said on Tuesday night’s show that he would stop pushing the Seth Rich murder conspiracy for the time being. “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” he said. The move came after Rich’s family pleaded with Hannity to stop exploiting his death. Hannity did not retract any of his prior coverage or apologize for it, and he told viewers that he will remain in his job at Fox News: “I’m on contract, as long as they seem to want me.” Evidently, they still want him.

Fox News did not respond to an email Tuesday afternoon requesting comment on Hannity’s Rich coverage.

Original story: For the past week, Fox News has been heavily promoting a conspiracy theory linking the unsolved 2016 murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer to WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen DNC emails. The implication, first floated by WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange last year: that the 27-year-old Rich may have been killed in retribution for leaking those emails, and that authorities were colluding to keep it quiet.

The story resurfaced thanks to a May 16 report by local affiliate Fox 5 DC, in which a private investigator claimed to have “tangible evidence” that Rich had in fact been communicating with WikiLeaks. Fox News made it the top story on its website that same day. Within hours, that report had been debunked. Yet the story had made its way to FoxNews.com, and the network’s star primetime opinion host, Sean Hannity, went on to make the Seth Rich “murder mystery” one of his top segments night after night. Hannity repeatedly suggested that the mainstream media outlets who refused to cover the story were in on the cover-up. Meanwhile, Rich’s own family pleaded with him to find the “decency and kindness” to stop flogging the conspiracy theory.

On Tuesday, Fox News retracted its week-old story at last, deleting it from its website. (You can read an archived version of the piece here.) The network offered the following statement:

On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.

We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.

That was Fox News’ news department—the relatively sane wing of its operation—trying to salvage a shard of credibility after multiple reports Monday that its own staff were “embarrassed” and “disgusted” by Hannity’s crusade. (At least one other conservative outlet, the Daily Caller, also appeared to have taken down its original Rich story on Tuesday.)

But the statement made no mention of Hannity, who as a prominent opinion personality appears to enjoy broad leeway to spread misinformation. It also did not mention Newt Gingrich, who used a guest appearance on Fox and Friends this past weekend to push the Rich conspiracy. Indeed, Hannity continued on Tuesday to promote the story, urging his Twitter followers to read a statement from self-proclaimed “internet freedom fighter” Kim Dotcom, in which he claims to “know that Seth Rich was involved in the DNC leak.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, Hannity ranted on his radio show that he was right to keep pursuing the story. “I retracted nothing,” he said.

Why is Hannity—probably Donald Trump’s greatest ally and champion in the media—so wedded to the story? For one thing, it plays into his longtime obsession with Hillary Clinton, whose alleged sundry misdeeds have continued to dominate his show alongside his full-throated defenses of virtually every move by the president. (The idea that Clinton and/or her campaign and/or its liberal allies had someone murdered during the campaign—an FBI agent, in some tellings—has long been a staple of right-wing “fake news” and conspiracy lore.) When Hannity doesn’t want to talk about negative Trump news, pivoting to Clinton is his go-to move.

But as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out Monday, a Hannity tweet hinted at another motive. “If Seth was wiki source,” Hannity suggested, that means there was “no Trump Russia collusion”—an acknowledgement of the intelligence community’s belief that Russian hackers broke into the DNC and fed documents to WikiLeaks.

Hannity is famous for his bluster, his intense partisanship, and his willingness to bend the truth to his political agenda. The Trump presidency, which he has supported relentlessly, has pushed him to new levels of mendacity and shamelessness, even as it has cemented his prominence and relevance. Hannity was among the first to score an exclusive sit-down with the president, and he corresponds with Trump regularly as a “friend,” reportedly even advising him on strategy and messaging.

Yet his loyalty to the president is beginning to take a toll. As viewers have flocked to CNN and MSNBC for the latest on Trump’s scandals, Hannity has done his damnedest to ignore them, casting about desperately for other topics to cover. The night Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Hannity’s show focused almost exclusively on the implications for Hillary Clinton, whom he suggested might finally face prosecution for her email scandal.

Increasingly, viewers have responded by changing the channel: Hannity’s show, which once ruled the 10 p.m. time slot in cable news, has been bested in recent weeks several times by that of MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.

In Rich, Hannity seemed to have found at last an alternate-reality drama that could compel viewers while at the same time distracting from Trump’s struggles. No wonder he’s loath to let it go.

This brand of unhinged conspiracy theorizing was once the province of obscure internet forums and widely shunned wingnuts such as InfoWars’ Alex Jones. But as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan explains, the election of Trump—himself a legendary peddler of conspiracies—has pulled it into the public discourse. On Monday, the same InfoWars that painted Sandy Hook as a hoax and 9/11 as an inside job was granted a temporary credential for White House press briefings. We shouldn’t be too surprised, then, that the rhetoric of major conservative figures such as Hannity and Gingrich is starting to sound more like that of Trump or Jones. Sullivan’s chilling conclusion:

The growing absence of truth should worry every American citizen.

“If everybody always lies to you … nobody believes anything any longer,” said Hannah Arendt, the German American political theorist. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

In retracting its online news story, Fox News is grasping for a fig leaf. We shouldn’t let it obscure the truth of what the network has allowed itself to become.