Murder in DC, millionaires and fabricated news stories; on paper it sounds like a great thriller script.
Unfortunately, this scenario may not be far from reality; last Tuesday, former detective and paid Fox News commentator Rod Wheeler filed a lawsuit against the network regarding a story Fox published, then later retracted, in May about the murder of Seth Rich. The story implied Rich, a staffer for the Democratic National Committee who lived in Washington, DC, was murdered in July 2016 as a reprisal for supposedly passing DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Wheeler’s allegations against Fox and the White House may or may not be true, but his suit isn’t likely to do the news media any favors, at least where public perception is concerned.
First though, what’s the actual case in question?
The suit, first reported by NPR, claims Fox deliberately misquoted Wheeler in its story to paint Rich as a leaker so public perception would shift away from the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia.
Wheeler was hired by Ed Butowsky, a wealthy investor and a supporter of President Trump, to investigate Rich’s murder. The suit says Butowsky was directly involved in the fabrication as part of a scheme to downplay the idea Russia hacked the DNC during last year’s election, and alleges the White House knew about the story and agreed it should be published.
The story itself, which ran on Fox News and Washington’s Fox 5, was quickly debunked by other reporters. Washington police slammed the report as well, and investigators believe Rich’s murder was nothing beyond a robbery tragically gone awry.
Whether or not the White House was actually involved won’t change the current public opinions around journalistic integrity, nor will the validity of Wheeler’s suit really matter in terms of how the American public views mass media.
Americans’ trust in the mass media is at a historic low, the result of a steady decline over the last several years.
A Gallup poll conducted in 2016 found only 32 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the mass media.This is but a small taste of the larger distrust toward American institutions currently trending.
The best case scenario here is that the lawsuit is wrong and Fox published a story with false quotes all on their own. It still wouldn’t be great, but not nearly as damning as what’s described in the suit.
The worst case is that it’s all true; Wheeler’s allegations are spot on, meaning one of the country’s largest media organizations deliberately colluded with a political party to create a false narrative designed to sway public opinion.
Either way, the whole thing is a blow to those in the press who actually try to report the news truthfully.
If Wheeler’s allegations against Fox had played out on the other side of the aisle, say if MSNBC was accused putting out fake news to help a Democratic president, the results would still be the same. Americans, wrongfully or not, would reinforce their belief journalists are in cahoots with the political and corporate elite instead of looking out for the public interest.
Wheeler and his lawsuit may fade into the background of next week’s news cycle, or they may not. Either way, those journalists truly dedicated to the public interest face an even tougher challenge in delivering honest political news to a public whose trust is rapidly fading.
Either way, the damage is already done.