Fox News, Hannity and the meaning of 'collusion'

Amol Rajan
Media editor

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Sean Hannity taped a segment for his Fox show with Sean Spicer in January

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.

Image source, Democratic National Congress
Image caption, Fox News retracted its story linking the death of Seth Rich to the leak of information to WikiLeaks

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.

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Media caption, The cartoons capturing the imagination of Trump's conservative base

Whether funny or not, and whatever the veracity of the allegations, we can already conclude the following.

First, Spicer appears to have been confused or economical with the truth. The first rule of working in communications is - don't lie. Spicer may have had the toughest job of any press officer in history; but he has now admitted to meeting Butowsky and Wheeler on 20 April, when he was informed of the story, so his plea of ignorance on 16 May is demonstrably false.

Second, by any professional or moral standards, the exploitation by Fox News of a 27-year-old's death to seed a now widely-shared conspiracy theory, on the basis of zero evidence, is a disgrace.

Third, we have re-confirmed how modern media works. Fox News is an enabler of alternative news media.

The way broadcasting works is, you need pictures and sound to tell stories. With Fox devoting resources and so much airtime to the theories surrounding the murder of Seth Rich, the likes of Jones's InfoWars had plenty of material to work with.

Playing together

But there is one respect in which I don't share the shock of other journalists at this story - the fact that Spicer was informed of it.

Obviously if he was economical with the truth that is a different matter.

However, it is in the nature of political journalism that government apparatchiks develop close links, and spend time with, friendly journalists and media outlets.

This happens all the time in Britain too, of course. Political journalists will patronise the pubs of Westminster with special advisers and ministers. They develop a certain intimate reciprocity. It's a form of clientism - gossip, tidbits and genuine revelations are shared on the understanding that favourable coverage may be received in return.

And yes, prime ministers have been known to encourage advisers to encourage journalists to take a particular line.

Put like that, it sounds seedy, doesn't it? Of course, many of the greatest political journalists are those who have nothing whatsoever to do with this kind of clientism.

Yet in the normal course of events, it is unsurprising that Trump's press spokesman would have been told of various stories that Fox was cooking up.

After all, as Republican David Frum once put it: "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox."

Perhaps, if he were a man of immense moral standing, Spicer would have said at that 20 April meeting with Butowsky that it's not the business of journalists to spread pernicious falsehoods. Who knows, maybe he did.

Is this collusion, as pundits everywhere are suggesting? As so often, the etymology is instructive.

"Collusion" comes from the Latin for "col", meaning "together" and "ludere", meaning "to play".

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Hannity promoted a conspiracy theory about the death of 27-year old Seth Rich

Republicans and Fox News play and work together all the time.

If you want an example of collusion as in playing together, rather than alight on Spicer being kept informed about various Fox conspiracies, look at the comically sycophantic chat Hannity conducted with Donald Trump Junior about his meeting with a Russian lawyer.

Granted the chance to interrogate the president's son about contacts with foreign individuals seeking to influence the election of the most powerful person in the world, Hannity forfeited the chance to do a proper interrogation, playing the role of the supportive activist instead.

Fox News may boast of the "high degree of editorial scrutiny" they apply, but this conversation - let's not call it an interview - was wholly devoid of journalistic rigour, and designed to get the president's son out of a hole.

That's closer to my understanding of "collusion".

Hannity starts the interview with: "I will ask him every single question I can think of."

On the basis of what followed, and his insult to the memory of Seth Rich, Hannity isn't much of a thinker.

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