MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge pored over reporting on the Seth Rich murder investigation for six hours Wednesday to dissect defamation claims against Fox News.
Though 27-year-old Rich was killed in July 2016, Fox News published the article in question on May 15, 2017. Six days earlier, President Donald Trump had fired James Comey from the FBI, and former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed one day later as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Retired detective Rod Wheeler was the only named source for the article, but the former Fox contributor fired back in an Aug. 1 federal complaint that the network intentionally misquoted him to help Trump “create fake news” that would distract from the Russia investigation.
Fox did retract its article one week after publication, citing a failure to employ “the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” but has fought to dismiss Wheeler’s suit.
Arguing for the network in court Wednesday, Williams & Connolly attorney Kevin Baine noted that Wheeler made several media appearances after the article ran where he initially affirmed the published quotes, and even “juiced up” the claims.
“If Mr. Wheeler is out there saying these things on TV, then how can he say he’s being defamed in print?” Baine asked.
The point was not lost on U.S. District Judge George Daniels who mentioned later in the hearing the claim that Wheeler “buttressed” the contested quotations.
A onetime staffer for the Democratic National Committee, Rich was a block from his apartment in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood on July 12, 2016, when he was shot twice in the back.
Though police suggest that Rich may have been the victim of an attempted robbery, the conspiracy theory posits that Rich was connected to the dissemination of DNC emails to WikiLeaks, and killed because of it. WikiLeaks offered a reward for information about Rich’s death, but it has never confirmed that Rich was a source.
Fox’s now-retracted article on the investigation meanwhile reported that the FBI took custody of a laptop belonging to Rich that contained evidence of a WikiLeaks connection.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Wheeler’s attorney Michael Willemin called the theories around Rich’s murder “one of the most politically charged conspiracy theories of the last few years.”
For more than an hour, Judge Daniels pressed the Wigdor LLP attorney to identify the parts of the Fox News article that allegedly defamed Wheeler.
Willemin took issue with verbiage from one contested quote: "My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”
Rather than the word “show,” Willemin said there may have been no defamation claim if Fox had reported that that Wheeler’s investigation “supports” or “established.”
Fox’s attorney Baine argued meanwhile: “There is no question Mr. Wheeler made these statements.”
Judge Daniels did not indicate when he will rule on the motion to dismiss.
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