Three days ago, Fox News retracted an explosive story: The FBI was probing whether murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had sent thousands of emails to WikiLeaks before his mysterious death. Everyone, from the U.S. intelligence community to cybersecurity pros, says the claim is nonsense: The nearly universal consensus is that Russian hackers took the DNC emails that ended up in Julian Assange's hands in an attempt to sway the U.S. presidential election.
Rich's parents penned a heartfelt Washington Post op-ed pleading with conservative media to stop spreading conspiracy theories about their son — a column that has helped spark a mass advertising exodus from Sean Hannity, who has stubbornly refused to back down from the claims.
But Hannity isn't the only media force still pushing the almost certainly bogus Seth Rich-WikiLeaks claims. South Florida's Roger Stone continues to give the conspiracy theories heavy play through his show on InfoWars, his social media accounts, and on his own site, the Stone Zone. Doesn't he feel any need to back down given the rumors' widespread debunking and the Rich family's requests to stop?
"Their right to privacy is important, but not as important as the public's right to the truth," Stone says in a text message to New Times. "Frankly, at this point, the parents should be charged with obstruction."
It might be tempting to write off Stone, who has made a career of peddling conspiracy theories such as alleged Clinton-tied murders and Lyndon Johnson's supposed role in killing JFK. But in Trump's America, Roger Stone is mainstream media. InfoWars is officially credentialed at the White House, and its founder, Alex Jones, has a direct line to the president. Stone is selling thousands of books and starring in Netflix documentaries. He's no longer an outsider.
So there's a real impact when he turns a story like Rich's murder into red-meat fodder for his hundreds of thousands of adherents. Take it from Rich's own family:
Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy. It just won’t stop. The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder, and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.
Here are the facts: Dozens of U.S. intelligence officials have now testified — under oath — that they're virtually certain Russian-tied hackers broke into the DNC last year and then sent emails to WikiLeaks. They almost certainly did so to help aid Trump's campaign and to hurt Hillary Clinton.
Rich was fatally shot last July amid a rise in street robberies in his neighborhood in D.C. There are some weird facts, especially that nothing was taken from his body. But there are signs of a heavy struggle, and police believe the most likely scenario is that the would-be robbers panicked and fled after shooting Rich during a fight.
But Stone says neither the police nor the intelligence community can be trusted.
"Nothing the intel community says can be relied on given their track record of lies," he says. He adds that "Fox is wrong" to have retracted its story.
To bolster his claims, Stone asks difficult-to-answer questions: "Why would Julian Assange offer a $25,000 reward for info that leads to the capture of Rich's murderer if Rich is not a source?"
(Well, one possibility — as many in the intel community have claimed — is that Assange is working directly with the Russians and that the Rich case is a perfect vehicle for muddying the waters on whether Moscow directed the hacking attack.)
Stone claims to have interviewed an anonymous emergency-room doctor who claimed Rich's gunshot wounds weren't fatal. The doctor also lambastes D.C. police for allegedly ignoring key witnesses and insists there's "more than enough evidence to suggest the murder was politically motivated."
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The truth behind Stone's adherence to the Rich story might be much simpler, though: Stone is a proud practitioner of Richard Nixon's brand of "ratfucking" political ops and has a tattoo of Nixon on his back. The Rich case offers the perfect mix of uncertainty and partisan opportunity.
As the Wall Street Journal reports on new alleged ties between Stone and Russian-linked hacker Guccifer 2.0, Stone can use the Rich story as alleged evidence that the "mainstream press" is missing the real story.
Unlike other Stone-fueled conspiracies, though, his insistence on pushing the Seth Rich case has a real impact on a grieving family. Let's give the last word to Rich's parents:
"We are asking you to please consider our feelings and words," they write. "There are people who are using our beloved Seth’s memory and legacy for their own political goals, and they are using your outrage to perpetuate our nightmare. We ask those purveying falsehoods to give us peace, and to give law enforcement the time and space to do the investigation they need to solve our son’s murder."