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The Slow Death Of A WND Conspiracy Theory

As its insistence that Seth Rich was murdered because he leaked Democratic emails to WikiLeaks either collapses or gets even more ludicrous, WorldNetDaily slowly retreats to the sidelines -- but refuses to admit that it was wrong.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 8/4/2018

Seth Rich

WorldNetDaily spent much of 2016 and 2017 cynically embracing the conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a staffer for the for the Democratic National Committee who was killed in an apparent botched robbery attempt, died because he had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. It had to embrace the likes of fugitive from justice Kim Dotcom, even more obsessive conspiracy-mongerer Liz Crokin and sleazy opportunist Jack Burkman in order to do so.

WND pretended this story was a thing for two reasons: It passionately loves conspiracy theories, and it even more passionately despises the Clintons, whom it heavily implied were behind Rich's death.

But as the months continued, the key claim behind the conspiracy was apparently shot down and fellow conspiracist Burkman went to a place even WND wouldn't go. Still, WND refused to apologize to anyone -- Rich's family, its readers -- for pursuing such a bogus story.

Let's look at how the conspiracy fell apart -- and how WND refused to acknowledge it.

The cookie starts to crumble

After ConWebWatch published its first report on WND's embrace of Seth Rich conspiracy theories in early July 2017, it was still riding high with them; for instance, a July 27 article by Alicia Powe spun a massive conspiracy theory roping in such disparate elements the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and Imran Awan, the congressional aide who was the subject of a completely different set of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Still, those conspiracies kept blowing up in spectacular ways. An article by NPR's David Folkenflik detailed a lawsuit private investigator Rod Wheeler -- one of WND's key sources for its conspiracy stories, whom Powe falsely insisted has worked for the Rich family -- against the man who actually funded him, Republican donor and Trump supporter Ed Butowsky. In the suit, Wheeler alleged that Butowsky worked with officials in the Trump White House, including President Trump himself, to get a story on the case that prominently featured Wheeler published by Fox News as a distraction from bad news about Trump -- a story that kickstarted the latest round of conspiracy theories from WND and others. But that story was pulled a week later for making false claims, and Wheeler claims it included made-up quotes attributed to him.

This story pretty much blew up the Seth Rich story as nothing but politically motivated and factually challenged conspiracy-mongering with the Trump White House's hands all over it. Needless to say, that's not how WND chose to interpret it. An anonymously written Aug. 1 article served up this spin:

The controversy over the unsolved murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich one year ago reached a new level this week when an investigator looking into the Washington, D.C., homicide sued Fox News over an allegedly “fake news” report.

The move now gives the federal courts a role in sorting out a quagmire of innuendo and supposition.

Rich was murdered July 10, 2016, on a street near his Washington home. Some have speculated that Rich – who worked in the voter analysis division of the DNC – was a source of the leak of Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential race.

In an August 2016 interview, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared to suggest that Rich was one of his sources.

On July 22, just 12 days after Rich’s death and three days before the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks began publishing 44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments from top DNC officials. Some of the emails showed DNC officials conspiring to sabotage Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy to help secure the party nomination for Hillary Clinton

Now, private homicide detective Rod Wheeler, who previously investigated the Rich murder for the family, has filed a lawsuit against Fox News, Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and Ed Butowsky, alleging they created a false narrative and tried to spread false news about the death.

Wheeler also claims President Trump knew of the false statements and tried to spread false news, according to the London Daily Mail.

Talk about burying the lead -- the bombshell claim that Trump himself was involved in pushing the story got relegated to the seventh paragraph. And it's funny that WND portrays the lawsuit as "a quagmire of innuendo and supposition" when that description more aptly applies to the entire narrative WND has been pushing about Rich.

Also note that WND chose to rely on a Daily Mail writeup of the NPR story, not NPR itself (though the Daily Mail, unlike WND, did lead with the claim that Trump pushed the story).

After summarizing the lawsuit for a while, WND filled out its article with a rehash of its conspiracy theories -- including the even more dubious Imran Awan angle -- conveniently ignoring the fact that the political power plays outlined earlier in the article severely damages those conspiracies.

Completely missing from the article, however, was any comment from anyone at WND regarding the accusations. WND's readers deserve to know whether it too was a player in the Fox News-Trump White House negotiations over the story. More importantly, WND needed to explain to its readers the implications the story will have on its reporting. Will it continue to pursue a story that has been thoroughly discredited, or will admit it was deliberately misleading its readers by pushing these conspiracy theories?

Unfortunately, it was the former, given that the article contained a prominent link to WND's floundering GoFundMe campaign to fund its continued pushing of Seth Rich conspiracy theories, which more than a year after its creation has raised less than $5.000.

The first order of business for WND after this development was to deny any implication its conspiracy theories had been discredited. An Aug. 2 article by Powe kicked off by stoking the collapsing conspiracy with an unsubstantiated "bombshell" from "Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh" that "the DNC emails obtained by WikiLeaks stopped pouring in after the mysterious murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich in 2016."

It wasn't until the 15th paragraph of her article that Powe got around to mentioning the Wheeler lawsuit. And it wasn't until the 41st paragraph of her article that Powe mentioned how "numerous public statements made by Wheeler appear to contradict key claims the former homicide detector alleged in the lawsuit he filed."

Shouldn't that be a bombshell article by itself instead of being deeply buried in another article? Or was Powe afraid to play this up, since Wheeler has been such a key source for her in pushing the Rich conspiracies despite his history of making contradictory claims?

Given that the Trump White House has been brought into this via Wheeler's lawsuit, Powe and WND should admit any contact they might have had with Trump administration officials or with Butowsky to push this story. But they won't.

This is dishonest journalism in the extreme. Powe and WND know the jig is up and the story is dead -- collapsed under the weight of the bogus conspiracy theories they've heaped upon it -- but they refuse to honestly admit that to their readers. As far as they're concerned, the conspiracy must continue, and the collapse of the story is part of the conspiracy.

An Aug. 8 article by Powe stayed on the fringe by pushing a demand by politically motivated lawyer Jack Burkman (whom Powe allowed without challenge to claim is leading an "independent, nonpartisan" investigation into Rich's death) for special counsel Robert Mueller to look into Rich's death because of the "confidential, verifiable information" he purports to have (and which Powe doesn't bother pressing Burkman on). Powe referenced Wheeler's lawsuit and lamented that "Family spokesman Brad Bauman and the Rich family declined to respond to WND’s requests for comment on the lawsuit."

Shouldn't Powe be asking her boss about the lawsuit and its implications for WND instead? After all, a key allegation in Wheeler's lawsuit was that Butowsky worked with the Trump White House to get that story out -- an angle WND has heavily downplayed. That treatment, though, seems to beg the question: Did WND also work with the Trump White House to push the story?

Remember, there's an existing relationship between WND and Trump. In 2012, WND editor Joseph Farah and then-reporter Jerome Corsi were advising Trump behind the scenes in pushing Obama birther conspiracy theories. There is no reason not to believe that WND has continued to maintain a relationship with Trump, and that the Trump White House no doubt sees WND as a valuable (and compliant) outlet to promote such fringe conspiracy-mongering, as its eagerness to act like a pro-Trump state media outlet -- to the point that it likens him to a biblical hero -- has demonstrated. Indeed, as a loyal Trump supporter, WND would have the same alleged motivation as Trump and Fox News in pushing the story: as a distraction from stories about alleged collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.

Still, WND has remained conspicuously silent about whether it has contacts within the Trump camp to push the Rich story -- which suggests that it's likely trying to hide something.

A Sept. 25 article by Powe -- who by this time had effectively become to Seth Rich conspiracy theories at WND what Jerome Corsi was to birtherism -- touted how "lobbyist and lawyer Jack Burkman has launched a new nationwide TV campaign pleading for the public’s help" to solve the case.

Somehow, the fact that Burkman's video plea is subtitled in Russian -- proof that Burkman is a right-wing troll instead of a someone genuinely interested in helping out -- escaped Powe's attention.

Powe went on to whine: "Rich’s story has been largely ignored by establishment media. Those who have called attention to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the murder have been branded 'conspiracy theorists,' including Fox News host Sean Hannity." Powe doesn't deny that proponents of conspiracy theories are conspiracy theorists.

Powe followed that with an Oct. 4 article on the exploits of "Texas attorney Ty Clevenger" -- who, according to his blog, appears to be little more than a gadfly Clinton-hater -- in trying to obtain federal records on Rich's death (despite the fact that it is a local crime that the feds wouldn't usually touch).Powe portrays Clevenger as just a concerned citizen and not at all another right-wing troll:

Clevenger said the effort to hide information about the Rich investigation prompted him to cull information from the government about the mysterious murder.

“I don’t really have a strong opinion about exactly what happened to Rich, but it just seemed there was so much of an effort to conceal information – that alone made me suspicious,” he told WND on Wednesday. “I’m a former reporter, a former cop – deputy sheriff in Texas – and currently a lawyer. Any time somebody hides information, that makes me suspicious.

“I understand in an investigative murder there is evidence that, for strategic reasons, you want to keep under wraps,” he continued. “But in this case, there’s just a lot of questions that could be answered – a coroner’s report, basic information. The rigid official narrative, that it was a robbery and that’s that – no further discussion – that’s suspicious.”

It wasn't until later in the article that Powe mentioned Clevenger's Clinton-hate obsession, noting that he has been "aiming to get Clinton and her personal attorneys disbarred for their handling of her official emails during her time as secretary of state." But then, WND wouldn't have much to report if it refused to talk to obsessed haters.

Instead, WND had to go out of its way to find people to harass about Rich. Powe began a Dec. 17 article this way: "Former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile appeared incoherent and agitated when WND approached her at a Tuesday book signing to ask her questions about murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich."

Unmentioned by Powe: That was likely a logical reaction to a writer for a fringe-right-wing website invading a book signing to pester her with conspiracy theories over Rich's death.

Indeed, that's exactly what Powe did, trying to pin Brazile down on arcane details regarding Rich in her book , which Powe framed as "conflicting statements about Rich's murder." She then mocked Brazile -- and demonstrates the malicious intent of her ambush of her -- by whining that Brazile "appeared lost for words and made bizarre and rambling statements."

Powe included Brazile's answer, which doesn't sound rambling at all. Perhaps Powe found it bizarre when Brazile called out soulless conspiracy theorists like herself: "I don’t practice the conspiracy theories that people have used to scar Seth’s memory, to hurt his family. I have been to Omaha. I have been to his synagogue. I have cried because of him. I love that boy."

Of course, Powe and WND only love Seth Rich to the extent that they can cynically exploit his death to further their near-pathological hatred of Hillary Clinton. Powe has never been to Omaha, where Rich is from, nor has she been to his synagogue. Rich is not a person to anyone at WND -- just a tool.

After Powe

By early 2018, Powe was gone, an apparent victim of WND's financial problems. Meanwhile, its Seth Rich obsession dimmed a bit as the conspiracies continued to fall apart.

Surprisingly, WND did an article in March on how Rich's parents were suing Fox News for cynically exploiting their son's death and turning it into a "political football" and promoting conspiracy theories about it. Less surprisingly, WND used the opportunity to rehash some of its favorite Rich conspiracy theories.

The language was tempered a bit, though, perhaps out of lawsuit fears of its own; WND has been reduced to saying that "WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared to suggest that Rich was one of his sources" and that "Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh appeared to have dropped a bombshell in audio" (emphasis added).

So why isn't the Rich family suing WND? Mainly, it seems, because it mostly didn't try to ensnare Rich's parents in the conspiracy theories. The Riches are also suing Ed Butowsky, a right-wing financier who worked with Fox News in getting that story published and also foisted Rod Wheeler upon the Riches as a private investigator. (Plus, there's also the fact that WND is barely existing as it is and doesn't have much money to pay out in damages.)

The threat of being called to account for its irresponsible reporting hasn't quite stopped WND from covering things related to Seth Rich, however. It did an article about a bizarre incident in which Burkman -- whose work in exploiting Rich's death WND has promoted -- was "shot at and run over by the former U.S. Marine he hired to help him get to the bottom of the case." Needless to say, WND didn't frame this as a clash between two conspiratorial losers fighting over a never-proven conspiracy theory, nor did it report, as an actual news outlet did, that police have not verified Burkman's account.

At this rate, WND may just earn that lawsuit after all.

Later that month, an anonymous WND reporter tried to state his or her report about another lawsuit as drily as possible:

The brother of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich is suing the Washington Times and others, claiming the defendants spread false claims about him – including unfounded allegations that he helped his brother leak DNC documents to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election.

Aaron Rich, brother of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. It accuses Texas businessman Ed Butowsky, America First Media, activist and talk-show host Matt Couch and the Washington Times of acting “with reckless disregard for the truth.”

WND even downplayed some of its earlier reporting: "Private investigators have claimed there is evidence Rich was the source WikiLeaks used to obtain thousands of Democratic National Committee emails released on the eve of the party’s presidential nominating convention last July, but they haven’t provided verifiable proof of those claims."

What the article doesn't mention, though, is that WND enthusiastically pushed the very same rumors about Aaron Rich it now calls "unfounded."

For instance, Powe used an August 2017 article to promote the alleged "bombshell claim" by "Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh" that evidence purportedly backing up the idea that Seth Rich leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Powe also reported a claim by Rod Wheeler -- the private investigator right-wing financier Ed Butowsky tried to foist upon Rich's parents and whose claims WND has treated credibly in its exploitation of Rich's death -- that "he suspects Seth’s brother, Aaron Rich, helped the DNC staffer leak the emails. Wheeler alleged the Rich family refused to hire him unless he agreed to ignore Rich’s emails, computers and potential WikiLeaks associations." Powe added that "Wheeler says Aaron blocked him from investigating any connections Seth might have made to WikiLeaks."

That's a big factual omission on WND's part. It's also a sign that WND is learning nothing from its recurring financial crises and is intent on continuing the same factually challenged conspiracy-mongering that led it there.

A Seth Rich story even WND wouldn't promote

An anonymously written July 9 WND article pushed the latest conspiratorial development:

The convoluted case of the murder in Washington, D.C., of Democratic operative Seth Rich has taken another turn, with a lobbyist who has been investigating the case claiming a “credible” witness has been found.

Jack Burkman, a Washington-based lawyer and lobbyist, told the Gateway Pundit blog: “We believe that we have reached the beginning of the end of the Seth Rich murder investigation. After two long hard years of work, we have a witness who is prepared to identify the two killers of Seth Rich.”

Burkman told the blog in an exclusive interview on Sunday that one of the culprits identified by the witness is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the other is an agent for the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Burkman said the witness has conclusive evidence that will bring the killers to justice.

WND didn't mention that the Gateway Pundit article was written by Alicia Powe, WND's former point person on Seth Rich conspiracy theories.

But Burkman's press conference was, to put it mildly, a disaster. As Right Wing Watch reported, the purported witness appeared only via "an off-white speakerphone from years past resting on a table" and was coached through the call by Burkman, but "reporters in the room—even those largely sympathetic to conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder—left unconvinced" of the purported witness' credibility.

Even Powe wasn't convinced. Her follow-up story at Gateway Pundit carried the headline "Activists Sully Second Anniversary of Seth Rich Murder with Batsh*t Crazy Press Conference" (as if people like Powe hadn't already been sullying Rich with all the conspiracy-mongering). the article itself doesn't really back that, instead uncritically repeating what happened at the presser. It's a badly written, badly edited piece that strangely omits Burkman's name as the ringleader of the charade and concludes (typos in original): "If you presume the witness is telling the truth the reasons he would fear for his safety are quite obvious you are dealin with bad feds. Its clear to me a big problem in law intel bureaucracy the government works out of necessity with too many people who have been on the other side of the laws."

Interestingly, WND did no reporting at all on what actually happened at Burkman's presser. Could it be that WND recognized what a fiasco this was and decided not to give it any coverage even though it's still firmly in its conspiratorial wheelhouse?

Perhaps. The shocker here is that WND apparently has standards.

A few days after this disastrous presser, the arrest of 12 Russian intelligence officers apparently put a key conspiracy theory about Rich to bed -- that he leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks -- because the officers were indicted in part on charges of hacking the DNC, Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Rich's purported tie to the leaked DNC emails was something WND heavily promoted. But no WND article has yet to admit that its pet conspiracy theory has been debunked -- and WND apparently no longer wants to talk about it.

An anonymously written Aug. 2 WND article on the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Rich's parents over a false story about Rich published on the Fox News website did some minor rehashing of the case based on earlier WND articles -- that nobody at the bar that was "the last known location where Rich was seen before his murder" had been questioned by police, and that local officials "refused to reveal what hospital admitted and treated Rich before a physician pronounced him dead" and "refused to release Rich’s autopsy report" (darn those medical privacy laws!) -- but was silent on the email leak conspiracy it has spent much of the past year promoting.

Since WND is loath to correct a false claim on its website unless someone threatens to sue, and since Rich is dead and therefore can't be libeled, this is probably the closest we'll get to WND admitting its key Rich conspiracy theory is bogus.

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