UPDATE: Fox News released the following statement from President of News Jay Wallace: “The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
The statement also addresses claims in the filed complaint that Wheeler faced “discrimination based upon his race,” alleging his white colleagues received more airtime, money, and notoriety.
EARLIER: The heat hasn’t died down over Fox News’ now-retracted report about Seth Rich, an employee of the Democratic National Committee who was killed in Washington, D.C. back in July.
Rod Wheeler, a Fox commentator and private investigator at the center of the original report, filed a complaint in the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York on Tuesday. He claims the network fabricated his quotes and worked with the Trump administration on the unfounded story to spread fake news as a distraction.
In a statement, Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, said, “Fox News was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our Country’s presidential election.” The complaint further claims Fox News contributor Ed Butowsky and journalist Malia Zimmerman “fabricated two quotations and attributed them to Mr. Wheeler.”
“Mr. Wheeler – who was the only named source quoted in the article – did not make these statements,” the document, provided to EW by Wigdor, states. “According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article. Zimmerman, Butowsky, and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.”
The first page of the complaint cites a text message and voicemail allegedly sent to Wheeler from Butowsky, who says President Trump reviewed Fox’s draft of the story before it aired and went to press. Butwosky now tells NPR he was joking.
The Rich family provided a statement (via CNN reporter Oliver Darcy) on the lawsuit. “While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives, and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth,” it reads.
Fox News ran a story in May suggesting Rich was connected to the leak of DNC emails by WikiLeaks. Wheeler initially appeared on Washington Fox affiliate WTTG-TV to discuss the story, but later told CNN he had no evidence to support the claim. “I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” he said at the time.
After much scrutiny and complaints from Rich’s family, Fox retracted the story. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” a statement from the network read in part. Fox personality Sean Hannity stuck to the beat much longer, but he too stepped back “out of respect for the family’s wishes.” He then vowed, “Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available.”
Wheeler is now seeking “a trial by jury on all issues of fact and damages stated herein.”
This article has been updated with a statement from the Rich family.