Like one of those Japanese World War II soldiers hiding in the Filipino jungle for years after the emperor’s surrender, Sean Hannity has doggedly kept waving the Fox News banner as the nation’s premium mass outlet for demented right-wing conspiracy—even as the walls are closing in on his jumpy and suggestible studio set. For the past week, Hannity has been assiduously testing the limits of Fox’s notoriously high tolerance for circulating untruth in the name of ideological fealty via his fixation on last summer’s murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and Rich’s alleged status as a potential leaker of DNC cybercorrespondence to WikiLeaks.
This story is, not to put too fine a point on things, unadulterated horseshit. The big break in the Rich case that Hannity’s been touting is a claim by Rod Wheeler, a regular Fox contributor and reputed gumshoe for the plutocratic right, that definitive evidence had surfaced linking Rich to WikiLeaks—together with the assertion, again without a shred of evidence, that the FBI was also looking into a Rich-WikiLeaks connection. No such smoking server exists, and an investigation of Rich’s computer early in the official murder investigation revealed nothing remotely compromising in the staffer’s communications trail. Wheeler was forced to walk back his lie after Rich’s family members hit him with a cease-and-desist order. Rich’s killing, D.C. police have said, was the result of a botched late-night robbery attempt. Any remotely sensitive onlooker would treat the tragedy of his death, barring any additional, duly confirmed official break in the case, with a chastened, respectful silence.
However, proud non-journalist Sean Hannity was undeterred. He continued hammering away at the fantasy of Rich’s involvement with WikiLeaks in a number of primetime segments, and won over fellow ghoulish attention whore Newt Gingrich, who went on Fox & Friends Sunday morning to join in the soulless festivities. In a burst of righteously unhinged tweets, he’s demanded congressional investigation of the Rich non-story, and derided defenders of Rich’s grieving family as partisan liberal hacks. For good measure, he offered a helpful dots-connecting defense of his ghoulish and exploitative obsession with the case: “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
You don’t say. Hannity’s antics eventually proved so demoralizing even to Fox News’ habitually truth-challenged production team that some were openly grumbling that Hannity was embarrassing the network. Meanwhile, Fox News retracted its own report, scrubbing it from its website on Tuesday. And in a classic bad-faith evasive maneuver worthy of his great mentor Trump, Hannity announced soon thereafter that he’d be refraining “for now” from speculation about Rich, out of—get this—respect for the wishes of the victim’s family.
In a burst of righteously unhinged tweets, Hannity has demanded congressional investigation of the Rich non-story.
But of course in today’s deranged news ecosystem, there’s no such thing as an unqualified victory for the truth—and the larger point of Hannity’s ravings has been to keep his audience’s neurons ablaze with fantasies of death-dealing cabals atop the great liberal power structure. With even erstwhile respectable face-of-the-network Megyn Kelly (since departed for NBC) having built her own Fox following by enthusiastically flogging paranoid and racist frothing points in the same vein—to say nothing of Bill O’Reilly’s formidable body of work—there are zero grounds for hoping that Hannity’s exploits will represent any sort of teachable moment for the network. Partisan-stoked mass dementia is nothing less than its business model.
Which is not to say that the once-all-powerful network, which now clocks regular third-place finishes in the cable-ratings wars, is in the pink these days. Fox’s establishment-conservative brain trust was largely outflanked by the Trump insurrection throughout the last campaign year—and network chieftain Roger Ailes’s sensational fall from grace, which eerily presaged that of spittle-flecked prime-time culture warrior O’Reilly, has left the network flailing for anything resembling its former assured footing in the great cable news scrum. When Ailes abruptly shuffled off his tumescent mortal coil last week, it seemed like just the latest in a series of culture-shifting death knells for the hardcore Fox faithful.
Viewed in this light, Hannity’s Rich faceplant has been less an abject news failure than a movement clarion call—in the same way that Breitbart News’ eager (and amply documented) pattern of Trump campaign collusion proved to be an audience-building feature rather than a reporting-discrediting bug. That’s why Hannity’s decision to go all in with shady New Zealand hacker Kim Dotcom’s unfounded claim that he’d at last uncovered definitive proof of the Rich-WikiLeaks nexus hasn’t provoked anything close to an in-house Fox review of whether Hannity was in violation of elementary standards and practices—even after it became apparent that Dotcom was clearly planning to fabricate his alleged cache of evidence via a bid to duplicate Rich’s Gmail account. Vicious ideological panic always steamrolls the canons of mere reporting in the great floating con of Fox scaremongering.
But to begin grasping the real-world consequences of the cavalier treatment of reportable fact in the right-wing press, we do well to scrutinize another recent tragic killing in the D.C. metro area. Over the weekend, white University of Maryland student Sean Urbanski allegedly stabbed, without any provocation, Richard Collins III, an African American ROTC student from nearby Bowie State University. Urbanski’s online media habits show a pronounced attraction to the sort of aggrieved white nationalist resentments that Fox executives have heedlessly stoked over the network’s quarter-century run. He was a member of a (since-deleted) Facebook group called Alt-Reich: Nation, and enthusiastically upvoted and commented on a ghastly assortment of race-hating memes on other sites.
Prosecutors are weighing whether Urbanski’s cyberprofile merits federal hate-crimes charges against the accused killer. But beyond the sensitive particulars of the judgment involved in such determinations, we all need to recognize the extent to which Fox News has deliberately created a media climate in which such hateful, violence-stoking content has become everyday mainstream fare. Not surprisingly, the network has followed the same basic playbook as a workplace. Within the past month alone, nine African American former Fox employees have sued the network for alleged racial harassment, while Bob Beckel, cohost of The Five was fired for allegedly making a racist remark to a black Fox worker. Sean Hannity, meanwhile, has taken to desperately retweeting any random Rich-based online conspiracy theory he encounters, while whining, in classic O’Reilly fashion, that Media Matters and other sinister purveyors of “Liberal Fascism” are out to get him fired over his disgraceful, desperate efforts to tout the Rich conspiracy theory. But that’s the thing about those Japanese soldiers in the Filipino jungle: They were fighting on the fascist side.