Originally published on July 10, 2019, in Washingtonian.
The story of Seth Rich‘s 2016 murder is one of the more bizarre episodes in an era full of bizarre episodes. And now one of Washington’s best-known investigative journalists has a new podcast on the origins of the conspiracy theories surrounding the popular Democratic National Committee staffer’s death.
In a six-part series called Conspiracyland whose first episodes were released Tuesday by Yahoo News, Michael Isikoff looks into how a far-right fantasy that Hillary Clinton was behind Rich’s death caught fire online. “It was always very clear that this had a political purpose,” Isikoff tells Washingtonian. “If you could point the finger at Seth Rich and suggest there was something nefarious and diabolical and planned about his murder in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, that that could somehow deflect from the Russia investigation or diffuse the Russia narrative.”
Rich was shot and killed while walking home after an evening at a Columbia Heights bar three years ago today. DC police determined that he was killed after an attempted robbery gone wrong. But within three days the first whisperings of what became a full-blown conspiracy theory appeared online. In this version, Clinton hired gunmen to assassinate Rich, who was on his way to inform the FBI about the Democratic candidate’s supposed corruption. Fueled by tweets from Roger Stone, posts on far-right websites like WhatDoesItMean.com, and the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail dump, the bogus tale began to gain traction.
Much of the early reporting on the Rich conspiracy—like the early reporting on “Pizzagate,” a bizarre conspiracy theory that a pedophile ring operated out of a Connecticut Avenue eatery—was done by reporters at local outlets including Washington City Paper and DCist. But thanks to Isikoff’s long experience reporting on national-security affairs, he was able to report on the role Russian intelligence agents took in the creation and dissemination of the Rich conspiracy, while taking a wider lens to the influence of conspiracy theories on American politics.
For Isikoff, Rich’s story demonstrates the power and danger of social media. “Here you have a foreign intelligence agency that plants a phony story on an obscure website and then watches it take off and plant a seed of an idea that gets so much traction,” he says.
In fact, most of the attention to the theory came well after the 2016 election. Since 2017, and despite pleas from Rich’s family that he stop, GOP lobbyist and provocateur Jack Burkman has dedicated himself to uncovering the “truth” about Rich’s death, efforts that included paying for a reenactment of how he believes Rich’s final hours unspooled and a press conference where he couldn’t successfully call someone who promised evidence of government involvement in the murder.
In May 2017, an article published on the Fox News website alleged that the FBI discovered that Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks before he died. Fox retracted the story eight days later, but not before Sean Hannity discussed the story on his show. Separately, Fox 5 DC reported Rich had contact with WikiLeaks, a story that quickly fell apart. Fox 5 later “clarified” the nonsense story but still hasn’t retracted it. Rich’s family is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against Fox News. The painful impact of these public figures on the Rich family’s private life is one of Isikoff’s motives for creating the series.
“It’s important to remember the emotional core of this is the Rich family and what this has meant to them and what this has done to them, and to remember that there are real life victims who suffer because of these phony stories,” Isikoff says.
Since Trump’s election, Russian interference in American politics has become a frequent subject of Isikoff’s reporting. With the revelation that Russia’s intelligence agency planted this theory, it is clear that conspiracies like the Rich case don’t happen randomly, Isikoff says.
“All of these actors had a reason to promote this phony story,” he says. “It’s a story of collusion of sorts…not to elect Donald Trump but to protect him and deflect from the investigations into what really happened in the 2016 election.”
For Isikoff, a veteran of the Washington Post and Newsweek who first uncoveredthe Monica Lewinsky scandal and reported extensively on the war on terror, the experience of doing a podcast isn’t new. He also co-hosts Skullduggery, a podcast about the Russia investigation and scandals from the Trump administration. But, this is Isikoff’s first series diving deep into a single issue. He says the episodes to come will reveal details of the Rich case and conspiracy that might shock you.
“I think there’s some really astonishing things that you’re going to find when you listen to the later episodes,” he says.