UPDATE, 9:25 AM: “The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” said Fox News Channel’s Jay Wallace today in response to the defamation and discrimination lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler.
In his complaint in federal court Tuesday, the former Washington D.C. homicide detective and contributor to FNC alleges an orchestrated campaign of “fake news” involving President Donald Trump directly, various hosts and reporters for the cable newser and more in accusations about the still unsolved 2016 killing of DNC staffer Seth Rich.
You can read more about today’s filing below and here is the complete statement from FNC President of News 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.”
Away from the official statement, there are those at the besieged cable newser who are far more blunt about what they see as the real motivation in the explosive action by Wheeler’s lawyer, a frequent thorn in FNC’s paw. “This is another attempt by Doug Wigdor to generate attention and a pay day for another case that he knows will not hold up in court,” said an insider to Deadline.
PREVIOUSLY, 7:51 AM: Donald Trump, “fake news,” a Sean Spicer meeting, a GOP-supporting Dallas millionaire, Russian attempts to influence last year’s election, the multibillion-dollar bid to take over Sky in Europe, UK regulators and the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich are all in the mix in a defamation and discrimination lawsuit filed today against Fox News Channel and 21st Century Fox by Rod Wheeler, a former Washington D.C. homicide detective and contributor to the cable newser.
The wide-ranging complaint filed today in federal court (read it here) claims that Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and Texas investor and Trump supporter Edward Butowsky invented a May 16 online story in which Wheeler is quoted about Rich’s killing being linked to the hacked release of Democratic National Committee emails and their publication on Wikileaks.
“Very shortly after the article was published, Mr. Wheeler called Butowsky and demanded an explanation for the false statements about him in Zimmerman’s article,” says the filing by Wheeler’s lawyer Douglas Wigdor that seeks damages and a jury trial (read it here). “Butowsky stated that the quotes were included because that is the way the President wanted the article, referring to President Donald Trump.”
“[A] few days later, Butowsky wrote to Zimmerman, ‘I didn’t tell you yet but the federal government is involved at this moment, behind the scenes, and believe your story,’” the 33-page complaint adds of the report that included remarks attributed to Wheeler as a result of the investigation he had made into the matter.
“To this day Fox has not issued any statement admitting that the quotes attributed to Mr. Wheeler were not made by him, nor has Fox apologized to Mr. Wheeler,” the complaint states in one of its less incendiary passages. “Shockingly, it is clear that simultaneous with such baseless claims of nonpartisanship, Fox was contriving with Butowsky and members of the Trump Administration to publish and disseminate fake news to affect politics in America.”
Starting off with a bang, the complaint actually begins with a May 14 text from Butowsky to Wheeler that alleges the deep connection between Trump and FNC. “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” it says. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
The filing also details an email Butowsky appears to have sent to the hosts of Trump’s fave morning show Fox & Friends. The email from Butowsky told Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade to contact him directly if they have any questions about Zimmerman’s story hours before it was published. “I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility,” the May 15 emails says. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.”
After getting wide play across various media, appearances by Wheeler — who has been on and off FNC since 2005 — and a lot of attention, especially from Sean Hannity, the Zimmerman piece on the summer 2016 killing of 27-year-old Rich was retracted a week after it was posted by the cable newser. The Rich family had been very public in its wish to see the matter not used for political purposes.
Neither FNC nor the parent 21st Century Fox, both run by Rupert Murdoch, responded to a request for comment on the Wheeler lawsuit. The White House also did not get back to Deadline when asked about the matter and the accusations, one of which includes a meeting with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In the complaint, Spicer asks both Wheeler and Butowsky “to be kept abreast of developments.”
As FNC faces numerous suits for sexual harassment and discrimination at the outlet, Wheeler’s attorney spotlights what clearly he thinks is a larger corporate machination at play.
“According to the complaint, at the same time that 21st Century Fox’s General Counsel, Gerson Zweifach, was meeting with the UK regulators in an attempt to convince them that Fox had in place procedures to ensure compliance with broadcasting standards to purchase Sky, 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,” says NYC-based Wigdor.
Representing others involved in discrimination suits against FNC and Fox entities, Wigdor met with UK regulator Ofcom in May about the $14.4 billion bid for the pay-TV giant. Late last month, the UK government hit the pause button on the potential takeover as it considered a wider probe – surely to the frustrations of Team Murdoch, who once saw such a bid come crashing down several years ago because of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.