Exclusive: The chaos behind the scenes of Fox News’ now-retracted Seth Rich story

(CNN Money) — For more than two months, Fox News has declined to explain the story behind one of its most high-profile journalistic disasters — the publication of an article that aimed to tie slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to Wikileaks. Now CNN has learned the details and is disclosing them for the first time.

Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former detective hired to investigate Rich’s death on behalf of the slain man’s family, sued the network last week, claiming that quotes in the story attributed to him were fabricated, and that the whole effort had been a collaboration with the White House to advance a storyline aimed at discrediting allegations President Trump colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. (The White House has denied being involved with the story.)

But CNN’s reporting into what happened behind the scenes at Fox News shows that Wheeler’s own actions likely played a central role. In the day leading up to the article’s publication, Wheeler went rogue. In doing so, he sent the network’s editorial process into chaos, and as a result the article was rushed to the site without undergoing the kind of editorial scrutiny it should have received.

Related: Lawsuit: Fox News concocted Seth Rich story with oversight from White House

The article was discredited within hours of its publication. But Fox left it up on its website for days, and people continued to mention the conspiracy theory on its air. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Fox contributor, talked about it on “Fox & Friends.” Fox host Sean Hannity, the face of the network’s primetime lineup, hyped it on his radio and television programs despite widespread public condemnation of his coverage. He only stopped after the Rich family sent a letter pleading with him to do so.

By the time Fox did retract the story, seven days after it was published, the damage had been done.

The story’s publication was “almost as bad for us as when we first learned of Seth’s death,” Rich’s father Joel told NPR this week.

This account is based primarily on conversations with four people familiar with the matter — and others who corroborated select parts of the story — who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity. It is also based on information contained in Wheeler’s lawsuit, interviews he has done, text messages between some of the key players that CNN has obtained, and an edited audio recording of Wheeler posted online by an anonymous person seeking to damage his credibility.

A spokesperson for Fox News pointed to a previous statement released by the network that said it had “retained outside counsel on the matter” and would not comment further due to Wheeler’s pending litigation. Malia Zimmerman, the reporter who wrote the FoxNews.com story, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Both Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. Butowsky have admitted, during recorded conversations, that Mr. Wheeler did not make the quotes attributed to him in Ms. Zimmerman’s article,” Jeanne Christensen, a lawyer for Wheeler, said in a statement to CNN. “Fox is plainly now in damage control and attempting to use the press to spin yet another false narrative to divert attention from its collusion with the Trump administration… Hopefully, the press will not take the bait.”

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Zimmerman had been working on the story for 10 months before it was published. But the frenzied saga that led to the publication of the fatally flawed article took place over a period of less than 24 hours.

Ever since Rich was fatally shot in July 2016, unproven theories had been floated in online right-wing circles that posited he was the person who provided Wikileaks a trove of internal DNC emails, theorizing that his death may have been in retribution for the supposed leak. But there had been no real evidence provided to support these claims.

Zimmerman was investigating the case with the help of Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Texas businessman. Butowsky was the person who hired and paid Wheeler on behalf of the Rich family to conduct a separate investigation into Rich’s death.

Wheeler’s lawsuit treated as a fait accompli the idea that Zimmerman’s story was going to be published on May 16. That’s in large part because Butowsky appeared to have been convinced it would be — he even, according to Wheeler’s lawsuit, sent an email to Fox hosts and producers suggesting talking points for discussing Zimmerman’s article.

But a person familiar with the matter told CNN there was no concrete publish date. A reporter or their sources wanting a story to be published on a certain date doesn’t necessarily mean that will actually happen. Once filed, stories at major media outlets typically undergo scrutiny from editors who may request changes or additional reporting. A story of this magnitude would likely have needed approval from the website’s top editor and legal department. If red flags were raised or the editors were uncomfortable with Zimmerman’s sourcing, it’s possible the article could have been delayed for additional reporting or perhaps never published at all — at least, had it not been for what Wheeler did on May 15.

That day, according to text messages Butowsky provided to CNN and Wheeler’s lawsuit, Zimmerman completed a draft of her story and sent it to Wheeler.

After being sent the article, Wheeler did something unusual: He contacted another reporter, from a different outlet, to tip her off to Zimmerman’s story.

Within a few hours, that reporter, Marina Marraco of Washington, D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG, would scoop Zimmerman on the exclusive.

“I was at a restaurant and [Marraco] texts me saying, ‘Can I talk to you.’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ Because I had told her about this breaking news that the Fox News Channel was going to go with the story the next day,” Wheeler said in the audio recording posted online. “And I wanted to see if she had heard about it. And she said she had heard about it, but she wanted to talk to me.”

Wheeler said that he told Marraco she could not go with the story — but that she then showed up near the restaurant where he was having dinner, and at her urging he went outside to talk to her. Video of that conversation would end up on TV not long after.

“So she met me over at the restaurant. And she said, ‘Can we get an interview for on-air tonight?’ And I said, ‘Let me check with Fox News producers.’ So I check with Fox and they say, ‘No, we don’t want her to go with the story,'” Wheeler recounted in the online audio recording. “And I said, ‘Well she tells me she’s only going to do a teaser. She’s not going to talk about the case.’ Because I didn’t even have details about the case. She’s a local reporter so — she meets with me at the restaurant, and well she meets me outside the restaurant for a total of three minutes.”

Wheeler added: “I told her, ‘Marina, you can’t go with this story because this is a Fox News story.’ She said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go with it. It’s just going to be a teaser.’ 10 o’clock at night when the news comes on, this is the top of the news show and it’s an exclusive breaking news. Not a teaser! And I’m like, ‘What?’ And that’s when hell began for me.”

Wheeler said he went to Marraco because he wanted to see if she’d heard anything about the story. But Butowsky told CNN that Wheeler had expressed a romantic interest in her. CNN has not been able to independently confirm this. Marraco and WTTG did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Asked for comment, Wheeler directed CNN to his attorneys, who said it was “not true” and that “in no way was Rod Wheeler ‘romantically interested’ in Ms. Marraco.”

In the aftermath of Fox’s report, Wheeler has claimed that Marraco’s report took him out of context. He said in the online audio recording that Marraco presented a “totally incomplete” version of what he said, and alleged that Marraco edited the interview in a way which made it appear he had direct knowledge Rich emailed Wikileaks, when, he said, he’d attributed that information to a federal law enforcement source Zimmerman had told him about.

Moreover, Wheeler said, he didn’t even know the camera was rolling during his conversation with Marraco.

Despite the claims he’s made about her conduct, Wheeler did not name Marraco or WTTG as defendants in his lawsuit. Christensen, Wheeler’s attorney, told CNN she wouldn’t “compare an affiliate reporter doing a clip” to Fox News running a story at the national level, but she said Wheeler’s legal team reserved the right to expand the list of entities or individuals named in the lawsuit.

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Conservative-leaning media pounced immediately on the WTTG story. Outlets like the Drudge Report and Breitbart splashed it across their pages as the top story.

Watching this happen, Zimmerman was left frustrated. In a series of text messages provided to CNN by Butowsky, she chastised Wheeler for spoiling her story — which she referred to as “career making” in one message.

“It’s really upsetting and New York won’t be happy,” she wrote Wheeler, referring to Fox News headquarters.

“I feel awful that she pulled together the story,” Wheeler wrote back in one text message, adding, “I wish I never talked to her.”

“Yes me too,” Zimmerman replied. “It’s everywhere all over Facebook and senators are sending to me. She really used you.”

Attorneys for Wheeler declined to confirm that these text messages were authentic, but did not dispute their authenticity either.

The situation deteriorated further when Fox News’ overnight team, seemingly unaware the network had its own original reporting on the story, aggregated WTTG’s report, linking out to the local Fox affiliate. “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show, also cited WTTG’s report in its early morning coverage of the story.

By the time Greg Wilson, who was at the time deputy managing editor of FoxNews.com, entered the office on the morning of May 16, the story was everywhere. Even “Fox & Friends,” the network’s morning show, did two segments on the case based largely on WTTG’s report. Wilson rushed to prepare Fox News’ own article — which included quotes attributed to Wheeler — for publication and set it live on the website. Zimmerman’s story soon replaced the previous text on the Fox News website and was featured on the homepage as the top story.

Related: Story on DNC staffer’s murder dominated conservative media — hours later it fell apart

“My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” the Fox News article quoted Wheeler as saying.

The whole story came crashing down later that day when Wheeler told CNN in an interview that in fact he had no evidence to suggest Rich had contacted Wikileaks before his death. Wheeler instead said that he had only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through Zimmerman. Later, in his lawsuit, Wheeler would allege that Zimmerman had fabricated two of the quotes attributed to him in the story.

It’s not clear exactly what kind of vetting, if any, the article went through during the rush to publish it and stake Fox News’ claim to the story. A person familiar with the situation told CNN that at least two steps in the usual vetting for an article like this — review by Refet Kaplan, managing director of FoxNews.com, and by the network’s legal team — did not happen. Neither Wilson nor Kaplan provided any comment to CNN.

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Fox News ultimately retracted the story and deleted it from its website the following week.   

“On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich,” a statement Fox posted when it retracted the story said. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.

“We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”

Almost three months later, Fox News says the network’s probe of the story is still ongoing. It has yet to announce any disciplinary action against any of the individuals involved — or any conclusion that there was no wrongdoing. It has not said what, if any, changes have been made to the network and website’s editorial processes to ensure that something like this does not happen again.

Related: Confusion, anger inside Fox News over lack of answers in network’s Seth Rich probe

Importantly, it has not even said why the article was retracted. In a statement after Wheeler filed his lawsuit, Jay Wallace, Fox News’ president of news, said the network had “no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.” That raises a question: If Fox maintains that Wheeler was not misquoted, what was wrong with the story? Was there an issue with a second source Zimmerman claimed to have, someone she identified as a federal investigator?

In the meantime, last month Wilson received a promotion. He is now managing editor of FoxNews.com. And Zimmerman has continued to report for Fox News.

A person with knowledge of the situation told CNN last week that employees have been left puzzled as to why no one has been held accountable for one of Fox News’ most high-profile mistakes.

“No one knows,” the person said. “This is like a huge question mark internally. This is a giant mystery.”

The people responsible may never be held accountable — at the very least, it may be a very long time before any action is taken. A Fox News executive told CNN that it was unlikely any disciplinary action would occur now that a lawsuit has been filed. Doing so, the executive explained, could hurt the network in its litigation with Wheeler.