Reporter says ‘Russian propaganda outlet’ pushed him to cover conspiracy theory at the center of a White House lawsuit
WASHINGTON — Reporter Andrew Feinberg says a Russian state-owned news site he once worked for pressured him to advance a conspiracy theory about the fatal shooting of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
Feinberg, who was the White House correspondent for Sputnik, first made the allegations when he left the Russian outlet in May. However, his story is newly relevant in light of a lawsuit filed this week that accused President Trump and the White House of playing a role in a “fake news” story designed to advance the same conspiracy theory.
Feinberg started at Sputnik in January, just as Trump took office. He was the outlet’s first reporter to work inside the West Wing. In a conversation with Yahoo News on Wednesday, Feinberg alleged that Sputnik wanted him to bring up a news article that’s at the center of the lawsuit in the White House press briefing room.
The story, which was published on the Fox News website on May 16 and retracted a week later, suggested Rich may have played a role in last year’s leak of DNC emails. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the email leak was orchestrated by the Russian government to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. There are multiple investigations into whether Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia.
Feinberg said that during a meeting held on May 26, his superiors asked him bring up the story in the press briefing.
“It was, ‘We want you to ask about Seth Rich and just, you know, ask about the case and if those revelations should put an end to the Russia hacking narrative and the investigation,” said Feinberg.
According to Feinberg, his bosses handed him a termination letter when he declined. He described the situation as “disturbing.”
“It’s really telling that the White House is pushing the same narrative as a state-run Russian propaganda outlet,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg previously discussed his departure from Sputnik with Yahoo News in May, on the day he left his job. He said he didn’t initially have reservations about working for a government-owned site but came to feel they wanted him to falsely “spin” the news.
“I thought as long as I just do what everyone else does … as long as I do the job fairly and accurately, I thought it would be OK,” Feinberg said at the time. “There are lots of state-owned news outlets; Sputnik’s not the only one.”
The lawsuit was filed by a Washington private investigator named Rod Wheeler in a New York federal court on Tuesday. Wheeler’s suit alleges that a Dallas financier and Republican donor named Ed Butowsky worked with Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman to create a false news story linking Rich’s death to the DNC email leak.
Rich was shot in Washington, D.C., last July, shortly after the emails were published by WikiLeaks. Police have said they believe he was killed in a botched robbery, though the murder remains unsolved. There has been no evidence linking Rich to the theft of the emails or their publication.
According to Wheeler’s suit, Butowsky and Zimmerman wanted to advance “a political agenda for the Trump administration.” Trump has vehemently denied that he or anyone in his orbit worked with Russia.
Wheeler’s suit suggested that the Fox News story pinning the leak on Rich was designed to put the allegations of Russian collusion to rest and potentially end the probes. Before the story was published, Wheeler and Butowsky met with Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer at the White House. The lawsuit included alleged quotes from Butowsky suggesting Trump himself had input on drafts of the Fox News story and was eager to see it published.
The Fox News story included quotes attributed to Wheeler that said he believed Rich communicated with WikiLeaks. Wheeler insists those quotes were fabricated, though he made comments similar to those included in the story in a television interview. The Fox News story also included the claim that an anonymous federal investigator confirmed Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks. Rich’s family and D.C. police denounced the article almost immediately.
Fox News retracted the story on May 23. The network released a statement saying the article was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” In the wake of the lawsuit, the network’s president of news Jay Wallace released a statement that said “the accusation that foxnews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous.” Wallace further said the network’s internal investigation into the matter found no evidence that Wheeler was misquoted. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said Trump had “no knowledge of the story and it is completely untrue that there was White House involvement in the story.”
Conspiracies about Rich were widespread online after his death. But prior to its retraction, the Fox News story was the first mainstream news article to bolster the theories.
Based on Feinberg’s story, his bosses at Sputnik asked him to bring up the Fox News article in the briefing three days after the story was retracted. While Feinberg said his editor did not directly bring up the Fox News story he felt the implication was clear since the article was the only alleged new development in the Rich case.
“They didn’t mention the Fox story, but it was clear what they were talking about with ‘revelations,’” Feinberg said.
According to Feinberg, he responded with “a hard no” and was then handed his walking papers.
“It was the same meeting. It was, ‘We want you to do this.’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘We have a termination letter for you,’” Feinberg recounted.
Feinberg said the meeting included his editor, Peter Martinichev, and a man he’d never seen before named Mikhail Safronov, who identified himself as Sputnik’s D.C. bureau chief.
“I never saw him in the office before,” Feinberg said of Safronov.
Feinberg first discussed his departure from Sputnik with Yahoo News on May 26, the day he left the news outlet. At the time, Feinberg identified the Rich story as one of two main fake narratives he was asked to promote during his time at Sputnik. Feinberg said Sputnik also pressed him to ask questions that suggested the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad was not responsible for chemical attacks in that country. There is firm evidence linking Assad to chemical weapons but he has denied responsibility. Assad is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the day he left Sputnik, Feinberg said his editors pressured him to ask about Rich at the briefing throughout his final week on the job.
“This week they were pushing on Seth Rich. They were pushing on Seth Rich and I kept saying no,” Feinberg said in the May conversation.
Sputnik did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The company is operated by Rossiya Segodnya, a news conglomerate that is wholly owned by the Russian government. Rossiya Segodnya was established by an executive order from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013. Sputnik’s website describes the company as being “entirely geared toward foreign audiences” and dedicated to providing “alternative news content.” The U.S. intelligence community labeled Sputnik and Russia’s other foreign media outlets as a key part of Moscow’s propaganda machine in its report on Kremlin interference in the 2016 presidential election. That report alleged Sputnik and other English-language Russian media companies worked in concert with online trolls and bots to advance narratives and conspiracy theories as part of an influence campaign designed to aid Trump.
Update (7/5/17 4:06pm): Beverly Hunt, a spokesperson for Sputnik, contacted Yahoo News on Friday evening, two days after this article was published, to dispute some of Feinberg’s claims.
“Andrew willingly entered into an at-will employment agreement. Sputnik elected not to renew his agreement,” Hunt said. “Andrew’s contract was not renewed due to performance related issues.”
Feinberg responded by claiming he was never given a reason for his dismissal.
“If there were any issues with my performance during my tenure at Sputnik, I never heard a single word from any of my supervisors about them up until the minute I was fired. Even then, I was not given a reason for them letting me go,” Feinberg said.
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