U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Yahoo News investigative reporter subpoenaed for documents in defamation suit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
April 23, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
April 23, 2020

In the early hours of July 10, 2016, Seth Rich, a 27-year-old staffer with the Democratic National Committee, was fatally shot while walking to his home in Washington, D.C. His death, while unsolved, is believed to be the result of a robbery gone wrong. It quickly, however, became a flash point for conspiracy theories: that Rich had been behind a DNC email dump to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, and that he’d effectively been assassinated because of it. None of the claims have ever been substantiated.

On March 26, 2018, Rich’s brother, Aaron, filed a defamation suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against a slew of defendants — Texas businessman and then-frequent Fox News guest Ed Butowsky, the Washington Times, America First Media Group and its founder, Matt Couch — who he’d alleged had shown a “reckless disregard for the truth” and falsely linked both himself and his brother to the email leak.

During the course of three years of litigation, attorneys for both sides collectively subpoenaed nearly a dozen news outlets and members of the press. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents all subpoena requests individually; Find a complete overview of the known subpoenas for this case in the blog post, “Nearly a dozen journalists, outlets and third parties subpoenaed in defamation suit.”

In January 2021, both Couch and Butowsky publicly apologized and retracted prior claims made about the Rich brothers, though Butowsky deleted his statement of contrition almost immediately, according to Law & Crime. Couch and Rich reached a settlement agreement on Jan. 19; Butowsky and Rich reached an agreement on March 22. The lawsuit was terminated officially when District Judge Richard Leon granted Rich’s motions to dismiss the charges against the defendants on March 29. The details of the settlement agreements were not made public.

Michael Isikoff | Yahoo News investigative reporter

Isikoff hosted a six-episode podcast on the case titled “Conspiracyland,” which explored the motivations and methods used to propel the conspiracy theories surrounding Seth Rich’s death.

  • Aug. 18, 2019: Couch lists Isikoff in his initial disclosure statement as someone who is likely to have discoverable information, alleging he “has knowledge about the podcasts he has produced relating to, among other things, Aaron Rich, Matt Couch, the alleged DNC hacking and investigations and news reports relating to the foregoing.”
  • April 23, 2020: District Judge Richard Leon notes in his ruling that the defendants had served Isikoff with a subpoena, but that the journalist had not produced any documents in response. Leon grants Butowsky and Couch permission to litigate the subpoena as necessary.

Status of Subpoena

  • Isikoff told the Tracker via email that he had no knowledge of the subpoena and that he suspects it was never served. Because the defendants did not pursue the subpoena further following Leon’s ruling, and because the case has been closed, the Tracker is listing the status of the subpoena as “dropped.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].