POSTED BY MARTIN KICH
On January 18, the New York Times published a piece by Scott Shane titled “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece.”
The piece might have been given the title of this post or “Anatomy of a Piece of Complete Fiction”–with an ironic tip of the hat to the novelist Robert Traver (the pseudonym of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker) and film director Otto Preminger.
What is remarkable about the story that Shane reports is that it involves no one directly associated with the Trump campaign or administration, but it showcases the very troubling implications of the increasing promulgation of and acceptance of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
Moreover, it demonstrates how the creation—literally–of such “facts” and “news” can be a way to establish political credentials—and that, at least in the current environment, not even the national exposure of this dubious sort of self-promotion may be professionally damaging in any sort of lasting way.
Here are some highlights from Shane’s article:
It was early fall, and Donald J. Trump, behind in the polls, seemed to be preparing a rationale in case a winner like him somehow managed to lose. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” the Republican nominee told a riled-up crowd in Columbus, Ohio. He was hearing “more and more” about evidence of rigging, he added, leaving the details to his supporters’ imagination.
A few weeks later, Cameron Harris, a new college graduate with a fervent interest in Maryland Republican politics and a need for cash, sat down at the kitchen table in his apartment to fill in the details Mr. Trump had left out. In a dubious art just coming into its prime, this bogus story would be his masterpiece.
Mr. Harris started by crafting the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” It made sense, he figured, to locate this shocking discovery in the very city and state where Mr. Trump had highlighted his “rigged” meme.
“I had a theory when I sat down to write it,” recalled Mr. Harris, a 23-year-old former college quarterback and fraternity leader. “Given the severe distrust of the media among Trump supporters, anything that parroted Trump’s talking points people would click. Trump was saying ‘rigged election, rigged election.’ People were predisposed to believe Hillary Clinton could not win except by cheating.”
At his kitchen table that night in September, Mr. Harris wondered: Who might have found these fraudulent Clinton ballots? So he invented “Randall Prince, a Columbus-area electrical worker.” This Everyman, a “Trump supporter” whose name hinted at a sort of nobility, had entered a little-used back room at the warehouse and stumbled upon stacked boxes of ballots pre-marked for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Harris decided. “No one really goes in this building. It’s mainly used for short-term storage by a commercial plumber,” Prince said.
In case anyone missed the significance of the find, Mr. Harris made it plain: “What he found could allegedly be evidence of a massive operation designed to deliver Clinton the crucial swing state.”
A photograph, he thought, would help erase doubts about his yarn. With a quick Google image search for “ballot boxes,” he landed on a shot of a balding fellow standing behind black plastic boxes that helpfully had “Ballot Box” labels.
It was a photo from the Birmingham Mail, showing a British election 3,700 miles from Columbus—but no matter. In the caption, the balding Briton got a new name: “Mr. Prince, shown here, poses with his find, as election officials investigate.”
A couple of other details seem worth highlighting. Harris had planted a few other “fake news” stories on other sites before creating the website The Christian Times to showcase this one. Until Google stopped placing ads on “fake news” sites, Harris’ site had attracted enough traffic to generate more than $22,000 in ad revenue. In fact, an appraiser told Harris that he could sell the site—the domain name—for $115,000 to $125,000, but Harris decided to see if he could push the price higher and waited too long to sell. The site then ended up being next-to-worthless when Google changed its ad policy.
Harris is now trying to establish a political consulting firm, and whether that enterprise proves successful or not, he has gathered 24,000 names and e-mails of those who wished to join the “Stop-the-Steal Team” and are obviously predisposed to accept his messaging, whether it is true or false.
One further irony. Although I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times, I did not find the story on my own. Rather, I am on the e-mail list of Governor Kasich, and a recent message from him included a link to the story, with the comment that everyone needs to condemn this sort of manipulation of public perception and violation of the public trust.
Governor Kasich may be particularly sensitive to the exposure of this particular fraud because Secretary of State John Husted has long been accused of instituting all sorts of voter-suppression efforts in our state, and when Harris’ story was picked up by other Far Right websites and disseminated across social media, the Franklin County Board of Elections requested an official investigation in order to publicly expose the story as deliberately fraudulent.
I have not been especially fond of many of Governor Kasich’s policies, but once he decided that Donald Trump was not someone whom Republicans should endorse, he has stuck to his position. He did not attend the Republican Convention in Cleveland, and unlike every other one of Trump’s primary opponents—and in especially stark contrast with Ted Cruz who has proven that he has a spine as stiff as an terribly over-cooked noodle–Kasich has never reversed position and endorsed or embraced Trump.
I suspect that Governor Kasich is counting on Trump to implode and is ready to stand over the wreckage and highlight that he has almost singularly avoided any responsibility for the calamity. So, his political instincts could be as much a factor in his position on Trump as his distaste for just about everything that Trump represents. But, in the current environment in which political expediency has seemingly Trumped any real ideological consistency on the Right, an alignment of political savvy and some persistent principles (even if one does not share those principles) is an ever-rarer and even welcome thing.
Shane’s complete article is available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html.