The National Report has released another highly disturbing story out of Louisiana where Paul Horner, 15, allegedly was given 25 years to life for “swatting” — calling in a face police report on an online gaming opponent. The problem is that the story is entirely untrue. There is nothing funny of course about the article like an Onion publication. National Report, which we have previously discussed, is a fake new site in which grown adults do nothing but try to trick blogs and news sites into republishing false stories. That is it. Just a juvenile “gotcha” site that is the equivalent to journalistic graffiti. Now, once again, here is my question: why do advertisers support this site and why hasn’t someone sued these people? The latest fake story shows the picture of a person crying in a courtroom surrounding by officers. The editors list the photo as an Associated Press photo and the website appears to have removed its prior disclaimer that the stories are false.
The story recounts how Horner broke down in tears after the judge sentenced him to twenty-five years to life in federal prison in the first swatting prosecution. The article goes into depth about the facts and allegations, including the gamer tags of the parties and the decision to charge Horner as an adult. It even quotes Judge Arthur Digsby warning others to leave “your petty pride in the realm of digital fantasy where it is still safe. Because, as young mister Horner has learned, actions in the real world don’t have a reset button. And every parent should make sure their children understand that.”
The picture has the following caption: “15-year-old Paul Horner reacting to a judges ruling which sentenced the young man to 25 years in prison on multiple domestic terrorism charges. (AP Photo/Dennis System, File) / AP ” The question is who is being shown in the picture and whether that person can now sue. This is not a news story protected under common law rules for newsworthy publications. It is not news at all. Moreover, the article implicates (falsely) Associated Press in a false story.
What the editors accomplish in such stories is little more than a journalistic version of tripping someone on the stairs from behind and then laughing.
There was a disclaimer on the site that could be easily missed and equally easily misunderstood:
DISCLAIMER: The National Report is an online portal for “citizen journalists.” The views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report. Advice given is NOT to be construed as professional. If you are in need of professional help, please consult a professional. National Report is not intended for children under the age of 18.
However, I could not find that disclaimer this time.
The website lists editors like Allen Montgomery. In one report, National Report Publisher Allen Montgomery is quoted in saying that “We have been targeting Tea Party types recently as they are the most gullible and are willing to spread misinformation across the internet with little/no research.” Now there is a worthy purpose in life: finding ways to spread misinformation on issues that deeply affect people’s lives from free speech to homosexual rights to the environment. Other people are trying to deal with a global attack on free speech, but the people at National Report are trying to re-direct that debate into false alleys and walls.
I was drawn to the story initially for our site, which has long discussed the problem of runaway sentencing laws and abusive prosecutions. Those are serious questions that some of us try hard to raise in the hope of reform or at least greater awareness in the public. We are hindered by the work of outfits like National Report. While people try to make serious contributions to this world, the juveniles at these sites simply try to trick people and misdirect news. The stories tend to work to the advantage of those who engage in such abuses when people waste time and effort on a false story (which is then proclaimed as merely made up). The disclosure of the hoax makes it more difficult to get people to rally or respond to real abuses. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why adults want to spend their time trying to victimize people who feel strongly about public issues and act on those feelings. While most people have disconnected from public debate, the National Report staff targets those who want to actively debate the issues and raise awareness of threats. It is like putting beacons on a shore to try to get ships to crash or spreading a rumor at a high school that a classmate was killed in a car accident. It is purely malicious and craven conduct. However, the people at National Report were able to find others who enjoy this type of malevolent fun.
The most mystifying aspects of this work however is the absence of any litigation. Here the National Report is showing an actual person and claiming that he is a boy sentenced for terroristic threats. The photo appears real and is linked to a legitimate news organization. Putting aside the man in the picture and Associate Press as potentially injured parties, there is the question of the Internet suppliers. The problem is that the protection for Internet companies under federal law is so extensive that there is now no incentive to act on such false sites despite the damage that they do to legitimate news and political speech on the web. It is ironic. One wayward photo can lead to the banning of a site for copyright violations but an entire site that is committed to tricking people and creating false stories is perfectly alright. The absence of a clear disclaimer should be a material problem for any such site, but National Report appears to be operating with impunity on such issues.
The latest hoax has snared a couple of sites, but hopefully the early disclosure of the hoax on this and other sites will reduce the damage of the National Report and its editors. However, it is very easy to fall victim to these false stories and the editors and writers of the National Report will likely be able to claim additional victims in the next round of hoaxes.
If anyone is suing National Report and its editors, we would be very interested in following such a lawsuit and reporting on its progress.