Donald Trump’s upset victory has made a lot of people wonder if there are any standards left in politics. After all, despite engaging in behavior that, in a sane world, would have ended his campaign several times over, he not only stayed in the race, but won it. Well, the operator of one of the most notorious fake news websites to crop up during the campaign has learned–the hard way–that there are still some bright lines that cannot be crossed in politics. Within hours of being outed, he lost his day job.
Many of you know that in late September and early October, Trump supporters were abuzz with a report from right-leaning Website Christian Times Newspaper alleging that boxes containing “tens of thousands” of premarked ballots for Hillary Clinton were sitting inside a warehouse in Columbus, Ohio–apparently waiting to be shipped out on Election Day. This find came within days of Trump himself announcing in Columbus that he believed the election was rigged.
Within 24 hours of the story going live, county and state officials had investigated the story and concluded it was a complete hoax. But that didn’t matter to the man behind Christian Times Newspaper, Cam Harris. He made some $5,000 from that story, and it was shared over six million times on social media.
The New York Times’ Scott Shane tracked Harris down at his home in Annapolis, Maryland after getting a tip that he was the guy behind the site. In an interview posted on the Old Grey Lady’s Facebook page, Harris openly admitted he was in it for the money. He’d taken a job as an aide to Maryland Republican state delegate David Vogt after graduating from Davidson College this past spring, but he didn’t think his salary was enough to pay for his student loans and living expenses. He decided to launch his venture while rooming with Vogt at his home in Brunswick, though he went to a local Starbucks to work on it on his laptop on his own time.
Harris bought the Christian Times domain for $5 from Expired Domains to test a theory–would people believe anything that supported their views, even if it was complete bollocks? Within a short time of hitting “publish” on his voter fraud story, Harris discovered the answer was a resounding “yes.” He was surprised at “how easily people would believe it.” He realized that “anything that parroted Trump’s talking points” would sell, given how much Trump supporters trusted him over the press. Enough people believed his dreck that by October, Christian Times Newspaper was one of the 20,000 most-visited sites in the world. Snopes even went as far as to create a whole page to debunk his nonsense.
Though Harris is a conservative Republican who backed Trump after initially backing Marco Rubio, he openly admitted that he would have concocted fake news on Hillary’s behalf if the money had been there for it. Shane wasn’t amused.
My impression after 3 interviews with Harris: He doesn't fully grasp how pernicious it is to democracy and public discourse to make stuff up https://t.co/YTEC9QDJHx
— Scott Shane (@ScottShaneNYT) January 18, 2017
As it turned out, neither was Vogt. Within hours of learning about the interview, Vogt called Harris into his office and fired him. Harris apologized for his role in the site, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. Vogt told Harris that apology or not, dishonesty of this sort was unacceptable, “regardless of what side you support.”
As it turned out, it’s the second time that Harris’ deceit has cost him dearly in the wallet. He’d planned to wind down the site after the election, and a Web appraiser had told him in October that it was worth as much as $125,000. However, just days after the election, Google bowed to a massive public outcry and yanked its ads from all fake news sites. In a matter of hours, Harris saw the value of his site drop to mere pennies. Karma is truly lovely, isn’t it?
After the shock of being fired wore off, Harris issued a lengthy statement on his Twitter feed.
Um, Cam? You yourself contributed to that bias by going into the fake news business in the first place. If you had even a fraction of your now-former boss’ integrity, you would have spoken out against fake news, not becoming a fake news merchant yourself. From where I’m sitting, your only regret is that you got caught.
Vogt publicly hoped that Harris could recover from this “bad decision.” However, it’s pretty hard to see how he could get a political job any time soon. If he openly admitted that he was willing to churn out fake news for either side depending on whether the money was there, he’s exactly the kind of person we don’t need working in politics.
There is one bit of good news from this story. If what passes for leadership in the GOP had the same amount of integrity as Vogt, Trump would have deservedly been kicked out of the race as early as the summer of 2015. Vogt deserves to be applauded for taking such a firm stand. We should have taken steps to clean up our political discourse a long time ago, and it’s going to take people on both sides of the aisle who are committed to basic standards of integrity to do it.
(featured image courtesy Gabriella Demczuk, The New York Times)