On Tuesday, The Arizona Republic ran an 1,100-word obituary of a 38-year-old man named Paul Horner. Horner, who died of a suspected drug overdose, was famous for gaming digital advertising networks with widely shared fake news stories to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Some of his false stories were subsequently shared by, among others, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Fox News.
Read through the Republic obit, though, and you’ll meet not just a peddler of fake and destructive stories, but a “pioneer” whose “satire” and “pranks” ranged from “over-the-top jokes to political firebombs.” What a gas! “He had also begun to expand his fake news footprint,” the Republic continued, “paying local writers $50 for stories published on one of his many websites.” A job creator!
The Republic quotes a previous interview with Horner in which he described the “moral purpose” of his work, adding, “anybody can write a story.”
And then the obituary’s kicker (emphasis mine):
“I’ve always done the right thing,” [Horner] told The Republic in the 2016 interview. “I’ve never stolen from anyone. I’ve done a few things in the past that I’m not proud of, but I’ve never been a thief. I’ve never done bad stuff. I’m definitely proud of my life, but more proud of how my writing has become in the last few years.”
No qualms here with trying to paint a nuanced portrait of a tortured soul who got into some seriously bad shit. Horner did standup as a hobby, per the Republic’s account, was remembered as a good guy by fellow comedians, and even started a charity to deliver socks to the homeless. But we can and should dissociate that from the legitimately toxic acts that Horner found most financially rewarding.
It’s a tightrope, and The Hollywood Reporter similarly fell on the wrong side of it last week in a glamorous profile of the men behind Your News Wire, a site that helped push the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. This, I kid you not, is its opening paragraph:
“Reality is how you perceive it. You can change that perception of reality — dictate it.” Most journalism barons don’t deal in metaphysics. For digital upstart Sean Adl-Tabatabai, 36, who talks of “the holographic nature of the world,” and his husband and business partner, Sinclair Treadway, 24, it could be a credo.
Just a couple journalism barons spouting off propagandistic one-liners about twisting the idea of objective truth into knots. The undercurrent flowing through such stories—you can also read this between the lines of coverage of Milo, Breitbart, and the like—is that these figures are messengers of the new-media counterculture. Edgy, even.
My counterargument: They are bad people doing bad things, and they represent a cancer within the manic-depressive media environment we all inhabit. If the journalists who write about these people can’t make their own moral judgments about how terrible they are for all the rest of us, we’re in even more trouble than we think.