If you stumbled upon and believed a story claiming Facebook will soon begin charging $2.99 a month, Dennis Rodman is becoming an ambassador to ISIS, Ebola is spreading unchecked in Texas, Obamacare comes with mandatory RFID chips, or Fox News is suing Facebook over "satire" tags, you've fallen victim to the National Report, one of the internet's most successful hoax websites.
Billing itself as "America's #1 Independent News Source" with smiling portraits of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin on its banner, the National Report has fooled countless legions of credulous social media users into believing the ludicrous and absurd. Its mix of satirical, parody and sometimes outright hostile content has tricked everyone from Fox News to major Tea Party organizations and enraged powerful people like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the Indian government. It's also been the frequent target of sites like Gawker, which accuse it of running "bad and not good" humor content written by "known shitbirds."
We recently interviewed the National Review's pseudonymous "publisher," Allen Montgomery, the founder and editor of the site, via email to talk about the site's history, strategy and what it feels like to punk Fox News.
The Daily Banter (TDB): Could you tell me more about the origin of National Report? Does the NR have an agenda or political viewpoint motivating it, and if not what inspired you to get into the news business?
Allen Montgomery (AM): There is no single political viewpoint motivating NR. We have writers from across the spectrum of politics and while the stories that generally get the most widespread attention often target the right wing, we are an equal opportunity operation and everyone is a potential target. The goal has always been to make readers more critical of what they read and share and while it seems counter-intuitive, we hope readers who leave our site will be better able to discern between news and entertainment. "Mainstream media" has long ago lost credibility as it has dissolved into a strange blend of facts, opinions and partisanship and we are using that to our advantage through a combination of slapstick humor and straight-up hoaxes.
For me personally, I have always been fascinated by the power of satire to influence public opinion, various methods of propaganda and internet virality. My educational background is in Political Science and Mass Communications and my professional background has been in the publishing industry. National Report was a way for me to turn my addiction to news into an avenue of entertainment for others.
TDB: I'd like to know more about your content strategy. How do you plan and execute coverage? Do you guys co-ordinate, and/or is it an open submission format? Are there editors?
AM: As disappointing as it may sound, we have no content strategy (which in my opinion has contributed to our success). We are confident enough in the writers onboard to allow them to explore whatever storylines they would like. There are only a handful of topics that are off limits, so the writers are free to be as creative as they want. We do have a writers forum where we help each other develop ideas, but the ideas all come from the ground up. There have been only a couple of occasions where I have requested a specific headline be written or story to be covered.
TDB: What kind of traffic are you guys pulling?
AM: Traffic ebbs and flows, but we generally get somewhere between 6-10 million page views per month.
[For comparison, Gawker pulls in 50-60 million page views per month from a team of 30 full-time staffers.]
TDB: What's your current staff roster look like? How many contributors, reporters etc. do you have writing content at any one time?
AM: We are always recruiting talented writers, but at any given time we have around 15-20 contributors (some far more active than others).
TDB: NR's content has gotten some serious attention from the national news media, up to and including times when they've re-reported your original content. How are you able to get your stories into the mass media circuit? Do you have social media people? Relationships with other sites? Or do you think it's just from fans sharing your work organically?
AM: This is a tough one as it truly is a combination of things. My personal opinion is that it starts with quality content. Most all the writers are news junkies, like myself, and we are able to identify trends within the media that we are then able to exploit. In general, people are eager to suspend critical thinking if what they are reading confirms their viewpoint. I handle our social media presence, however many of the writers are great at self-promotion and have their own followings as well. Once we are able to get a story a bit of traction, using what some would consider guerrilla tactics, the internet does the rest.
TDB: If you could describe the overall reaction to your work, what would it be?
AM: The feedback we get from readers is overwhelmingly negative. People are often upset that they shared a story and were then called out by their friends for passing off satire as news (which is kind of the point). We do have a loyal fan base who enjoy what we do, but they are often drowned out by those wishing we would all just fuck off and die.
TDB: The NR's coverage has at times ruffled some real feathers. Have you received legal threats or other efforts from the conventional media to silence you? Has there been any pushback in other ways?
AM: We have stepped on some toes, but have so far avoided legal problems. We have been threatened with lawsuits (my favorite was from Ray Romano’s “people”) and apparently there are some bad dudes in India looking for us, but mostly issues with image copyrights (which we correct immediately). As far as "conventional media", we do our best to not give them any grounds for which they could sue.
TDB: What's it feel like to get such an outsized share of the media's attention? Why do you think the media has kept on biting, if stories that originated on the NR occasionally embarrass news anchors and pundits?
AM: While we do our best to come off as a legitimate news organization as far as the look and feel of the site, at the end of the day we are simply entertainment. I am somewhat disappointed at how easy it is for a random group of rag-tag writers to basically infiltrate the media. If news organizations actually do their jobs and are diligent about fact-checking and cross-referencing, they should have nothing to worry about.
[Montgomery told the Casper Star-Tribune in July 2013, "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."]
TDB: Do you get satisfaction when conventional news outlets re-report your coverage? Is the point to propel NR's content into the spotlight?
AM: Of course it is fun to get "real" news networks to bite on our stories, but that is not necessarily the point and we aren't seeking to be in any sort of spotlight. We like to think we are doing a public service by introducing readers to misinformation. As hard as it is to believe, NR is often the first place people actually realize how easy they themselves are manipulated and we hope that makes them better consumers of content. It only takes a time or two of being shamed by your friends before you begin to look beyond a headline and start to identify holes that should be dead giveaways for news that is not true.