Sometimes everyone gets it wrong

In a recent story of a “War on Christmas” hoax, everyone ended up looking bad. A satirical site called the National Report ran a story claiming a student at Argon Elementary School in San Francisco was suspended for a week after wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas. This never happened, and there is no such school.

There is, however, an Argonne Elementary School there, and many people who were directed to the article assumed that it was the site of a real event. “Loving” Christians made threats which disturbed school officials enough to hire extra security.

The National Report website is itself quite inept. Every article I click on right now is giving me a 502 nginx error. The total effect of the home page should give most people a clue not to take it seriously, but if people find links to the individual articles, it may not be so obvious. The disclaimer on the home page merely says: “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.” There is supposedly a disclaimer somewhere that says the site is fictitious, but it’s not on the home page.

A Reddit user claiming to be Paul Horner, the author of the story, stated that he intended to deceive people. He said that comments on the story pointing out that it wasn’t true were deleted, and school officials have confirmed this. The article used a name that was close to a real school’s name, whether intentionally or not. The absurd “zero tolerance” policies which some schools enforce give it a certain amount of plausibility. If it had been true, there would have been good reason for people, Christian or not, to be angry.

The people who made physical threats don’t have an excuse, though. Even if the school had done what the article claimed, violence would not be justified. More broadly, the people who accepted the article’s accuracy without checking the facts against other sources (which is easy to do these days) showed their gullibility. But I can’t point too strong a finger; I’ve been taken in by a satirical news story or two. It’s important to be skeptical about single-source reports, especially from an unfamiliar website.

On the one hand we have someone, possibly a 13 year old kid, who deliberately fooled people and was entertained by the abuse the school officials had to endure. On the other we have people who fell for a dubious claim without considering the reliability of its source and, in some cases, showed a distinct lack of the forbearance Christians are supposed to practice.

But it isn’t quite true that there are no good guys in this story. Kevin L. Jones’ article on ktvu.com, which I linked to at the top, is a fine piece of journalism on the mess.

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2 Responses to “Sometimes everyone gets it wrong”

  1. Mark A. Mandel Says:

    What is a “502 nginx error”?

  2. Gary McGath Says:

    nginx is a web server, pronounced “Engine ecks.” In general terms it’s like Apache.

    502 is an HTTP code. (The best known of these is 404, “not found.”) 502 means “The server was acting as a gateway or proxy and received an invalid response from the upstream server.” Usually this means some service is running under nginx and isn’t responding properly. I see it at work a lot when I’m just starting up the QA server and try to access it before it’s finished initializing.


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