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CASEY: Fake news makes a pit stop in the Star City

CASEY: Fake news makes a pit stop in the Star City

Don't necessarily believe a viral news story you may have heard recently about violent racial injustice protesters who supposedly attacked a man in downtown Roanoke.

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Patrons of 202 Social House, the restaurant at 202 Campbell Ave, dined May 31 to the repetitive chanting of protesters reacting to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. This photo, published in The Roanoke Times early in June, was later appropriated as an illustration to a news story about a violent attack that supposedly occurred in Roanoke last week.

In recent days, a number of this newspaper’s readers contacted us about an alarming incident. They read about it in an article headlined “Chaos is coming to Mayberry.” Purportedly, it happened at the City Market in Roanoke the evening of Aug. 28.

The story, by Georgia-based freelance writer Leo Hohmann, has been passed around on social media.

Tuesday night, conservative talk show host Mark Levin promoted it on his nationally syndicated radio show.

Hohmann called the event “an incident that did not get reported in any media until now.” His account depicts an appalling scene from a purported Black Lives Matters protest that purportedly turned ugly and violent.

There’s good reason you haven’t read about it in this paper, or seen the video on the TV news. That’s because I could find no evidence the events Hohmann describes ever happened at all.

Purportedly, the episode began about 6:30 p.m. outside 202 Social House, a restaurant along Market Square. It occurred as “about 100 diners” enjoyed “a summer evening of rare socialization during the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.”

“A group of at least half a dozen men, dressed all in black with black face masks, entered the outdoor dining area. As they moved toward the center they started talking to diners in an aggressive manner,” Hohmann’s article claims.

Purportedly, a couple of outdoor diners attempted to peacefully retreat by walking away, after they had ordered their food but before it arrived at their table. But four protesters purportedly followed the man and woman for about a block and a half.

At that point the purported couple separated. The man purportedly urged the woman to run. The article purports that he couldn’t himself flee “because I have a foot issue.”

Purportedly, the protestors demanded the man “either raise your fist in solidarity or you get on the ground and lay before us and beg for forgiveness.” When he purportedly refused, they purportedly attacked. One purportedly threatened, “I’m going to kill you right now!”

Purportedly, that protestor was armed “with a stick, which looked like a broom handle.”

The purported victim-hero, “Joe Mantle,” defended himself despite his purported bum foot. And he purportedly acted with the speed and agility of Kato, the karate-wielding chauffeur from the “The Green Hornet.” (That was a fictional TV show based on a fictional comic book.)

Joe’s spectacular defensive maneuvers purportedly rendered three of the purported Black Lives Matter protestors writhing on the sidewalk, unable to breathe, purportedly bloody and “crying” and “screaming in a lot of pain.”

Purportedly, “by the time a police officer arrived, all four were gone,” Hohmann wrote.

Pretty wild stuff, huh? There are only a few problems with Hohmann’s article. Namely, the salient facts he purports proved impossible to verify.

First, nowhere in the article does Hohmann (who’s apparently based in suburban Atlanta) claim to have personally witnessed any of those occurrences. Instead, the story’s based on a description by a single source, “Joe Mantle.”

The article describes Mantle as “an options trader and former radio talk show host in his 50s” who considers Blacks Lives Matter “a terrorist organization.”

Second (and oddly), “Joe Mantle” is a fictional name. Hohmann explicitly acknowledges that in the article, without citing any reason why he gave a fake name to his singular source. (Hohmann hasn’t responded to three emails I sent him about his article.)

Third, the Roanoke Police Department is unaware of any of the events the article describes.

“We do not have any written reports or dispatched calls that are similar to anything that this article is referencing,” said Caitlyn Cline, the Roanoke police spokeswoman.

“Also, we do not have a record of any protests or demonstrations downtown that day. That’s not to say they didn’t happen, we just weren’t notified of anything,” Cline added.

Fourth, the management of 202 Social House is similarly befuddled. General Manager Emily Ford told me she worked the night of Aug. 28. Since then, she’s also reviewed the restaurant’s security video, she said.

“We are not aware of, nor can we find any evidence supporting, anything claimed in the story taking place at 202 Social House,” Ford told me Wednesday.

Ford added that 202 didn’t even offer outdoor dining that night, although “a handful” of patrons did consume drinks outdoors that evening on the restaurant’s patio.

“I was actually surprised to see [202] thrown into it, having been here and knowing 100% that it did not happen,” Ford told me in a phone interview. The article has prompted a bunch of calls to 202 Social House, she said.

Fifth, Hohmann originally illustrated his article with three photos from The Roanoke Times. Those were snapped not late in August, but early in June. They’re of locals in Roanoke peacefully protesting racial injustice, following George Floyd’s May 25 killing by police in Minneapolis.

Also, those photos are copyrighted by this newspaper. And The Roanoke Times never granted Hohmann permission to republish them. Wednesday afternoon, Hohmann took them down, after Lee Enterprises, the newspaper’s owner, brought that to his attention.

Sixth, Hohmann embedded a video with his story that depicts a protest amid outdoor diners. But that’s from last week in Rochester, New York, which is 545 miles distant.

Seventh, as any reputable journalist can tell you, the devil’s always in the details. And Hohmann got a few of those wrong.

For example, Hohmann wrote: “The mayor of Roanoke, Sherman Lea, allowed BLM to paint its anti-police graffiti on a portion of the highway leading up to the center square.”

Actually, the “END RACISM NOW” street mural was a public arts project, conceived by locals, and deliberated on, approved and coordinated by the Roanoke Arts Commission. In that respect, “graffiti” is kind of a stretch. So is the reference to Campbell Avenue downtown as “a highway.”

There are other factual problems with Hohmann’s account which I won’t delve into because it would take up too much space.

Finally, there’s the issue of Hohmann himself and his freelance work. From what I can tell from his self-written biographical information, his articles have mostly appeared on WND.com. That’s problematic and calls much into question.

Going back nearly a decade, WND.com was a primary purveyor of the “birther” smear that claimed Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as president because he wasn’t a natural-born citizen.

The website is still around. But its glory days have faded somewhat from the time when WND.com was known as one of the biggest fake-news sites on the internet. What self-respecting journalist would ever brag he worked for them?

Anyway, because we’re getting calls and emails about it — and because 202 Social House is, too — all of the above may be worth a few minutes of your attention.

Which account should you trust? This one, with real names of real people? Or the other, which cites a single source whose fake name was made up by the author?

“If you’re able to contact anyone who was involved in this incident, please have them reach out to the Roanoke Police Department so we can speak with them about this situation,” said Cline, the police spokeswoman.

Emily Ford of 202 Social House isn’t going to hold her breath waiting for substantiation.

“I think we all know there’s a lot of fake stuff on the internet,” she said.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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