I know where that fake Washington Post reporter “robo call” in Alabama – with its anti-Semitic tone – came from.
From under a rock.
It’s a rock where, no doubt, this morning there are guffaws all around at the “gotcha” quality of seeing real journalists having to report on this shameful, bigoted prank.
It’s a rock where, no doubt, those responsible for a call from a “Bernie Bernstein” likely are slapping themselves on the back for folding in anti-semiticism along with the blatantly transparent anti-news media tactic.
And it’s a rock where – regardless of the criticism “they” get today – there’s no doubt a belief that in the end there will be more than a few “knowing nods” from folks already pre-disposed to believe such things as bribing news sources really do occur.
The rock dwellers achieved one bit of success, as measured by today’s standards: “Bernie Bernstein” was the No. 2 trending phrase on Twitter in the United States by about 6:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, according to the site TrendingTopics.Co, which tracks Twitter traffic.
A report by Mobile, Alabama, TV station WKRG, includes a replay of the call received by a local minister. The male caller– at times affecting a really poor imitation of a New England-area accent – offers to pay any woman who will make “damaging remarks” about Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore.
“Hi, this is Bernie Bernstein I’m a reporter for The Washington Post calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000. We will not be fully investigating these claims, however we will make a written report. I can be reached by email at email@example.com, thank you.”
It’s tempting to just make fun of the offer of $5,000 to $7,000 to “any woman.” Given today’s news organization finances, we automatically know the call is a fake because nobody in the news business – even The Washington Post, with deep pockets owner Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – could afford to do business like that.
But that would be joking about something that, while stupid and bigoted, raises yet another warning flag in the ongoing battle between defenders of good journalism and those who shout “fake news” at any report they don’t like to see, hear or read.
For his part, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron said Tuesday that “the call’s description of our reporting methods bears no relationship to reality. We are shocked and appalled that anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism.” For good measure, the Post also noted there is no staffer by the name of “Bernie Bernstein” at the newspaper.
Ok, so one hoax is just one such incident. Except that this real bit of fake news wasn’t a singular occurrence – and that merits attention from anyone who supports the “watchdog” role of a free press, regardless of the politics of the moment.
In another instance related to the Moore election contest, Washingtonian.com and the online news site The Daily Beast have reported that shortly after the Post first published reports linking Moore to sexual contact with four then-teenage women, “a Twitter account called @umpire43 posted a message claiming that a Post reporter named ‘Beth’ had offered an Alabama woman $1,000 to ‘accuse Roy Moore’.”
The tweet was shared by a right-wing website and then featured on One America News Network television, where “@umpire43” was identified as a “former Secret Service agent and Navy veteran” – a claim now discredited. During the One America report, photos were shown of Post reporter Beth Reinhard, one of three reporters whose byline appeared on the original story about Moore.
Then there are two incidents apparently involving the FBI’s impersonation of journalists.
On Nov. 13, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The Associated Press were in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking records relating to the FBI’s impersonation of journalists in a 2007 investigation, involving claims that the agency impersonated an Associated Press journalist and sent a link to what appeared to a fake AP story to plant software on the computer of a person suspected of making bomb threats to his school.
The Reporters Committee, in a separate matter, also is suing the FBI for records related to the bureau in 2014 creation of a fake documentary film company, “Longbow Productions” – replete with a web site and business cards – that gathered video interviews and other information on people involved in the armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy.
The harm in all of this is that journalists from local news outlets to national networks and newspapers are our representatives in tracking how government operates and on our behalf hold government officials accountable for their actions and policies. Journalists report, document and present for us – they are not tools or devices of police or prosecutors.
The nation’s founders – despite facing “journals of opinion” of their day that make most of today’s news outlets look positively sainted and objective – believed that an outside monitor representing the public would be an effective counterweight to the power of government, which literally extends to all aspects of our lives.
Don’t believe the four – now five – women who accuse more of touching or molesting them as teenagers? Read the full reporting The Washington Post and should you come to that conclusion, fine. But check out the report before coming to a conclusion.
Don’t like The Washington Post or the news media in general, for whatever reason? Fine. There’s nothing in the “free press” wording of the First Amendment that requires news consumers to believe any given news report or organization.
But in today’s world in which the work of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of real journalists is available at our fingertips, news consumers shouldn’t take for granted any one tweet or blurt that happens to line up with preconceived notions.
Don’t let trolls – or even government agencies in pursuit of criminals – get away with hijacking the proper and necessary role of an independent watchdog. From subpoena and arrest powers to grand juries and other investigative powers, government officials have all the authority and power needed to pursue and bring criminals to justice.
And don’t fall for the sad, failed attempts of those hiding under the rock of online anonymity to impersonate journalists in a pathetic attempt to attack the news media messengers for the news messages they don’t like.