Friday, November 17, 2017

Gene Policinski: For source of fake reporter ‘robocall,’ look under a rock

  I know where that fake Washington Post reporter robocall, with its anti-Semitic undertone, came from.

  From under a rock.

  It’s a rock where, no doubt, guffaws went around at seeing real journalists having to report on this shameful, bigoted prank.

  It’s a rock where, no doubt, those responsible for the prank are slapping themselves on the back for folding anti-Semitism in with an anti-news media tactic.

  And it’s a rock where, regardless of the criticism “they” get today, the pranksters can sit back knowing that they have reached folks already pre-disposed to believe that such things as bribing news sources really do occur.

  A report by Mobile, Ala., TV station WKRG includes a replay of the call received by a local minister. The male caller — at times affecting a poor imitation of a New England 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, thank you.”

  The rock-dwellers achieved one small measure of success: “Bernie Bernstein” was the number-two trending phrase on Twitter in the United States by Tuesday evening, according to the site TrendingTopics.Co.

  It’s tempting to just make wry fun of the offer of $5,000 to $7,000 for damaging remarks about Moore. Given the finances of today’s news organizations, we automatically know the call is fake because nobody in the news business — not even The Washington Post, with its access to the deep pockets of owner Jeff Bezos — 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 the record, real journalists don’t pay sources or pay for any kind of information — and frankly, they don’t need to. People tell things to reporters.

  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.” The Post also noted there is no staffer by the name of “Bernie Bernstein” at the newspaper.

  Unfortunately, this incident wasn’t a singular occurrence, and it 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, and the online news site The Daily Beast have reported that shortly after the Post first published reports alleging Moore had sexual encounters with four then-teenage women, a Twitter account with the username @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, where @umpire43 was identified as a “former Secret Service agent and Navy veteran” — a claim that has now been 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 involving the FBI’s impersonation of journalists.

  On Nov. 13, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Associated Press argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a case relating to their search for records on the FBI’s impersonation of journalists in a 2007 investigation. The two organizations hold that the agency impersonated an Associated Press journalist and sent a link to what appeared to be 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 relating to the bureau’s creation of a fake documentary film company, replete with a website and business cards, which gathered video interviews and other information on people involved in the armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy.

  The harm in all of this is that journalists — from local news outlets to national networks — are our representatives in tracking how government operates. They hold government officials accountable on our behalf. Journalists report, document and present for us. They are not the tools of police or politicians.

  The nation’s founders, despite facing the “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 five — now six — women who accuse Moore of touching or molesting them as teenagers? Read the full report from 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 thousands of professional journalists is available at our fingertips, news consumers shouldn’t be satisfied with believing one tweet or disbelieving an article or TV report merely because it happens to line up with, or be opposed to, their preconceived notions.

  Don’t let trolls, political tacticians, 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 means necessary 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 attack and discredit journalists.

  About the author: Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski[at], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

  This article was published by the Newseum Institute.

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