An Alabama Robocall Invokes Ugly Tropes

A recording falsely claiming to be from a Washington Post reporter named Lenny Bernstein seeks to fan resentment of the press among Roy Moore supporters.

An American flag flies in front of former Alabama chief justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore's campaign sign, Tuesday, August 15, 2017, in Montgomery, Alabama. (Byrnn Anderson / AP)

Alabama’s Senate race received an ugly new wrinkle on Tuesday night, thanks to an apparent series of robocalls that seemed to be designed to fan resentments—of the press, of Northerners, and perhaps of Jewish reporters.

Local news station WKRG reported that one of its viewers received a robocall from a man impersonating a Washington Post reporter. In it, the man offers to pay women thousands of dollars if they’ll make false accusations against Roy Moore, the state’s former chief justice and the Republican candidate to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate.

Hi, this is Lenny 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 dollars. We will not be fully investigating these claims; however, we will make a written report. I can be reached by email at Thank you.

Taken at face value, the call appears to be a hamfisted effort to discredit the Post’s bombshell reporting into Moore’s interactions with young women when he was a county prosecutor in the 1970s. The newspaper interviewed four women who said Moore made efforts to court them when he was in his early 30s and they were teenagers. One of them, Leigh Corfman, said Moore made sexual contact with her when she was 14 years old.

Those stories sparked a political firestorm for Moore and a headache for national Republicans, many of whom were already uneasy with the firebrand jurist. After a fifth woman came forward on Monday to accuse him of sexual assault, high-ranking GOP legislators in Washington, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, called on Moore to step aside. Moore, for his part, has denied and denounced all of the allegations made against him. He’s also refused to step aside from the contest for Alabama’s Senate seat even as some polls show his lead narrowing.

Moore and his supporters have repeatedly blamed the media for his troubles. And on Tuesday night, his attorney released a letter sent to the Alabama Media Group threatening legal action in response to its reporting.

The Washington Post swiftly denounced the robocalls on Tuesday night. “The Post has just learned that at least one person in Alabama has received a call from someone falsely claiming to be from The Washington Post,” Marty Baron, the newspaper’s executive editor, told WKRG. “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.”

To make matters more confusing, there’s actually a journalist working at the Post named Lenny Bernstein. He covers health-related topics, not politics. On Twitter, he defended his name and criticized those who sought to use it to slander his employer.

Impersonating a journalist to smear the entire profession is a nasty enough maneuver on its own. But the Alabama robocall also seems to draw upon the dark motifs of anti-Semitism to accomplish its goal. The fake Bernstein’s nasally, high-pitched voice and forced New York accent evoke anti-Semitic caricatures and stereotypes. (The real Bernstein, for the record, sounds nothing like this.)

There’s a long, ugly history of intertwining anti-Semitism and attacks on media outlets. Historian Victoria Saker Woeste, writing in The Washington Post, described the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a virulent anti-Jewish tract first published in tsarist Russia, as the first modern instance of “fake news.” The pamphlet claimed a cabal of Jewish leaders had taken control of the media as part of a plot for world dominion.

The propagandists behind the “Protocols” attributed extraordinary power to the media. A section titled “Control of the Press” “reveals” that Jews seek to control every aspect of the media to protect their new, worldwide government from attack or criticism. Through false stories and skewed analysis, the Jewish-controlled media would lead the masses to see the world not as it was, but as Jews wished it to be seen: “Our subjects will be convinced [of] the existence of full freedom of speech and so [will] give our agents an occasion to affirm that all organs which oppose us are empty babblers.”

Fake news, then, begins as Jewish infiltration of the legitimate media and transforms into complete domination: “Not a single announcement will reach the public without our control.”

As Nazi Germany sought actual world dominion a few decades later, it played upon similar themes to vilify newspapers and radio stations as lügenpresse, or “lying press.” Some Trump supporters borrowed the phrase from its Nazi originators to criticize the media when then-candidate Donald Trump intensified his criticism of journalists during last year’s presidential election.

Trump’s attacks and Tuesday’s smear take root in fertile soil. A YouGov poll taken in August found that 54 percent of Trump voters found the Post untrustworthy or very untrustworthy, compared to only 26 percent of the general public. Trump captured Alabama in the 2016 election with a 27-point margin of victory.