If Bernie Bernstein were a real reporter, he would not last long at the Washington Post or any legitimate news organization.
Fortunately, he is not real. But an unknown number of people in Alabama got a call this week from a man claiming to be Mr. Bernstein, supposedly a reporter for the Post on a clumsy expedition to dig up dirt on Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator.
Al Moore, a pastor in Creola who is not related to Roy Moore, played a voice mail from a private number to WKRG-TV, a local news station.
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.
Broadly speaking, that’s not how journalism works. The Washington Post said it was not behind the call, did not have an employee named Bernie Bernstein — the name resembles another famous Washington Post byline, Carl Bernstein, part of the duo who broke the Watergate story — and that the message was an unfortunate attack on the publication’s reputation. The caller gave a nonfunctioning email address at the paper.
“The call’s description of our reporting methods bears no relationship to reality,” Marty Baron, the newspaper’s executive editor, said in a statement. “We are shocked and appalled that anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism.”
It should be noted that many people hear the heavily accented voice saying “Lenny Bernstein,” which is the name of a health reporter at the paper. The caller is not him. Lenny Bernstein wrote on Twitter: “To all who’ve been in touch: Thanks for the support. For the record, I definitely DO work at the Post and we definitely DON’T report that way. Appalling effort to discredit the great work the Post and other journos do.”
We get it, a lot of people distrust the media and suspect the worst out of reporters. But here’s what the call got wrong.
MOST AMERICAN JOURNALISTS DON’T PAY FOR INTERVIEWS
Kris Coratti, a Washington Post spokeswoman, said the publication has a policy that specifically prohibits paying sources. (So does New York Times policy.)
The Society of Professional Journalists admonishes “checkbook journalism” as undermining credibility and corrupting the motives of sources.
“Grown-up journalists don’t pay for news,” said Chris Roberts, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. “People are willing to say things for money that may or may not be true. It helps us to understand the motives more clearly when that is one less reason to tell things that are not true.”
The practice is more common outside the United States. More than half of journalists in the United Kingdom said it was OK to pay for sources in special occasions, compared to 5 percent of American journalists, according to a study published last year by the University of Oxford. In the United States, paying for sources is usually limited to tabloid newspapers or gossip sites like TMZ.
And as a Washington Post reporter noted, $7,000 is a lot of money for a newsroom. Monica Hesse wrote on Twitter: “It’s sort of flattering anyone thinks we’d be throwing $7,000 at sources. I’m not even allowed to expense a charger for my work iPhone.”
‘WE WILL NOT BE FULLY INVESTIGATING THESE CLAIMS’
That would be a very silly thing for a reporter to say. It would be like a plumber saying “we will not fully fix the leak in your pipe.”
“A journalist worried about his or her reputation would only want to put verified or supported claims in a story carrying their names,” said Andrew Seaman, the ethics chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists.
An ethical reporter would also be unlikely to phrase their request the way the robocall did. Asking for someone “willing to make damaging remarks” would be brazenly partisan in a way most mainstream reporters try to avoid.
“Journalists wouldn’t normally ask such leading questions,” Seaman said. “They’re after the truth, whether that leads to a scandal or exoneration.”
The call appeared designed to stoke distrust in the news media, feeding people’s worst fears of salacious, unethical and overtly partisan reporting.
It came at a time when the news has not been flattering for Moore, especially a Washington Post report in which a woman said he made sexual advances on her when she was 14. Five women have now accused him of sexual misconduct, and a growing number of Republicans have dropped their support or called on him to leave the race.
Roberts, who was a reporter and editor for The Birmingham News between 1989 and 1998, said the robocall fit into some people’s skepticism of the national media.
“Alabamians, and many from the South, seem to be tired of outsiders coming in and pointing out their flaws, and this goes back for decades,” Roberts said.