On Nov. 2nd, 2015, three weeks before Louisiana voters decided who would become their next governor, The Hayride, a popular right-wing blog largely focused on and funded by a small network of Republican political operatives, published a shocking report that quickly went viral: 10,000 Syrian refugees, they claimed, were “resettling in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Metairie,” and many of these refugees could be terrorists intending to organize sleeper cells right here in Louisiana.
In an election season that had already been full of surprises and strange alliances and with polls showing Republican candidate U.S. Sen. David Vitter trailing State Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, by double-digits, the waning moments were dominated by another plot twist. Who could have imagined the race for governor of Louisiana would have anything to do with Syrian refugees?
Vitter, who had once aired a campaign commercial comparing undocumented immigrants from Mexico to degenerate gamblers hitting the jackpot, embraced The Hayride’s report and made it a central part of his closing argument as a candidate.
To most political observers, Vitter’s decision was an act of pure desperation and an almost-audible dog-whistle to white bigots. “It is, in my opinion, the most irresponsible, desperate, even despicable piece of campaign hysteria I have ever seen,” Clancy DuBos of Gambit wrote at the time, “and I’ve seen a lot.”
Remember though, only 24 years prior, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan ran for governor of Louisiana and actually carried the majority of white voters; it wasn’t entirely inconceivable that nativist and bigoted campaign hysteria could work.
Ironically, Vitter’s wife, Wendy, represented the Catholic charity responsible for relocating Syrian refugees in Louisiana, but the facts hardly mattered at all. There weren’t 10,000 Syrian refugees headed to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Metairie- the very areas that Vitter was struggling in (he ended up narrowly winning Lafayette, but John Bel Edwards carried both Baton Rouge and Vitter’s hometown of Metairie).
In fact, Louisiana had taken in a grand total of thirteen refugees. The Hayride had used the total number the Obama administration had proposed for the entire country and reported that everyone was headed to the same exact places in Louisiana, it just so happened, that David Vitter needed to win.
I have been writing about the people and the politics of Louisiana for more than a dozen years. During those years, Twitter introduced the world to the concept of microblogging, Facebook became a fixture in the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans and not simply a website for college kids “looking to hook up,” and the institutions on which we had once relied to inform us about the news, both big and small, became an endangered species.
Although it certainly helps, you don’t need a team of Russian hackers to influence an election. As we learned here in Louisiana in 2015, the absence and the diminishment of credible local news institutions creates a vacuum that can easily be exploited by an unethical blog site.
While Vitter’s last-minute Hail Mary wasn’t successful in changing the outcome of the governor’s race, it nevertheless forced his opponent to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources in order to respond to a story published by a partisan political operative posing as a journalist. Instead of dedicating the final weeks of the race on the issues that actually affect the people of Louisiana, we were discussing fake news.
To be sure, both sides of the aisle are responsible and guilty of purposely planting false stories about their opponents. In 2015, another blogger published an interview with a woman who claimed to have been David Vitter’s mistress and the mother of his child.
Hardly anything about her story lined up. It wasn’t credible, and for the most part, the mainstream press didn’t take the bait. Not that it really mattered. The interview went almost instantly viral on social media. Scott Angelle, one of Vitter’s Republican opponents, encouraged a debate audience to visit the blog site.
Sure, politics has always been characterized by fake news: Willie Horton, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and, of course, who can forget the fact the current President of the United States spent years prior to his election spreading the absurd conspiracy theory that his predecessor wasn’t actually born in America?
But it’s different today than it was only a decade ago.
There’s a persistent myth that the internet has democratized the press.
In truth, the press is now even less democratic and more threatened than it has been since Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office. There are substantially fewer journalists, both here in Louisiana and across the nation, and now, because most Americans receive their news from a “social network” turbo-charged with an algorithm that promotes content that best matches your personal interests, shopping habits, and politics, it is easier now than ever for someone who consumes the news to completely avoid any story that disrupts or contradicts their own preconceived notions.
That’s dangerous. So too is the widespread corporate consolidation of the media. In fact, that may even be more pernicious.
Here in New Orleans, we are fortunate to have a small but accomplished number of independently-owned publications (and yes, even though it is the most-read newspaper in Louisiana, The Advocate, fortunately, is still one of those, though they did purchase Gambit, which is an undeniable move toward consolidation). There’s also The Lens, a fantastic and award-winning nonprofit news publication, and there’s Offbeat, Uptown Messenger, Mid City Messenger, The Louisiana Weekly, and The New Orleans Tribune, among others.
Last year, I launched The Bayou Brief, a statewide nonprofit publication which is entirely member-supported, and now, I am pleased to welcome Big Easy Magazine into the mix. I expect great things, because I know they’ve assembled a great team. And even though they’re telling the stories of Louisiana just as The Bayou Brief does, we aren’t competitors.
It’s an overused metaphor, particularly in New Orleans, but it fits here: A rising tide lifts all boats.
It is my sincere hope that the proliferation of new, independent publications like Big Easy Magazine here in New Orleans and The Current in Lafayette and Heliopolis in Shreveport (and of course, The Bayou Brief across the state) will not only enrich our literary culture and understanding of the news that truly matters in our communities, but that they will also help reclaim local journalism from corporate privateers.
After I launched The Bayou Brief, I did a series of small events across the state to introduce the publication and our vision for its future. Although I now am a proud resident of New Orleans, Alexandria will always be my hometown, even if I never actually live there again.
As in New Orleans, Alexandria’s most important news institution, The Town Talk, which is now owned by Gannett, laid off most of its staff, outsourced its printing operations to a plant in Opelousas, and now only publishes three issues a week. Because of that, they are currently following the lead of the local NBC and CBS affiliate.
During The Bayou Brief’s event in Alexandria, I asked a friend of mine, Jim Clinton- a poet who once worked as the Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board (that’s a big deal) and now leads an economic development organization in CenLa- to join me for a panel discussion about the state of local media in Louisiana.
“Here’s the problem,” he said (and I’m slightly paraphrasing). “No one reads their local paper for the box score of last night’s Astros baseball game. They’re not looking for that. You can find it anywhere. They’re reading for the box score of their kid’s Little League baseball game.”
Jim is also a big baseball fan, but his observation was a metaphor. And it’s absolutely true.
If we don’t know about what is happening in our own neighborhoods and cities, our school board meetings and the decisions made by our City Councils, the results of the high school swim meet and yes, the box scores of our kid’s Little League game, we not only lose our connection to a place and culture; we all but guarantee a dysfunctional government.
I don’t know everything this publication intends on covering (and I would question their priorities if they took me literally and hired a full-time Little League correspondent), but they don’t know what’s in store either. That’s the nature of the business, and while at times it can be frustrating, in a city like New Orleans, there are incredible stories everywhere.
There’s no need for fake news here, because the truth is often much stranger than fiction.
Lamar White, Jr. is the founder and publisher of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit, statewide, and digitally-focused publication covering the people and politics of Louisiana. He is a native of Alexandria, a graduate of Rice University and Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. He lives in Gert Town in New Orleans along with his golden retriever, Lucy Anna.