“Never in my dreams would I (have) thought that the last few days of the (2015 Louisiana gubernatorial) campaign (we) would be talking about Syria,” Trey Ourso told Stephen Sabludowky of The Bayou Buzz less than a week before John Bel Edwards was sworn in as Louisiana’s 56th governor. Ourso, the driving force behind the political action committee GumboPAC and partner in the firm Ourso Beychok, is a Baton Rouge-based campaign strategist whose work during the epic 2015 election earned his company four national awards from the American Association of Political Consultants. He was personally recognized as the Top Campaign Strategist of the Year for his work with GumboPAC.
Suffice it to say, with the exception of Gov. Edwards and Sen. Vitter, there likely isn’t anyone in the country more knowledgeable about the dynamics, the drama, and the vicissitudes of an election that has already inspired the aptly-titled and fascinating book Long Shot than Ourso.
Why is it that an election in Louisiana focused almost exclusively on issues of character, health care, criminal justice reform, education, and fiscal responsibility suddenly became about Syria? Well, it had nothing to do with Russian interference, but everything to do with a term that, more than a year later, President Trump almost single-handedly introduced into the parlance of American political discourse: Fake news.
Unlike almost everything to which Trump affixes that label, however, the story about Syrian refugees was without any question “fake news” and deliberate propaganda published on a repeatedly and thoroughly debunked conservative blog site, The Hayride, which claimed, only days before the jungle primary election and in the aftermath of a horrific terrorist attack in Paris, that 10,000 Syrian refugees were expected to move to Louisiana.
David Vitter, who was struggling severely in the polls, seized on the blog post in a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate his scandal-plagued campaign, accusing Edwards, his Democratic opponent, of supporting the mass immigration of refugees that he painted as would-be terrorists. The day after its so-called “exclusive,” The Hayride followed up, reporting:
After the Hayride broke the exclusive story on 10,000 Syrian refugees possibly resettling in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Metairie, it has now come to light that refugees are already coming into the New Orleans area.
Catholic Charities, which receive federal grants from U.S. Department of State/Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, have apparently taken in two Syrian refugee families already and are expecting many more.
The blog subsequently and falsely claimed that unidentified law enforcement authorities revealed that Louisiana law enforcement had been unable to locate at least one of those refugees, resulting in a veritable firestorm of conservative outrage and forcing both the Edwards campaign and GumboPAC to invest thousands of dollars in last-minute advertisements correcting the record.
The truth was that Louisiana, all told, had only accepted thirteen Syrian refugees, and The Hayride was conflating the total national aggregates of expected refugees, almost entirely widowed women, children, and the elderly, with the numbers in Louisiana. Sen. Vitter had never been particularly concerned; in fact, as the Edwards campaign discovered, Vitter, in his capacity as a United States Senator, hadn’t attended critical committee hearings on Syrian refugees.
Moreover, The Hayride failed to disclose that David Vitter’s wife Wendy was the attorney representing the Catholic Charities, assigned to work on refugee immigration. Clancy DuBos of Gambit lambasted Vitter’s campaign for resorting to “hysterical lies.”
The non-partisan fact-checking website Snopes investigated The Hayride’s claims, judging them as “false” in an article titled “The Wig Sleazy” and pointing out that The Hayride‘s featured photograph “was swiped from another source and used out of context to support a wholly invented assertion that thousands of Syrian men had arrived (or were about to arrive) in New Orleans on 13 November 2015.”
“In actuality the image was published on 3 September 2015, was taken in Hungary, and had nothing to do with Syrians in New Orleans or the November 2015 ISIS attacks in France,” Snopes reported (emphasis theirs). “It was clear that rumors were timed to leverage interest in and fears inspired by the attacks in Paris, using a months-old photograph of refugees in Europe to falsely bolster reports of scores of asylum seekers landing in New Orleans. Moreover, President Obama’s administration indicated that the whole of the United States would take 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, not that the city of New Orleans would take 10,000 in on a single night in 2015.”
But that was not the most unethical aspect of this particular story.
During the 2015 campaign, in less than nine months, The Hayride received $10,000 from David Vitter’s campaign, including $1,000 on November 2, 2015, the very day its initial story was published.
As the Vitter’s campaign finance disclosures indicate, there was never any particular rhyme to the timing of its payments: Some occurred in the beginning of the month, some in the middle, others at the end.
All told, The Hayride has received a grand total of $77,251.98 in payments from Louisiana Republican elected officials, candidates, and the Louisiana Republican Party, and those payments only include expenditures required by law to be disclosed.
More recently, The Hayride falsely reported that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was “booed” and “kicked out” of two New Orleans restaurants, Mandina’s and Clancy’s, both of which are well-known culinary institutions. The owners of both restaurants slammed the blog’s posts as wholly inaccurate. “That did not happen,” Cindy Mandina told The Times-Picayune. “It’s fake news.”
“It’s absolutely untrue,” Brad Hollingsworth, the owner of Clancy’s said. “Mitch Landrieu came in a couple of weeks ago. I hope he enjoyed his dinner. We wouldn’t treat him like that or any customer like that. It’s just not the way we do business.”
But, apparently, it is the way Scott McKay, the publisher of The Hayride, conducts his business. He offered a total of $1,000 cash as an incentive for six people to submit videos of people booing Mayor Landrieu in public, $500 for the grand prize and $100 each for the five runner-ups.
You can enter the contest by sending us video of people booing and/or heckling Mitch Landrieu (EDIT: the heckling is optional; the booing is not) when he goes out in public – send us a YouTube link, Vimeo link, Facebook video link or a video… and if we get it we’ll post it to The Hayride and send you a t-shirt.
If it sounds like The Hayride is attempting to pay protestors to retroactively validate their false reporting, it’s because that’s exactly what they’re doing.