Deep inside my ancient file cabinets packed with notes from the analog journalism era, there is a folder full of strange letters from readers.
Yes, we're talking pre-email. I still get an actual dead-tree-pulp letter every now and then.
This folder is dedicated to mail that is so strange, so bizarre, that I just can't throw this stuff away. The all-time worst/best latter was an epistle that was about 25 pages long -- typed on a manual typewriter -- describing, in excruciating detail, why biblical prophecies proved that Barbra Streisand is the Antichrist.
That's the first thing I thought about when I read the latest Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction stories out of Alabama. Yes, we're talking about the news coverage of that robocall in which a very non-Southern voice proclaims:
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.
As you would expect, The Washington Post story on this incident is crucial. It's solid, but -- as a guy who lives in the Bible Belt -- it left me wondering about one element of the story. Hold that thought. Here is the top of the Post report:
A pastor in Alabama said he received a voice mail Tuesday from a man falsely claiming to be a reporter with The Washington Post and seeking women “willing to make damaging remarks” about Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in exchange for money.
The call came days after The Post reported on allegations that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl nearly four decades ago, sparking calls by leading Republicans for him to abandon his campaign for the U.S. Senate in a special election to be held Dec. 12.
Pastor Al Moore of Creola, Ala., said he received the call on his cellphone a little after 7 a.m. Tuesday from a private number, which he did not answer.
The caller, claiming to be “Bernie Bernstein,” left a 27-second voice mail, which Moore played for local CBS affiliate WKRG. ... He said he could be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be blunt, this is a ploy so obvious, so bizarre, that one is tempted (for a second or two) to think it might have been done by opponents of Moore.
I mean, at this point in the chaos one could make almost any charge against the former judge and people -- with good cause -- would believe them. Moore has always been a target-rich environment, only more so in light of the recent Post reports built on allegations about his actions toward teen-aged girls, when he was in his 30s.
Of course this "dog whistle" robo-call went to a minister. It just had to, in light of everything else going on in this bizarre story. It's hard to dig into all of this without asking religious questions (although this New York Times media-beat report does manage to do that and, in my opinion, is weaker as a result).
Thinking like a Southerner, I immediately wanted to know more about this pastor's church. The Post story does, to its credit, eventually name the church.
Moore’s church, the Fountain Of Faith Baptist Church, posted on Facebook Tuesday morning about a call from an “Al Bernstein at The Washington Post. Hmmmm.”
If you go looking for information on that congregation, you need to know that its actual name is the Fountain of Faith Missionary Baptist Church.
The added word "Missionary" is a sign that this is not a Southern Baptist congregation nor an independent -- perhaps fundamentalist -- Baptist flock.
Pastor Al Moore's church is part of the Baptist Missionary Association of America. Does that have political implications? Probably not, although in this part of the world the fine shades of belief among Baptists are often significant to the locals. Look through this church's Facebook page and you'll see that it's about about as non-political as you can get.
No, the big question -- for me -- is this: Who else got these robo-calls? Other ministers? Are we talking about a list of religious leaders that would lean toward Roy Moore or clergy who are doing everything they can to avoid him? Renewed appeals to religious conservatives has, of course, been a central theme in Roy Moore's attempts to survive as the GOP nominee.
This rather picky (I admit that) question matters to me because the answer might yield insights into who is behind this sickening gambit and why they did what they did. The Post story does add:
Al Moore, the pastor, told Riales that he is in no way related to Roy Moore, though they share the same last name. The pastor said he thought the voice mail was from a robo-call meant to stir up an already divisive race, and he reached out to WKRG because “people are just going crazy with this.”
“Let’s let the people who are investigating do their job and expose it if it’s real, and shut it if it’s not,” he said.
Meanwhile, stay tuned. I am sure there will be further developments. Including people trying to laugh, rather than cry, while researching this story.
As my favorite college history professor used to say, with a tired sigh: "What a world."