United States Senator Luther Strange thought he’d hit it big: In addition to his cushy appointment to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old seat by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, Strange thought he wouldn’t even have to fight at the polls for the privilege to represent Alabama’s nearly five million citizens in the U.S. Senate for well over a year.
Thanks to Gov. Kay Ivey, though, who replaced Bentley and decided to move up the election, Strange didn’t get that latter consolation prize. Instead, he will have to try to stave off challengers — particularly those from his own party — as soon as the Aug. 15 primary election. In an effort to help do that, Strange has brought out the big guns in the form of a campaign cash-backed fake news ad — and trust me, it’s a doozy.
Big Luther’s big lies
Strange’s first full-length ad, which he released on social media earlier this month, begins with “corrupt politicians” being sprayed down with water as Big Luther drives his muddied white Ford F-150 through a car wash.
“We sent him to Montgomery to clean up corruption and Big Luther Strange kept his word,” the narrator in the campaign ad says. “Fighting corrupt Montgomery insiders and special interests.”
Then Luther’s ad switches to his proof: his evidence he’s been fighting corruption on Goat Hill. Get ready for it …
The ad displays, one after another, a series of what appear to be newspaper headlines about Strange.
Some of the fake “newspaper headlines,” which are said to be from the Valley Times, are essentially self-promoting press releases. “Luther Strange says federal government out of control,” reads one page, with the subtitle, “Protecting Alabama.” That doesn’t sound like a hard-news article to me, not to mention the Valley Times doesn’t really exist (although the Valley Times-News, does). But self-promotion is what politicians do, right? We shouldn’t be too surprised. A fake headline from a fake newspaper to support a fake politician. But it gets worse. You may need to sit down.
The ad’s narrator continues as the “newspaper” images continue across the screen: “The guts to fight Montgomery corruption. The prosecution and conviction of a corrupt House speaker. The investigation and governor’s resignation. A new public corruption prosecution unit. Corrupt politicians convicted,” the ad says.
At this point the headlines and their relationship to Strange have gone from unreasonable to unbelievable: “AL Speaker Mike Hubbard sentenced to four years,” one headline reads. “Hubbard convicted on 12 ethics charges,” says another. Both of those headlines — although not from actual news sources — are, of course, true. The problem is with Strange’s implied role in them.
To be clear, Luther Strange did not oversee the investigation, prosecution or conviction of Mike Hubbard. Instead, according to his own letter appointing a special prosecutor written in Jan. 2013, Strange wanted his subordinates to “assume oversight of the State’s interests in the current investigative matters relating to State Representative Mike Hubbard, to include all criminal matters arising from that investigation.” Strange even wrote he was “directing my administrative personnel to take appropriate action to isolate me … from access to files associated with the investigation.”
The reason Strange wasn’t even involved in the ethics prosecution for which he now wants to take credit? He was too closely involved with Mike Hubbard, the corrupt politician in question.
“The investigation concerned Mr. Hubbard’s potential misappropriation of funds when he was chairman of the Republican Party through his business, Craftmaster,” Strange eventually admitted in a deposition dated May of last year. “My campaign used Craftmaster’s printing services.” Hence Strange’s recusal from the case.
After the Hubbard claims in the truly Strange ad come the fake news claims about Bentley’s resignation. “Bentley resigns,” the headline reads, “pleads guilty to sex coverup.” Not only did Bentley not plead guilty to a sex coverup (he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges), Strange had nothing to do with Bentley’s downfall. If anything, Strange was the reason Bentley’s downfall took so long. Strange — who was Alabama’s Attorney General — repeatedly denied there was an investigation into Bentley despite the fact that, as we now know, there was a criminal probe all along.
“I think I’ve made this clear before — with some of the articles that are written — we’ve never said that we’re investigating the governor,” Strange told me and other media at an event in Mobile earlier this year. We now know that was just flat-out untrue, and we know Strange had used his office to delay the Bentley impeachment probe, asking the legislative committee considering the move to halt the proceedings, which they did, at least for a while.
“I respectfully request that the committee cease active interviews and investigation until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed,” Strange wrote to the committee, effectively delaying the proceedings that would eventually help force the governor from office. Now Strange wants Alabamians to think he’s responsible for the downfall of both Hubbard, whose prosecution he isolated himself from, and Bentley, the governor who appointed him to the senate: yeah, okay.
Fake news faux pas: an accidental truth
Aside from the obvious Strange lies in the senator’s new ad, there’s a couple of fake news faux pas I can’t help but point out, and they both have to do with Strange’s onscreen editions of the “Valley Times.”
Under most of the headlines, where you would expect the content of the article where the “newspaper” praises Strange’s objectively amazing tenure as attorney general, there’s some pretty standard stock text. For example, in most of the content sections in Luther Strange’s 1:41 s frecond ad, you won’t find news text. Under both of the Hubbard headlines, instead of Strange’s letter recusing himself from the cases he’s now claiming credit for, you’ll find the first lines of a study called “Managing financial risk in planning under uncertainty” by professors Andres Barbaro and Miguel J. Bagajewicz. “Planning under uncertainty is a common class of problems found in process systems engineering,” the text begins. Simple stock text, but a fake news faux pas nonetheless. But that’s not the interesting part.
Under another of the fake news headlines, where there should be just more good ol’ stock text, there’s something I don’t think Strange meant to make it to final cut: an opinion column by Kyle Whitmire of AL.com decrying the cost of Luther Strange’s corruption. I kid you not.
At about 00:14 mark in the Strange ad, another in the string of campaign-generated headlines appears in the newspaper format. “AG Strange says Supreme Court wrong to rule on gay marriage,” it reads. Sound like a good article? Read on …
Instead of the typical stock text from the other sections of the ad, Whitmire’s critical column appears in the content section. “Corrupt government is expensive government,” the column begins. If you pause the video, you can go on to read the entire first section of the article, which is actually titled “Luther Strange and Robert Bentley show Alabama how much corruption costs.”
In the excerpt, Whitmire points out were it not for Bentley and Strange, Alabamians would likely have saved the approximately $15 million the expedited special election will cost us. Before the senate spoils, Whitmire writes, an election was effectively optional. “At least until Robert Bentley and Luther Strange struck their deal,” he says. You can read the rest in Whitmire’s column — or in Strange’s ad, your choice.