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April 13, 2010

Stephanie Salter: How to read a publication that looks like a newspaper, but isn’t one

TERRE HAUTE — You know those “This could save your life” warnings that come in e-mails from friends? The ones that give you tips on how to recognize a stroke or avoid letting a serial killer get into your car in the mall parking lot?

Consider this a variation on that theme. The following information won’t save your life – we’re not talking life and death here – but it could help protect the integrity of your vote. In this part of the woods, lately, that has been in danger.

I was reminded of the situation two days ago when attorney Chris Gambill mentioned “surprise election-eve publications” during a news conference he called “pre-emptive.” Gambill’s wife, Bionca, is running for state representative. A recent event – the Gambill firm was served with a sheriff’s tax warrant for the first time in its 27-year history – set off alarms and put the couple on alert for an incoming misinformation torpedo.

Anonymous sneak attacks have become something of a custom in Vigo County the past few years. Overzealous folks who value political gain over truth-telling publish a host of allegations and insults that arrive only a few days before an election in the form of a mailed circular, which looks a lot like a newspaper, but isn’t one.

The Gambills decided not to wait. Chris Gambill provided reporters with documentation showing his firm has never owed the state for payroll withholding tax, and he produced copies of previous anonymous stories alleging tax improprieties by candidates for other offices in the area.

I’ve amassed quite a collection of the faceless sneak attacks and use examples below from their pages. Ready for some tips?

Say what you will about real newspapers, if you have a complaint about what you see in them, there are plenty of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for real people on whom you can dump those complaints and from whom you can demand answers. Thus:

Tip No. 1: If a periodical that resembles a newspaper arrives in your mailbox or on your doorstep – especially right before an election – check the pages for a staff box or list of people’s names and contact info before you start reading. If no such box or list exists, remind yourself that what you are about to read cannot be taken as an approximation of the truth, let alone as gospel.

Another thing about real newspapers, all but the briefest stories nearly always have a byline on top, a real person’s name that tells you who gathered, compiled and presented the information in the news or feature story. Usually, the story also carries contact information for the writer. That way, if you have questions or complaints about something in the report – say, you wonder if a particular candidate for office really gave a rich guy a pass on a DUI – you have an alternative to mere conjecture. Thus:

Tip No. 2: No byline on a story, no bylines in an entire publication? Question the veracity of what lies within. Terre Haute is not the former Soviet Union, the current People’s Republic of China or the Kerr-McGee plutonium facility in Karen Silkwood’s day – no matter what the anonymous scribblers would like you to believe. Folks in possession of damning facts about other folks who are running for political office have no reason to fear airing those facts and claiming ownership of them. Unless the “facts” are false.

One more thing about real newspapers: The news in them is written in a fairly straightforward way: Who, what, when, where, why and how. Opinion columnists and editorial writers are allowed to exercise looser composition (although not looser factual content), but news reporters stick to the script.

That means they do not patronizingly call an adult news subject by his or her first name or by a diminutive like “Barb,” when the person goes by Barbara. They do not use an adult’s first name in a series of accusatory pieces, then misspell the name, say, by adding an extra “g” to the end of “Greg.” Nor do they describe a person “belligerently poking his pudgy finger into his victim’s shoulder” during an encounter in which there were no impartial witnesses, or say of a political candidate, “imagine sobbing Sarah facing Bill Benefiel or other real criminals.” Thus:

Tip No. 3: News stories without bylines that sound as though they were written in a college dorm room about 2:30 in the morning by a gaggle of guys who are flunking out indicate that the writers spend more time showing off for one another than they do seeking and disseminating the truth. 

One final word of caution about safely navigating publications that look like real newspapers, but aren’t. It concerns candidates who are touted and praised by the anonymous writers and editors behind the words and juvenile illustrations (e.g., stick-figure puppets being manipulated by a three-headed octopus with question marks and a dollar sign for faces).

No one running for office can be forced to go along, silently, with published compilations of rumors, unsubstantiated accusations and bald-face lies. Meanwhile, as the saying goes, if you lie down with the dogs, you get up with fleas and other blood-sucking varmints that feel entitled to more blood down the road. Thus:

Tip No. 4: Candidates who are praised and touted within the pages of a last-minute, anonymous publication delivered to your home just before an election should be checked thoroughly for pests and disease before you even consider taking them into the voting booth with you.



Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com. 

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