Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Great Newspaper Caper

One of the most intriguing stories that came out of this month's local elections was what we're calling "The Great Newspaper Caper" in Letcher County.

In that southeastern Kentucky mountain locale, a number of the races were hotly, heavily and nastily contested; none more so than the county judge-executive's race between incumbent Republican Carroll Smith and his Democrat challenger, magistrate Jim Ward.

Yes, you read that right. "Incumbent Republican." And it seems odd to type that phrase when talking about Letcher County, but Smith had indeed managed to get himself elected multiple times in that predominantly-Democrat county.

Smith wasn't a typical Republican, though. He's more of a RINO. For instance, he supported a county minimum wage and never gave a thought as to what mandating a minimum wage in one of Kentucky's smallest, poorest and most rural and distant counties would do to the local business climate. And in many ways, Ward is a DINO. He is certainly an advocate for business, which is something that any local administrator needs to be in a county with high unemployment where jobs are scarce.

The race seemed to also pit three newspapers against each other. The Mountain Eagle is Whitesburg's established journal and is operated by the uber-liberal Gish family. The Community Press is a smaller publication that is based in Cromona (a small community near Fleming and Neon, between Jenkins and Whitesburg). The third paper is the new East Kentucky Freedom Press, published in Vicco in Perry County but purporting to serve Letcher and Knott counties as well.

Prior to the election, The Mountain Eagle published a news story that refuted claims that candidate Ward had made against Smith's administration. And then that edition of the paper disappeared.

Through some as-yet-unknown combination of mass purchases and vendor hide-and-seek, the pre-election issue of The Mountain Eagle vanished from the newsstands. The caper made headlines across the state and in journalism circles. The Democrats in Letcher County were blamed for trying to keep information damaging to their candidate from making it to the public.

The Mountain Eagle threw up its stories and electronic versions of the paper's pages themselves on the Center for Rural Strategy's Web site. But the damage had been done, and the Gishes railed against the caper in the next issue of the paper.

If businesses did indeed hide the paper until after the election, then that's a despicable act. But if someone went to the outlets and bought up dozens of copies at a time -- well, how's that any different than someone buying up lots of copies of the paper if their wedding photo is in it? If those people have more money than brains and want to take the paper off the market in that manner; well, that's good for the Gishes' bottom line. (And taking papers from coin boxes while paying for only one is theft). The proof will be in the pudding, when the newspaper delivery receipts for that week's edition are totaled. Perhaps the Gishes will see fit to report on their single-copy sales figures for the week before the election in the near future.

As blatantly pro-Smith as The Eagle was, the new East Kentucky Freedom Press was blatantly anti-Smith. That paper has an obvious vendetta against Smith and the Republican judge of Knott County, Randy Thompson, who was appointed by Gov. Fletcher and then in a shocker, won a four-year term of his own. But lest you think the paper hates Republicans in general, it appears to have aligned itself with Republican State Rep. Brandon Smith from Hazard, who's pursuing a vendetta against the Perry County school superintendent. There have been allegations that the superintendent had pornographic images on his school-issued laptops, but prosecutors have looked into the matter and have declined to file charges. That hasn't stopped Smith and the East Kentucky Freedom Press from continuing to press the matter.

And The Community Press has managed to tick off just about everyone with its coverage of the whole affair, it seems.

As students of both politics and the media, we found this whole incident amusing. Quite frankly, we think anyone who'd orchestrate a mass purchase of newspapers containing stories or editorials they didn't like to be a bit silly. Like we said, more money than brains. We've heard of people taking stacks of free papers away because they didn't like what was in them. (This happened recently to the Kentucky Kernel newspaper at UK and last year to The Trail Blazer, Morehead State's student newspaper. That's a crime and has been pursued as such by the authorities in Lexington and Morehead respectively). But to buy dozens or hundreds of papers at 75 cents a pop? That's carrying things just a little too far.

We'd like to hear more about this incident. We'll be keeping an eye on the Eagle's newly-minted Web site and trade publications (including the Kentucky Press Association and Al Cross's Institute for Rural Journalism at UK) for more information.


At 10:50 PM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Letcher County and feel that the people were not allowed the information that would have changed some of the votes because of the papers being removed from most of a certain persons establishments.
Thank you for allowing my comment from a person worried about our county.

At 8:38 PM, March 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The certain person is Don Childers.


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