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The Hoosier Gazette satirizes Indiana life
And there are plenty who don’t get the joke
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Shortly after the presidential election, as the media debated what exactly was meant by “moral values,” a news story began making the rounds that seemed to typify, for some people, the blue state/red state divide. The story went that Congressman John Hostettler, representative for the 8th district of Indiana, wanted to change the name of the “I-69” interstate on the grounds that the name was too risqué. “Every time I have been out in the public with an ‘I-69’ button on my lapel, teenagers point and snicker at it…” the story has Hostettler saying. “I believe it is time to change the name of the highway. It is the moral thing to do.”
The story was picked up by news wires all across the country, and even found its way to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Many pounced on it as a shining example of conservatism run wild or as proof that we’re a bunch of rubes; others thought it was just plain goofy. Yet however they treated the story, a surprising number of people didn’t doubt its veracity.
The joke was, not one word of the story was true.
The story was actually the product of a website called The Hoosier Gazette, www.hoosiergazette.com, a satirical site created and maintained by a group of friends who wanted to have a little fun at the expense of their home state. “This has been by far our biggest story,” says Josh Whicker, the site’s editor and one of its founders. Whicker, a geography teacher and graduate student living in Croyden, wrote the I-69 story under the name August Wayne. “We’ve had several big stories that have gotten lots of hits, but it’s probably doubled anything we’ve had before. (The story) was on Michael Moore’s website… it made all kinds of fodder for people that hate the red states.”
Anyone bothering to track the story to its original source and give The Hoosier Gazette more than a cursory glance might have realized that something was up. Other stories on the site include one about a 36-year-old farmer auctioning off his virginity so that he could buy a four-wheeler, attempts by the Klu Klux Klan to reinvent itself as a “kinder, gentler” group now open to Hispanics and Catholics, and a section that invites readers to submit new state mottos (suggestions include “Indiana—Where ambition goes to die” and “Indiana — Leading America in being just east of Illinois”).
And then, there’s a section devoted to every Indiana resident’s favorite past-time — Kentucky jokes.
“Sometimes it’ll be commentary about real stuff that happens,” Whicker says of The Hoosier Gazette’s content. “Sometimes I’ll put real articles in there. If I run across a small-town newspaper that’s got some story and I’ll think ‘man, how can this be the top story?’ then I’ll post it. I always cite my source, because some of the stuff in the real paper sounds like it fits in perfectly with ours.”
Many times, however, Whicker and other writers at The Hoosier Gazette just make stuff up. The I-69 story isn’t the first time The Hoosier Gazette has had one of its fictitious stories treated as fact. Their first story to receive national attention concerned two Jason Smiths from a small-town Indiana high school, one a star basketball player and one a “skinny band kid.” Due to a mix-up in the guidance counselor’s office, the skinny band Jason Smith ended up receiving a full-ride basketball scholarship from Purdue, and now the university was stuck with him. “We were getting 30 hits a day, and this Jason Smith story got picked up, and it exploded,” Whicker says. “In three days we got 80,000 hits.”
And just last summer, The Hoosier Gazette reported on a study done by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University that found that when people have children, their IQ drops anywhere from 12 to 20 points. Fox News picked it up, and the story led Keith Olbermann’s Countdown on MSNBC. “It was fake,” Whicker says. “I made all that up. On the Kinsey Institute web site, they put a notice up saying ‘it’s not real, but thanks for checking in.’”
Whicker explains that the intent of The Hoosier Gazette isn’t necessarily to fool anybody or pull one over on the serious news media. It’s just that the stories get picked up, reported as fact, and they tend to grow from there. He says at first, it was kind of surprising, but it doesn’t shock him now. “Some of these things people seem to want to believe,” he says. “It seems like, with so many people, if it’s in print or it’s on the internet, they tend to believe it.”
But the I-69 story has really taken on a life of its own. The Hoosier Gazette posts dozens of letters from people, many Indiana residents, who missed the joke. “It’s still making the e-mail rounds,” Whicker says. “Even now, I’ll get an e-mail from somebody who thinks it’s real, with a letter to the editor complaining about Hostettler.”
And what does the Hostettler camp think of all this? Whicker says he has heard through the grapevine that they weren’t necessarily angry, but Hostettler’s offices did have a pretty busy week or so when the story started to take off. “The funny thing is, I voted for Hostettler when I lived in that district,” he says.