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Big Country’s MAGA Bulletin

Visit businesses around Abilene, Texas and you might encounter this free local paper packed with conspiracy theories.
by Jim Swift
October 12, 2021
Big Country’s MAGA Bulletin
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Buffalo Gap, Texas
I’m in the Big Country visiting family, and we went to the Perini Ranch Steakhouse for dinner over the weekend. It’s a celebrated Texas steakhouse, and a personal favorite of former President George W. Bush.

When I travel, I like to pick up the local free rag at a restaurant, usually available in the alcove. Sometimes it’s a left-leaning alt-weekly, like the Cleveland Scene or the Riverfront Times. Other times, it’s adorable hyper-local paper ideas like the “Coffee News,” for which my mom, a former journalist, used to write book reviews in Cleveland. It’s a good way to get a little flavor of a place, and as a former local weekly paper-delivery boy myself, I kind of feel a connection to small papers.

So as I walked out of the steakhouse during a storm that blew through the region, I grabbed a copy of the Buffalo Gap Round-Up News. I was already familiar with this monthly paper and how nuts it was. Heck, one of the first things you see on the upper-right corner of the front page is a hammer and sickle with a line through it, like a No Smoking sign.  But now that I was here in Buffalo Gap, population 731, I wanted to read it not as an artifact from the political fringes but as a local paper.

Buffalo Gap is a small town just outside of Abilene, a cattle town where the biggest employer is the federal government. The Round-Up News is distributed all around the area. You can pick it up for free at restaurants and hotels or subscribe for $70 a year.

Usually the best part of local papers is the local coverage—reporting of news and controversies, personalities and celebrations, real estate transactions and business developments, and various civic goings on. With the Round-Up News, though, the extent of the local coverage seems to be a local monthly calendar, a PSA from the Taylor County sheriff, one article about visiting the West Texas rodeo from a lawyer who also has an ad in the paper, another article welcoming a new far-right group (the Abilene Freedom League) to Abilene, and three obituaries. That, and a recipe corner from a part-time West Texan, tech advice for the olds, and a handful of letters to the editor.

Combined, these local features would comprise maybe six pages. But the Buffalo Gap Round-Up News runs 32 pages. What’s the rest of it?

Here’s a taste from the October issue:

  • A front-page column from a couple from Cape Girardeau, Missouri on “Victory in Spiritual Warfare.”
  • A column from the chairman of the Taylor County Republican Party calling on “each state to decertify its electors.” The author is a lawyer.
  • An op-ed from a woman in Long Island—yes, the Long Island in New York—about “Media Whores.”
  • A conspiracy-theory piece entitled “Gates/CIA Plan From 2005 Exposed: ‘Vaccinate the Religious,’” written by an American who pleaded guilty to tax fraud and later fled to Poland.
  • “Unvaxed at Risk from Vaxed in Coming Dark Winter,” reprinted from conspiracy theorist Greg Hunter’s USA Watchdog website at the recommendation of a reader from Sydney, Australia.
  • A “Funny Paper” composed entirely of memes, including editorial cartoons that are syndicated and likely not used with permission, but mostly cartoons from the far-right Patriot Post website.

It is striking that restaurants and other businesses are allowing this sort of misinformation to be on prominent display on their premises. They are basically handing out 32 pages of Infowars material to their patrons. I was a little shocked that a steakhouse run by a friend of former President George W. Bush would have this at his establishment. Perhaps Mr. Perini hasn’t read it; I don’t know.

And it’s striking that so many local businesses choose to advertise in a conspiratorial rag like this. Among the advertisers are ones you might not be too surprised by: outdoor stores, gas station markets, a realtor, local attorneys, a butcher, country and Christian radio stations, an upcoming gun show, etc.

But other advertisers really stood out as odd: A Quality Inn franchisee. The Taylor County government. Numerous local healthcare providers. The local telecom provider.

It could be that some of these are “ad trades,” in which a local business might allow a paper free distribution in exchange for an ad. And maybe some of the ads, like the county government’s one for locally available jobs, are an act of civic responsibility. But unless the paper’s publisher is self-funding the Buffalo Gap Round-Up News as a hobby at probably a considerable loss, some businesses are actually paying for ads.

Buffalo Gap is in a very conservative part of one of America’s most conservative states. Lots of readers and advertisers and businesses who serve as distribution points probably agree with its content.

Abilene, fifteen minutes to the north, is also a far-flung place—hours from Houston or Dallas or Austin or San Antonio—but it’s not a tiny town: its population is a buck and a quarter, about 125,000. Ever since Abilene was founded 140 years ago, it has had a local paper, the Abilene Reporter-News. It’s a perfectly normal newspaper. It exists on the Internet in a way that smaller local papers like the Buffalo Gap Round-Up News generally do not.

Which means that stories in the Round-Up have less of a footprint and are less consistently findable in search results because the stories largely aren’t online. There aren’t fact-checking operations or Poynter pontificators dedicated to critiquing what the Round-Up runs.

On page A-2 of the October issue, a note reads:

The publisher does not guarantee the absolute correctness of all information available, nor the complete absence of errors or unintentional omissions/inclusions. Opinions expressed are those of the writer(s) and may or may not represent the opinions of the advertisers, publisher, or staff. We reserve the right to edit, make changes, and refuse any submissions.

Given the sort of stuff that actually appears in this issue, I’d be interested in seeing the submissions that were refused.

At least in theory, the Round-Up does accept corrections. Another note reads:

This newspaper will not knowingly print inaccurate information, and will run corrections if notification of error is received within a reasonable time after publication date.

I confess I’d really like to see what a corrections page for this sort of publication would look like. Sorry, it turns out that the nefarious secret plans of Bill Gates and the CIA that were described to us by a tax cheat who fled America weren’t quite as described. Alas, the only correction I see in this issue is to a byline: an author was misidentified in the August issue.

Chances are, the Buffalo Gap News Round-Up has a small circulation. For nearly everyone who encounters it, the Round-Up probably plays only a supplemental, rather than a central, part of their media diet. Compared to many web outlets—including some the Round-Up borrows from—that put far-right conspiracy theories in front of huge audiences, the Round-Up is negligible in its reach.

But here in Buffalo Gap, it’s a part of civic life, with local businesses and local government in some sense invested in the poison it peddles.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.