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Beyond the Fringe

The editor of Conscious Choice answers to new masters in California--not that he has anything against a good conspiracy theory.

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A weird article in the September issue of Conscious Choice raises questions about the direction being taken by one of Mayor Daley's favorite magazines. "The 9/11 Credibility Gap" was a friendly interview by national editor Abigail Lewis with David Ray Griffin, professor of theology at the Claremont Colleges and author of The New Pearl Harbor, which suggests the World Trade Center was brought down by explosives planted in the towers rather than by the planes alone and that behind the catastrophe were neoconservatives seeking a pretext for war. Conscious Choice called Griffin's book "perhaps the most detailed and compelling refutation of the 'official' 9/11 story," thereby declaring itself a forum for credulous new age wingnuts.

"What next?" wondered Mac Brachman of Evanston, in a letter published in the October issue. "Unedited views from a Holocaust denier? A flat-earth believer? A 'the earth came into being at 9 a.m. on a particular date 5 millennia' creationist?" The "editor's reply" told Brachman, "I'm afraid we will have to decline. There is a perceivable chasm of difference between those intentionally ridiculous ideas and those of Professor Griffin and millions of others around the world who question the official story."

Not exactly a reassuring response. Among the millions who doubt the official 9/11 story are many certain that Jews with jobs in the World Trade Center had advance notice and didn't show up for work that day. (Griffin doesn't address this notion in the interview.) The other day when I called Charles Shaw, the new editor of Conscious Choice, he said emphatically, "They booked that article before I came on."

Shaw couldn't have stopped the article even if he'd been there. Conscious Choice, founded in Chicago 18 years ago, is one of four similar magazines--the others are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle--sold by Dragonfly Media of New York a little less than a year ago to Conscious Enlightenment LLC, and local content is now subordinate to national content dictated by headquarters in LA. Lewis's interview with Griffin ran in all four magazines.

Even so, it was nice to hear Shaw disassociate himself. It would have been nicer if he hadn't added that in his view Griffin was "one of the most respected theologians in America" and that the interview was "just kind of saying that we're courageous enough to take on strong topics and give them a forum." And it would have been even nicer yet if his anti-conspiracy-theory credentials gleamed.

Shaw used to run the late Web zine Newtopia, where early in the George W. Bush presidency he told the "extraordinary story" of a dinner party Bush's brother Neil was going to hold in Denver in March 1981, with family friend Scott Hinckley as an expected guest. The dinner was called off at the last minute, Shaw wrote, because Ronald Reagan had just been shot in the stomach by Hinckley's brother John. By a "half-inch," according to Shaw, the bullet missed putting Neil Bush's father, the vice president, into the White House.

"Coincidence? Apparently so," Shaw wrote sarcastically. Not only did the media suppress the story, he went on, but a suspicious congressman, Larry McDonald--a Georgia Democrat who was national chairman of the John Birch Society--died when a Korean passenger jet was shot down by Soviet fighters in 1983.

"Is there a chill running down your spine yet?" Shaw wondered. "In a normally functioning society with a true free press, this many coincidences would sound a nuclear alert."

Mayor Daley--celebrated for his greenness--has been a regular reader of Conscious Choice and is said to mark up his copy and pass it along to staffers. Shaw's predecessor as editor, Marla Donato, introduced a monthly column by the city's "green commish," Sadhu Johnston, commissioner of the Department of Environment. But after Conscious Enlightenment took over there was a perceptible shift in editorial emphasis--less ecology, more yoga. Donato (also the editor of the San Francisco magazine) soon resigned over policy differences.

Shaw says that on the matter of content "our editorial policy is a four-part foundation--equal parts environmentalism, healthy and natural living, progressive politics, and spirituality. And we try to keep a balance." He concedes that "it was a little bit heavier on the spirituality stuff in the initial transition. They [Conscious Enlightenment] were making a statement--'Here's what we're about.' But I don't think it'll be nearly as saturated with that particular type of spirituality as it was the first few months."

Look for more political activism, Shaw said. "In the past we'd do a food story--we'd do 'Fennel, our friend.' Now we'll talk about grub as a movement." He cited an October story on the new book Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry. "It's all about a total awareness of food systems--how does it get to your plate?

Plus we're really trying to focus on a narrative feel, less of a journalistic feel."

At any rate, Commissioner Johnston intends to keep writing. "We have no control over what they publish other than my own column," he said when I asked him about the 9/11 piece. "I'm enthusiastic about their interest in working with us on local issues, and that's about the extent of my interest in the publication."

Conscious Choice was founded in Chicago and run for 15 years by Jim Slama, who still runs a nonprofit called Sustain that connects organic farmers in the midwest with markets. (Sustain's program director, Lynn Peemoeller, wrote the grub story.) Slama's focus was on "greenability," but he approves of his old magazine trying to redefine itself. "The bottom line," he says, "is that Conscious Choice readers are 80 percent women and most are over the age of 45. It's like, you know, we've got to make a few changes."

Still, Slama thinks the magazine is missing a bet. He says hardly anyone knows that Conscious Enlightenment's parent company, IBS Capital Holdings, is a private equity firm that can claim Willie Gault as a principal. Gault was the starting wide receiver for the 1985 Super Bowl Bears. "Think of how many Bears fans have never heard of Conscious Choice," he says. "If Willie Gault came out and said he was part of this thing it would be very interesting. Maybe they'd start eating organic hot dogs instead of the ordinary ones."

But then Shaw told me Conscious Enlightenment just killed a story he wanted to run on grass-fed beef. Meat's a no-no.

Green Candidate Savaged

Dan Savage, author of the syndicated advice column Savage Love, which runs in the Reader, was in Philadelphia last week, and he was interviewed on camera by Stephen Morse of the Daily Pennsylvanian. "This was by far the most insane interview that I've ever conducted," Morse wrote later, when he posted the interview on the Internet. He and Savage talked about the state's U.S. Senate race, where conservative Democrat Bob Casey is challenging incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and the Green Party's Carl Romanelli is a wild card. Morse reported that Savage told him that "the Green party and its supporters are tools and fools for the Republicans and the radical right" and that "Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pick-up truck until there's nothing left but the rope."

Savage's prescription recalled one of the most notorious hate crimes in recent U.S. history, the murder of a middle-aged black man, James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.

Savage has a knack for being wildly but forgivably offensive, but this time it failed him. Gay blogger Michael Petrelis of San Francisco picked up Morse's story and commented, "While the GOP has to put up with the ranting of Ann Coulter, the Democrats are blessed with gay journalist Dan Savage, [who] is so keen to elect a Democrat to replace the truly nutty and homophobic Rick Santorum, he advocates violence against a Green Party leader in Pennsylvania." Petrelis advised Savage to consider joining a "political supremacist group. I hear they still exist in Texas and always need new recruits to spew hatred against people they don't like."

At Seattle's Stranger, where Savage is the editor, most readers who weighed in on its blog indulged him (thestranger.com/blog/2006/ 10/five_minutes_with_da_1.php). Even so, to his credit Savage apologized. "Here's the diff be-tween me and Coulter," he wrote.

"I regret using that truck meta-phor, and didn't mean it literally, and it was in poor taste, and I regret it. Jeezuhs, never have three Hoegardens before someone points a camera at your face. But the Green in the race there is scum, and should be slapped--just slapped--and slapped hard. Not literally, though. No violence."

Savage told me he'd been a "mouthy idiot." He said, "I kind of regretted the words as they left my mouth." Petrelis is someone "I like and respect, and if he wants to let me have it, let it come."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Merideth, Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment.

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