Satire in journalism turns journalism on its head: the audience that believes what it reads doesn't get it, while the knowing public doesn't take it at face value.
Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage just got himself in a ton of trouble for a long article in the on-line magazine Salon that he says was a send-up. His behavior at the Iowa caucuses--at least as he described it in Salon--was indefensible. But was that really his behavior?
Savage explained in Salon that he'd gone to Des Moines to follow around "one of the loopy conservative Christian candidates" and write about the campaign. But when he got there he went to bed with the flu. On his "deathbed" he heard Gary Bauer declare on MSNBC "Our society will be destroyed if we say it's OK for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman," and in his "Sudafed-induced delirium," Savage decided to respond with an act of "terrorism." His new plan: volunteer for the Bauer campaign and "get close enough to Bauer to give him the flu....I would go to Bauer's campaign office and cough on everything--phones and pens, staplers and staffers."
If his plan was "a little malicious," well, he figured, so's Bauer. "When Bauer tells people that gays and lesbians are a threat to families, I take that personally."
Savage went on to say how he carried out his scheme. Rising from his soggy bed of pain, he signed on at Bauer headquarters, worked the phones a couple shifts, and while everyone else was at a pizza party "went from doorknob to doorknob....Much as it pains me to confirm a hateful stereotype of gay men--we will put anything in our mouths--I started licking doorknobs. The front door, office doors, even a bathroom door. When that was done, I started in on the staplers, phones and computer keyboards. Then I stood in the kitchen and licked the rims of all the clean coffee cups drying in the rack."
He wasn't done yet. Stalking Bauer during an appearance at a local war memorial, Savage pulled his pen out of his mouth and handed it to the candidate so he could autograph a photo of Savage's adopted son. "Score! My bodily fluids--flu bugs and all--were all over his hand!"
The balance of the expedition was business as usual for Savage. Though he lives in Seattle, he registered to vote as an Iowa resident, using his hotel's address, then accepted a ballot for the Republican caucuses and cast it for "the hard-right candidate who could do the most harm to the Republican Party." That wasn't even Bauer. It was Alan Keyes.
Judging from what Salon posted on-line and from the debate inside the Reader, reaction to the Salon story fell into three camps.
A lot of readers believed it and hated it:
"Dan Savage has managed to make Bauer look normal."
"I guess perjury and germ warfare are OK if you are a Democrat."
"Exactly what we need today: Irresponsible media encouraging violence against politicians who don't agree with their views."
"If we find Dan Savage tied to a fence and beaten to death there will be no candlelight vigils."
"A gross violation of ordinary civility....Savage has done something approaching criminality."
Some readers didn't believe it and loved it:
"His column is full of made-up stuff, outrageous lies and downright sci-fi scenarios spun for their humor value--and eight times out of ten, they are hilarious, and you can spot them a mile off. This is to be taken about as seriously as his assertion that his assistant Kevin begs to be peed on as often as possible."
And a few weren't sure what to think:
"I assume that Savage's story...is a put-on. Right? Otherwise, he's accomplished something that I thought impossible: He's made Bauer a sympathetic figure."
"If Mr. Savage's article is a riff on every would-be politically motivated undercover saboteur's fantasy, then it is hugely amusing and creative. If his story is true, however, then it violates my definition of media ethics."
"OK, first I laughed....Then I thought about it for two seconds and was ashamed of myself."
One interested reader was Gary Bauer. "I just feel kinda sad for the guy," ABC News had him saying, "that he's so consumed with hate that he would not only do something like this, but actually brag about it."
Another reader was Loras Schulte, Bauer's campaign director in Iowa. Schulte threatened Savage with criminal prosecution for assault and for falsifying information to get a voter registration card. Schulte argued that Savage had spread his saliva to cause bodily harm, and because he was motivated by religious and political differences, he'd violated Iowa's hate-crimes law in the bargain.
Uncharacteristically, Savage himself said nothing for days. Salon carried its own statement, hailing the piece as "powerful writing, Swiftian in its desperate, satiric outrage at anti-gay discrimination" but carefully adding, "We also feel compelled to say: We didn't assign Savage to infect Bauer. We don't condone or endorse what he says he did." Salon might simply have cut to the chase and told us whether Savage did what he said he did, but it didn't. So Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic, asked. He reported that Salon editor David Talbot allowed that Savage was at first "somewhat evasive" about his story's veracity but later "made clear to me he was exaggerating." About what, exactly, Talbot didn't know.
For what it's worth, Salon columnist Camille Paglia took Savage at his word, called his behavior "sociopathic," and said it "is disastrous for the cause of gay rights in this country since it exposes the bizarre mix of infantilism and fascism in the most extreme gay activism."
Savage loyalists at the Reader, which carries his "Savage Love" every week and has published some of his longer pieces, waited for him to speak up, to at least identify the genre he'd been writing in.
On Tuesday he returned to Seattle after weeks on the road and broke the silence. "Everyone should read it as a humor piece," he told me. "Liberties were taken."
He explained, "Because I may go to jail there are things I can't comment on, but I can assure everyone that licking doorknobs is an exaggeration. I originally had a paragraph at the end where I let everyone know I hadn't licked any doorknobs. But I wanted the Bauer people to squirm and clean the office, which was really a filthy pit. I write a column where sometimes I'm shitting you, sometimes I'm not. I think that was a little lost on Salon readers. I was parodying Bauer's virulent spreading of homophobia in our culture by spreading a little virulence of my own. Licking doorknobs was the least damage I could do to his campaign. Every computer was open, and I was alone in the office--and believe me, I know how to destroy a file. And I did no such thing."
The Polk County prosecutor in Des Moines was reviewing the evidence this week, but Savage probably isn't in much legal jeopardy. Even if every word in his story is taken as gospel, his effortless infiltration of the Republican caucuses--which makes them look silly--shows him flouting mostly party bylaws. He'd have broken Iowa law by registering to vote under false pretenses, but he adroitly covered that base in his story: "You know what?...
I'd fallen in love with Iowa. In fact, at the moment I was filling out that voter registration form, I could honestly say I would never want to leave Iowa. I'll send for the boyfriend and baby later in the week. I signed. I was an Iowan now."
As for an assault charge, even Loras Schulte can see how unlikely that is. "I'm not certain where that will lead," he told me. "It is Iowa, and January, and the flu is an endemic thing." Schulte picked up the flu during the caucuses, and though he has his suspicions, he realizes there's no way to prove how he got it.
But Schulte said he clearly recalls Savage handing Bauer a pen at the war memorial. He's unforgiving. "I guess the thought he could do this with impunity--that it was some sort of twisted joke--does not sit very well with me. I understand that as a Christian I'm admonished to turn my cheek, but this was done to my staff. They did not hire on to have anyone infect them intentionally."
Savage told me he truly was sick with the flu when he got to Iowa but knew "full well" that by then he was no longer contagious. "I was actually in more danger exposing myself to Bauer than Bauer was to me. Presidential candidates have been everywhere and exposed to everything." Nevertheless, out of concern for children he kept his distance from them, going so far as to turn down a ride once because there were kids in the car. "I have a kid," he reminded me.
As for what happened at the war memorial, "I can't comment on that. I did get Bauer's autograph."
It must be said that the Bauer camp gives credit where it's due. Schulte and another top official told the Des Moines Register that Savage was a popular staffer--hardworking, cheerful, gracious. Such is the American work ethic--even subversives feel compelled to earn their pay.
Again life imitates art. If the Dan Savage yarn about a political aide with a secret agenda sounds familiar to you, you've probably been reading Brenda Starr.
Whenever Sherman's Lagoon shows up in the Tribune comic pages, readers know they're missing something. Usually it's the vacationing Doonesbury. But last Thursday the Tribune sent in its trusty pinch runner with the announcement, in "Corrections and clarifications," that Boondocks would miss a couple days because of "inappropriate content." The paper also had pulled the comic on Monday, but as that day's strip had been replaced with another Boondocks, no mention was made.
Some readers wondered what was going on. The unpublished strips "posed fairness issues as well as possible legal implications," says Gerould Kern, deputy managing editor for features. "Two of the strips alleged drug use by an individual named in the strip, and a third strip [Monday's] focused on a personal dispute between the artist and another person."
The "individual" was Whitney Houston, who allegedly was caught carrying less than half an ounce of marijuana last month at a Hawaiian airport but wasn't held or charged. Cartoonist Aaron McGruder drew with a heavy hand. "I think she was stupid," says Huey, his strip's surly little hero. In the Monday strip McGruder whaled away at Black Entertainment Television. He began with a panel of typed exposition explaining that BET boss Bob Johnson "recently proclaimed that BET does more to serve the Black community each and every day than [McGruder] has done his entire life." In honor of Johnson's "fine example," McGruder presented what he introduced as a drawing of "a black woman's gyrating rear end."
This strip, which the Washington Post also saw fit to spike, can be found on McGruder's Web site, www.boondocks.net, where he also provides a link to "a nekkit, white booty that didn't get banned." This turns out to be the February 2 For Better or for Worse, which offers a perky drawing of the feverishly menopausal heroine pulling off her nightgown.
Steven Milloy has made his way back to the Sun-Times. He's the writer who showed up last year in the business pages bearing the good news that research had revealed that the health hazards posed by weed killers and genetically modified grains had been overstated. What the Sun-Times didn't tell its readers then was that this sort of debunking is a way of life for Milloy, who maintains a useful, entertaining, but tendentious Web site called junkscience.com and is far from a dispassionate reporter.
I wrote about Milloy on November 12, and he disappeared from the Sun-Times for a while. On January 25 he showed up again with more good news--this time that there's no credible scientific evidence linking the food additives known as trans fatty acids to human heart disease. The Sun-Times conspicuously labeled Milloy's new piece "commentary" and carried a note at the end of the article identifying him as a biostatistician and lawyer and the publisher of junkscience.com. It failed to mention that he's been a paid lobbyist for the International Food Additives Council and food-additive manufacturers such as Monsanto and the FMC Corporation.
Here's what some downstate prosecutors have been saying about Governor Ryan's moratorium on capital punishment, as reported in their local papers.
Charles Reynard, McLean County state's attorney: "The fact death sentences have been reversed basically means the system is working."
Tom Brown, Livingston County state's attorney: "I think the system already has adequate safeguards."
William Haine, Madison County state's attorney: "He can do this, but in my opinion it's an abuse of that authority. Because traditionally, the governor has the power to grant clemency or pardon, but that's only after a judicious case review. What he's saying is, 'I don't care what the facts are. I'm not going to let anyone be executed.'"
Robert Haida, Saint Clair County state's attorney: "It reminds me of a transition from Governor Tough to Governor Fluff."
The Sun-Times, as I reported last week, didn't exactly jump on the Ryan-death-penalty-moratorium story after the Tribune broke it. But its efforts on the other Ryan saga can't be faulted. Last Sunday it bannered--"Letter to Ryan gave details of corruption"--its discovery that in early 1998, while Ryan was still secretary of state, his wife was given a letter describing ongoing abuses at the McCook licensing facility. The letter had been written by a McCook employee and handed to Lura Lynn Ryan by the employee's mother.
In the finest Chicago tradition of "Let's not get too excited here," the Tribune responded with its own Sunday story in the Metro section: "Ryan's wife says she doesn't recall whistleblower kin's note." The Tribune saw no reason to mention the competition, attributing its information instead to the mother "and other sources familiar with her account."
The Tribune was so pleased with this effort that it repeated it two days later. A Tuesday Metro story was headlined "Governor's wife says she can't recall letter." Again, "other sources" were credited.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.