Cops Take It on the Chin
Syndicated sex adviser Dan Savage devoted a recent column to testimonials of men who enjoy ejaculating on women's faces. Savage Love is never for every taste, but this time Savage counted himself among the offended. "Even by Savage Labs' famously lax standards, these letters are pretty uniformly disgusting," he wrote. "Very disturbing stuff. If you can't hack it, please pass your copy of this weekly paper on to an impressionable minor who can."
To a handful of readers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this jest was the last straw. Some readers protested to a local Volkswagen dealer, and Volkswagen Canada promptly canceled its advertising in the weekly Coast. "I'm entirely customer driven," Mike Velemirovich, the dealer, explained to a Halifax daily. "Call it prostitution."
Some urged a local legislator to stop advertising his services in the Coast. Readers contacted other advertisers too.
Canada's a free country, and an outraged public has a right to make any calls it wants. The problem is that among the concerned citizens in Halifax were officers assigned to the fraud section of the Halifax Regional Police Service. It's always difficult for cops to separate their public roles from their private lives, and it looks like these cops barely tried. Peter Delefes of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly told the Coast a caller claiming at first to be a simple constituent quickly got specific. "When you identify yourself as a police officer," Delefes observed, "then it suggests a certain moral suasion, a certain pressure."
Velemirovich, general manager of Hillcrest Volkswagen, tells me the officer who called him insisted he was acting strictly as a friend and customer. But when this friend and customer faxed over a copy of Savage's column, the cover letter was on police stationery.
Entirely predictable repercussions followed. The front page of the Coast shouted, "Abuse of Power." The dailies made hay, and one columnist ran Velemirovich's phone number. The Volkswagen ads were back a week later, and Velemirovich was quoted as saying, "After having read eight or nine of the columns I now see that Savage is right on target, giving good advice."
Another daily trotted out a local philosophy professor. "It is not cost beneficial to try to get rid of the Savages of this world," he pronounced. "You just have to let them do their thing and figure it is a small price for freedom."
Police headquarters promised an internal investigation.
The Coast went to court seeking an injunction against three officers who'd allegedly contacted advertisers. They bagged one of them, the cop against whom there was physical evidence--a fax that said, "I don't believe a company of your reputation should be supporting this." The Coast continues to threaten to sue, but the city and the paper, which would be hard-pressed to point to any damage suffered, are expected to settle out of court.
"There was no possible way we could have gotten him any better publicity," says Coast editor Kyle Shaw. "The issue was on every single radio station, every single TV station. These cops certainly didn't help the cause of trying to shut Savage up."
On the contrary. Savage filled a previously scheduled speaking date in a Halifax bar a few days after the story hit the papers. "It became a huge circus," he says. "As a consequence my event was extremely well attended, and I got to do a lot of interviews." One daily photographed him on the front steps of the police station.
U.S. News & World Report ran a short, unflattering item this month about the Sun-Times's Terry Savage (no relation to Dan). The magazine's Washington Whispers reported that the syndicated columnist "was recently identified in the newsletter Credit Card News as receiving 'an undisclosed sum' from Visa to 'give financial advice to consumers across the country.'
"Whispers figured this must be some sort of typo," U.S. News went on, "since a big part of any personal-finance columnist's job is to write about credit card companies like, well, Visa. But a call to Visa U.S.A. vice president David Sandor confirmed that Savage has indeed hosted about 23 seminars around the country whose costs, including Savage's fee, were paid by Visa."
Sandor told the magazine that Savage's presentation "really has very little to do with credit cards," which prompted Whispers to comment, "That sounds like a diet seminar that has little to do with fat grams and calories."
Savage was out of the country and unreachable by U.S. News. But she's since returned, and we talked. If Whispers had hoped to embarrass her, it failed.
"I get a great feeling from doing these seminars. People come up and say, 'Thank you! Bless you!'" she told me. "I show how to get even and get ahead. I love that Visa is sponsoring me to go around the country and educate people so they don't get buried in debt. It's the most rewarding experience!"
A conflict of interest? "This is just the opposite," Savage insisted. "This is me telling people, 'Use credit wisely. Pay down your debt. Beware. Instead of throwing money down the drain in finance charges, invest that money.'"
What do you think of the legislation pending in Washington to rewrite the Bankruptcy Code? I asked her. "I've conspicuously wanted to avoid being associated with a position on that," Savage replied. "I'm just interested in saving souls and wallets. Not one person ever looks at me joyously and says, 'Hey, I'm so glad I went bankrupt!' These are people who understand they reneged on an obligation."
But Savage is associated with Visa, and Visa's position is crystal clear. It's leading a high-powered campaign to make bankruptcy much harder to declare, on the grounds that bankruptcy has lost its stigma and is now frequently abused. Partisans of a new code cite a study that reported a quarter of the individuals filing for Chapter Seven relief actually could have paid off a third or more of their debts in five years' time. The study was underwritten by Visa and MasterCard.
A reform bill that passed the House handily in June was sponsored by Florida Republican Bill McCollum, among others. According to the Orlando Sentinel, in March McCollum received a Golden Leash Award from a nonpartisan group called Public Campaign "because he took $374,000 in campaign donations from banks and credit-card companies between 1991 and last summer."
In April, letters not so coincidentally appeared in both the Sun-Times and Tribune supporting McCollum's bill. K.A. Skopec, president of MidCity Financial Corporation, writing in the Sun-Times, and former senator Alan J. Dixon, writing in the Tribune, both cited the Visa-financed study, though neither mentioned who was behind it. "Many of our citizens cannot find the discipline we have demanded of our elected officials," Dixon asserted. Skopec argued, "Bankruptcy should not be a financial planning option for high-earning Americans who have spent extravagantly."
Both letters were solicited by Dixon's son Jeff, a Chicago publicist working with the National Retail Federation.
In the meantime, federal bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff of Chicago has written a 68-page analysis of McCollum's bill that finds it flawed throughout, with the new means-testing process being "unworkable or inequitable." Wedoff's arguments, prepared for the American Bankruptcy Institute, have been passed along to congressmen, but the press has paid no attention to them.
Critics of McCollum's bill (among whom we naturally find the nation's bankruptcy lawyers) argue that no one's more responsible for the so-called bankruptcy crisis than the credit card companies themselves--which pass out cards as if they were cigarette samples. Terry Savage, whether she's sensitive to it or not, finds herself on the payroll of a free-spending combatant in a public-policy debate. She's not bothered. "I'm the best judge of my own integrity," she declared.
Something about trees doesn't bring out the best in the Sun-Times. Columnist Raymond Coffey made it clear long ago that he has no use for the tree clearers of Chicago's prairie restoration movement. The other day he spotted a long article in Restoration & Management Notes reflecting on the "great Chicago restoration wars" and suggesting how the restorationists might win them. The article, by former Sun-Times reporter Alf Siewers, acknowledged Coffey's influence and described him as at home in "the highly interconnected world of Chicago's conservative political establishment."
It was the wrong thing to say. Reacting in print as though his old colleague had just cut him off on the Edens, Coffey denounced the author of the "ethereally eggheadish essay" as "some pretentiously silly has-been journalist and would-be scholar." Siewers left the paper to get a doctorate at the University of Illinois.
Then there were last week's tone-deaf headlines, "Beetle mania" and "Beetles bug you? Don't panic." To anyone who lives in the neighborhood where every tree may have to be chopped down, or even just outside it (as I do), the invasion of the Asian long-horned beetle is an environmental catastrophe. But neither headline approached the one over Michael Sneed's Sunday column: "On the bug beat, the buzz is about beetles." That at least was true to the spirit of the piece, which concluded, "I can sure think of a lot more serious things to worry about. Like the jerks, creeps and weirdos who hide behind our trees."
"We've been in business 20 years now, and we should be able to show more than 2,500 paid subscribers," says Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. He was speaking of the bimonthly magazine, the Neighborhood Works, which CNT publishes and which never has come close to paying its own way. After two decades of covering half to three-quarters of the magazine's costs--which exceed a quarter million dollars a year--the CNT board recently asked itself whether it should pull the plug.
But the answer was no. The board imposed some immediate economies--managing editor Ed Finkel was laid off, and the publication date of the next issue was pushed back a month--but editor Christine McConville was told to keep going, as long as she could make the Neighborhood Works both more self-sufficient and more closely tied to the other work of CNT.
McConville told me she's just launched the first of two 15,000-piece direct-mail campaigns (last year two 10,000-piece mailings went out). She's also going to imitate magazines like the Progressive and In These Times by trying to turn subscribers into donors. "If we get 100 people who'll say 'Here's $10 a month,' that's $1,000 a month to sustain us." And she's locating organizations similar to CNT in other cities that will offer the Neighborhood Works as a membership premium "and kick a percentage to us."
Editorially, there's a plan to wrap several upcoming issues around special reports on CNT programs. "We've decided to work more collaboratively with CNT, but in no way will it be a CNT newsletter," says McConville. Even so, she perceives herself to be losing some autonomy. Bernstein responds, "Loss of autonomy--I don't think so." But he says "The magazine, I hope, will take more advantage of the center. We have a lot of smart people here doing very interesting work."
McConville has been frustrated by the unwillingness of foundations to fund publications. They'll underwrite a neighborhood-development program run by CNT, but if it succeeds they won't help the Neighborhood Works spread the word about it. Still, there is money for some things, and she's already written a proposal for a grant to hire a minority staff writer.
It took the Tribune about half the age-discrimination trial pitting Notre Dame football coaches against each other to figure out that this was a big story. Roman Modrowski reported for the Sun-Times from Lafayette, Indiana, while the Tribune let the AP handle it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Savage poto by Erika Langley.