Salon's worst calls

From "Run, Warren, Run!" to why Kerry will beat Bush to celebrating Martha Stewart not going to jail, a few of our most notable clunkers.

Published November 15, 2005 11:00AM (EST)

Amid all the hoopla and self-congratulation over Salon's first 10 years, the staff decided it wanted to get its humility card punched too. So we figured we'd collect Salon's worst calls, the biggest missteps and worst judgments, and have a good laugh over them.

Suggestions were called for and made, and we quickly ran into a problem: No one could agree about what constituted a bad call. One person's worst judgment in Salon history was another's greatest story ever posted. "Run, Warren, Run," Salon founder and then-editor David Talbot's quixotic plea for Warren Beatty to run for president, for example, got votes for this story and for the "Best of Salon" package.

It's not that it's hard to be humble when you're this good. It's just that it's hard to be humble when you can't decide which things to be humble about. And we're not even talking here about Salon Shop.

A conversation about bad calls at Salon has to start with the most controversial story we've ever published, the 1998 revelation that Sen. Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who was sitting in judgment of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, had carried on an extramarital affair in the 1960s with a woman who was also married.

Dozens of other news outlets had passed on the story before the source came to Salon with it, on the grounds that a 30-year-old affair wasn't relevant. There were fierce arguments among Salon's staff about whether to run the Hyde story, and Washington bureau chief Jonathan Broder eventually resigned after criticizing the piece publicly.

In the end Salon's editors decided to publish, arguing that Hyde's hypocrisy in condemning Clinton was a part of the story of the Clinton scandals. Also, Talbot said at the time, Salon wanted to take the Republican strategy of attacking Democrats' personal lives to its logical conclusion, to show how counterproductive it was and perhaps bring an end to the practice.

An American Journalism Review article on the controversy noted, "Finding journalists who see Salon's side isn't easy," but did find a few.

But the accompanying editorial explaining the decision to publish was widely attacked as smug, self-serving or simply absurd. And one line from it stuck to Salon like a bad nickname: "Aren't we fighting fire with fire," the editorial read, "descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics."

For a while, you couldn't read or hear about Salon without seeing the phrase "Ugly times call for ugly tactics."

"I still consider Salon's outing of Rep. Henry Hyde -- the moral hypocrite who was sitting in judgment on President Clinton's morality -- to be one of our finest hours," says Talbot, who stepped down as editor earlier this year but is still Salon's chairman of the board.

"And even though the Beltway pundits were outraged by our editorial's line -- ugly times demand ugly tactics -- this was a bluntly honest statement about the hideous situation the country found itself in, hijacked by a right-wing lynch mob and the witless media pack that took up its insane cry," he says. "I'll be forever proud of Salon for breaking away from the pack."

The storm passed. The bomb threats called in to Salon's office turned out to be false alarms, and we moved on.

Salon's most infamous moment may have been when advice columnist and author Dan Savage went to work for the Gary Bauer campaign in 2000.

Savage's plan had been to go to Iowa on the eve of the caucuses, follow around one of the conservative Christian Republican candidates, Bauer or Alan Keyes, then write "something insightful and humanizing about the candidate, his campaign and his supporters."

But by the time he got to Des Moines, Savage had come down with a nasty flu. Watching Bauer on TV from his hotel sickbed, Savage, who is gay, got angry about anti-gay comments the candidate had been making, including one in which Bauer said the Vermont Supreme Court's approving of gay marriage "was in some ways worse than terrorism."

"In my Sudafed-induced delirium," Savage wrote in the resulting piece, "Stalking Gary Bauer," "I decided that if it's terrorism Bauer wants, then it's terrorism Bauer is going get -- and I'm just the man to terrorize him." Remember that this was pre-9/11, so the word "terrorism" was still fair game to be used as political hyperbole.

Savage decided to go undercover as a volunteer at Bauer campaign headquarters, with the goal of getting close enough to the candidate to give him the flu, which would have laid him out just in time for the New Hampshire primary. To achieve this goal, Savage licked the doorknobs at the campaign office. He also licked staplers, phones, computer keyboards and clean coffee cups, according to the piece, not to mention asking Bauer for an autograph and handing him his much-slobbered-upon pen for the job, but it's the doorknobs everyone remembers.

When Salon published the article, it and Savage were blistered by the national media as well as our own readers, who called the story appalling, outrageous, unethical and, well, sick.

On the other hand, among those who disagreed was one reader who wrote, "Dan Savage -- you rock! That is the most brilliant, inspiring and damn funny story of political sabotage I've ever heard. Thank you for having the courage to lick doorknobs!"


Savage found himself charged with a felony, not for licking doorknobs, but for registering to vote in Iowa despite living in Washington state. On Page 5 of the story, Savage wrote about how ridiculously easy it is for nonresidents to register and vote in the caucuses. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a small fine and was sentenced to a year's probation and some community service.

"Jokes about terrorism don't seem so funny anymore," Savage says now via e-mail, "and I wouldn't pull the same stunt today. Bauer and his crowd, however, continue to compare gay marriage to terrorism, which would be funny if it weren't so tragic/idiotic/revealing.

"Am I glad I did it? Sure. Would I do it again? Nope. Your endorsement of Ralph Nader? Far more humiliating a lapse in judgment in retrospect, wouldn't you agree?"

Now why would he want to bring that up?

Bauer quickly faded in 2000, and that political season had nothing on 2004 when it came to Salon saying things that, looking back, seem a little foolish. Or brilliant. Sure, if you'd like. Brilliant. Right.

Four days before the election, Texas politico Jim Hightower told Salon's readers, "Cheer up, progressives. Kerry will win."

"GOP's Worst Fears Coming True," read the headline on a piece by reporter Michelle Goldberg. She quoted at length an influential Republican pollster who had concluded that a huge minority turnout would send John Kerry to the White House.

"Looking back, I just didn't take seriously enough the possibility that culture war issues would lead to increases among Bush's African-American support," Goldberg says, citing "enormous racially mixed megachurches" she'd seen in her reporting about the gay marriage fight in Ohio, churches "that had transformed themselves into really efficient electoral machines."

"When I wrote that, I was already working on the book I recently finished about the growing power of religious fundamentalism in American politics," Goldberg says, "and it could be I was trying to curb the temptation to latch on to evidence that proved my thesis. But I'm sure I was also blinkered by wishful thinking."

Columnist Sidney Blumenthal detailed "The Unmaking of the President," explaining how Bush had frittered away an easy win and was doomed to defeat.

On the eve of the 2000 election, a column by Andrew Sullivan was headlined, "Why Is This Race Even Close?" His answer: "Because George W. Bush has campaigned better, proposed more forward-thinking programs and proved, in the end, that he's smarter than Al Gore."

Sullivan remains no fan of Gore, but: "Looking back, I was dead wrong about Bush," he says. "I believed Bush when he said he was a moderate Republican. In retrospect, Bush turned out to be far more intent on increasing public spending than Gore was. And I obviously didn't believe he would go so far as to endorse the Federal Marriage Amendment, legalize torture, add trillions to the debt and expand Medicare."

The world of sports provides ample opportunities for bad calls. There are even certain commentators who more or less make a living by prognosticating badly about sports, though I don't know why you'd want to bring that up either.

But if we're going to go with a representative call, it has to be Allen Barra's preview of Super Bowl XXXVI in January 2002, which Barra wrote as though the game had already been played.

"In one of the most lopsided games in Super Bowl history, the St. Louis Rams, scoring points the way they vote in Chicago -- 'early and often' -- slaughtered the flatfooted New England Patriots, 56-10," he wrote. "No, make that 56-9 ... To fans who enjoy pro football because of its capacity for domination, it was a classic. There was simply no doubt by the end of the game that the Rams were the best team in football."

Four days later, the Patriots beat the Rams 20-17.

Barra remains unapologetic. "I stick by my prediction," he says. "If they replayed the game I'd still pick the Rams to win." He adds that the Rams did win, "by six touchdowns -- in a perfect universe."

You see, there are no bad calls, only imperfect universes.

Salon's staffers were asked to volunteer their own worst calls for this story, and they responded by scurrying off to suddenly remembered dentist's appointments. But a few were caught at the elevators.

Editor in chief Joan Walsh pointed out that a mere six weeks passed between her bittersweet appreciation of the outgoing President Clinton and a withering attack on him for the "last-minute bacchanal of bad judgment" that made up his final days in office.

The subheads on the two pieces say it all. "As the newly liberated president travels the country to cement his legacy, he reminds us we'll miss him as much as he'll miss us," read the first, on Jan. 13. The second, on Feb. 23, about Clinton's orgy of crony-pardoning, read, "Former President Clinton's disgraceful exit raises an awful possibility: Maybe he was as morally bankrupt as his right-wing enemies said."

Rebecca Traister recalled congratulating Martha Stewart for avoiding jail -- before Stewart went to jail. To be fair, Traister acknowledged that all that had happened back in February 2004 was that the most serious charge against her had been dropped.

"Not so much a bad call as jumping the gun -- also known as bad reporting," Traister says now. "I would say, in retrospect, that one sort of smart thing to do when writing about legal verdicts is to maybe wait for the full verdict to be handed down before analyzing them."

Andrew Leonard, who writes about technology and culture and for years edited Salon's Tech site, called a piece he assigned praising Microsoft's .Net initiative in a contrarian move "a really bad call."

"All Hail .Net!" didn't go over well with readers, who declared themselves "speechless with shock and horror" at a piece that brought "simplistic sycophancy to a new low."

"I had originally planned to run both a pro- and an anti-.Net piece to mark its official unveiling," Leonard says now. "But the con piece fell through, and I went, What the hell, it will be a contrarian piece praising Microsoft from a notoriously anti-Microsoft Salon Tech section.

"But readers saw it, correctly, I think, as a very weak piece written by the author of .Net how-to books that undermined everything the Salon Tech section stood for."

Table Talk host and sometime movie critic Mary Beth Williams answered the call for bad calls by saying, "I think I should win something for being the only person ever who gave a good review to the Gus Van Sant remake of 'Psycho.'"

Now, with some distance, Williams is philosophical about her take on the remake. "I still say an awful lot of people were predisposed to hate it because they thought it shouldn't have been made in the first place," she says warmly. "So bite me!"

And Salon's advice columnist, Cary Tennis, sent an e-mail that read, "I dunno about absolutely terrible calls. Pretty much whatever I say there's at least one person who thinks I'm nuts -- including recently more than one letter saying I shouldn't advise somebody to fire a gun randomly (it was a metaphor!)."

But he gamely came up with a few favorites:

"One was telling the woman whose boyfriend spent too much time with his dogs to just get a dog herself, to just 'become a dog person! Surrender to the delights of man-dog love!'

"Another one was where the married woman slept with somebody at work and then found out she was pregnant and wasn't sure which partner had made her pregnant. I advised her to just say nothing for the time being. Most people who wrote in response begged to differ.

"Oh, and this one -- I should never have let on that, yes, sometimes these very delicate matters that readers entrust to me do get discussed over fabulous meals. Henceforth, I don't include the recipes with the responses."

A few minutes later, another e-mail came in from Tennis about that last one.

"The more I think about this column, the more I like it as a candidate," he wrote, "because if you read the first paragraph of my response, you know, we're talking about guilt, and it's like I'm talking with my mouth full, utterly sated, sitting around a big holiday table. We're all stuffing ourselves with gluttonous abandon, actually, and this poor guy is asking, 'How do I try to heal the wound that this abortion has caused?'

"And I'm like, 'Your unenviable predicament was discussed at length over a dinner of roast goose, sweet and sour cabbage, green beans with toasted walnuts, and mashed potatoes in a goose gravy whose preparation required the patient reduction of two cups of a good merlot to a fragrant, unearthly nectar ...'

"And I conclude: You have nothing to feel guilty about, my son!"

And neither do we. As we sit around our anniversary table, stuffing ourselves with memories of our first 10 years, there's no shame in the odd licked doorknob, the occasional evil Microsoft initiative praised to the heavens, the random bad prediction about an election or a football game.

The best part of putting Salon out every day is just as true about the good stuff as it is about the not-so-good: There's plenty more where that came from.

"Some may point out that not all of Salon's risks have stood the test of time, and that's true," says Talbot, the founder. "But to tell you the truth, I'm even fond of our mistakes. You can't do anything special if you're always afraid of falling on your face. Long live Salon's wild spirit!"

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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