By Michael Miner

Savage Backlash

A hyperpersonal essay that begins, “About five years ago I had sex with this guy I met at a party,” and admits to some irritation that the guy still lives, received an “excellence in journalism” award at the recent conference of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in Chicago. Before the conference ended NLGJA members who were appalled at the award were organizing a protest. The letter they wrote condemned the essay as “one of the most inaccurate and careless articles dealing with AIDS that we have ever read.”

The essay originally appeared in the Reader and editors here say they’d publish it again in an instant.

“Death Takes a Holiday,” written by Savage Love columnist Dan Savage, argued that the tide had turned: medical advances had turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease–at least for some. Psyches must be retuned accordingly.

“There are people who don’t want you to know about this end-of-AIDS business. This kind of talk is premature, they insist, and dangerous,” Savage wrote. “They’re right to be afraid. The end of AIDS is going to ‘impact behavior choices’ in bedrooms and legislatures, and alter people’s choices when it comes to volunteering their time or donating their money. They’re right about something else too, something at once very important and utterly meaningless: AIDS isn’t over. People are still getting infected, and the vast majority of people with AIDS are still going to die, drugs or no drugs. But don’t be fooled: Even if AIDS isn’t over, the AIDS crisis is.”

That’s because “presentable, middle-class, well-spoken white people”–the ones Savage called “poster people, gay and straight” for AIDS–didn’t seem to be dying any longer. They were taking the new drugs instead.

“AIDS educators must construct new messages that address AIDS in the here and now–new treatments, lower viral loads, and PWAs who aren’t sick or dying,” Savage wrote. “What they absolutely should not be doing is, well, exactly what most will probably do: pump out the same old unsafe-sex-equals-death messages, exhorting us to use condoms for AIDS-crisis-era reasons.”

Speaking of condoms, Savage allowed that as an HIV-negative gay man in a monogamous relationship, he’d decided to stop wearing them. “That frightens me,” his mother told him, and on this note his essay ended. It ran last winter in the Reader and also in New York’s Village Voice and Seattle’s Stranger. The Reader submitted it for an NLGJA award.

Bruce Mirken is a freelance writer and local NLGJA officer in San Francisco. When Savage’s piece appeared in Seattle a friend there mailed it to him, attaching a letter that exclaimed in all sincerity how great it was the epidemic was over and how Mirken now would have to find something else to write about.

Mirken didn’t think so. Months later when NLGJA acclaimed Savage’s essay in Chicago, his first reaction was, “Are they kidding?” He tracked down the article and read it again to make sure he remembered it right, and then he started rounding up others at the conference who felt the same way he did. The critique that arrived last week at NLGJA’s Washington headquarters was primarily Mirken’s work, though there were 18 names at the bottom of it, including Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project, and Martin Delaney, founding director of Project Inform.

“Although as individuals we find many different aspects of ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ offensive,” they informed NLGJA, “we wish to focus your attention on what we believe is the overriding issue: The article’s glaring inaccuracies. Savage’s underlying premise is factually incorrect and the entire piece is riddled with misstatements. Please understand that we are not talking about subtleties of nuance or interpretation: The article’s main points are simply wrong.

“The entire article is constructed around the premise that new treatments mean that for most people who have access to these drugs AIDS is no longer a fatal illness. Although Savage does include a brief, tossed-off acknowledgment that the drugs don’t work for everybody, he hammers home his main theme relentlessly: ‘PWAs don’t seem to be dying anymore,’ Savage tells us in a sentence written at the end of a year in which 30,000 Americans died from AIDS. A friend with AIDS, who hasn’t even begun treatment, ‘isn’t going to die.’ And as for safe sex, ‘if we messed up we probably weren’t going to die or kill each other. We would just have to take a lot of pills, maybe forever. Diabetes, not death sentences.’

“Savage cites no evidence whatsoever for these assertions. In fact, there is absolutely no scientific data to indicate that the drugs available now or likely to be approved in the foreseeable future will be able to keep people with AIDS alive indefinitely [their emphasis]….Most of us have buried friends who died despite the drugs and despite expert care.

“In short, the ‘fact’ upon which Savage’s entire structure rests is made up out of thin air.”

Thin air? The essay was a rambling, feverish articulation of a general euphoria. It was a meditation on a change of weather that millions of gay men woke up to. That change was Savage’s bedrock “fact” and it was as real–well, it may turn out to be as real as Santa Claus. But he looked out the window, saw a gallows being dismantled there, and followed his thoughts where they led him, however embarrassing they might be.

Taking a narrower view of journalism, Merkin argues that it’s obliged to cut through euphoria with a healthy dose of realism. The mission of NLGJA is to displace “ignorance and stereotypes with knowledge and truthfulness” within the news industry, his letter asserts, yet the organization honored a work “which does precisely the opposite.”

The protesters concede that “it may not be feasible to withdraw an award which has already been given out” (thus floating the idea). But they ask NLGJA to at least publish their letter in its entirety in the October issue of the organization’s newsletter, Alternatives.

“We want the organization to talk about this and maybe rethink its awards procedures,” Mirken told me. For one thing, he’s unhappy that NLGJA has refused to identify its judges. “Specialized areas of reporting such as HIV/AIDS”–says the letter–require specialists who can tell if what they’re judging makes sense.

Alternatives won’t be publishing the Mirken letter in its entirety–editor Mubarak Dahir says it’s too long. And Savage’s response also will be cut. In it, Savage stresses that he’d written “a personal essay–with a point of view” and accuses his critics of misreading him. Finding comfort in numbers, he points to earlier first-person articles by Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine and David Sanford in the Wall Street Journal (Sanford’s was another NLGJA award winner, as it happens). Sanford: “Thanks to the arrival of the first drugs…I am probably more likely to be hit by a truck than to die of AIDS.” Sullivan: “HIV infection…no longer signifies death. It merely signifies illness.”

“That also, I think, is an example of, frankly, pretty terrible journalism,” says Mirken, speaking of Sullivan. “It was nonsense then, and it’s more obviously nonsense now. But that’s what happens–you have bad journalism feeding on bad journalism.”

When I read Sullivan’s piece last year I thought it the work of a first-class mind at a giddy moment. I had no doubt he’d put his finger on something vital: the new drug cocktails had snapped the old equation between HIV and death. The war wasn’t over, but the siege had been lifted. Savage pushed the subject even further.

“I have my doubts whether most of the people who signed that letter have read my article,” he told me. “If they did, they’re reacting to the nonsentimental tone. This is the first time the premise that HIV is changing from a terminal illness to an illness illness has been challenged by anyone. Why now? Why wasn’t it challenged when the piece ran, why now when it won an award? I guess it’s OK to be an AIDS apostate or heretic. It’s just not OK to be an award-winning AIDS heretic.”

Says Mirken, “As a gay man who’s lost an awful lot of friends over the years, I think it’s certainly very tempting to believe this is over and the new drugs will make everything better. But there were signs over a year ago that it wasn’t that simple. And it’s only been reaffirmed since then.” He told me that next week, at a conference in Toronto, data will be presented suggesting that the drug cocktails eventually fail half the patients who take them.

Taking up the third side of the debate in the October Alternatives will be NLGJA itself. Defending the organization’s honor, awards chairperson Marshall McPeek has written a peculiar statement. He calls the judges “a distinguished panel of volunteers”–editors and managers from the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other major papers. But he still won’t name them. And he writes, “In discussing the Savage entry, the judges said the piece was ‘shallow and annoying’ but it kept their interest and kept them reading because ‘it was powerful’ writing. One said he ‘wanted to choke’ Savage at times for having such ‘ludicrous opinions.’ ‘So many opinions from one person,’ they said, was ‘amazing.’ They said Savage’s writing was meritorious because he successfully ‘kept pushing the conversation to get to so many different points and opinions.'”

Admirably, the judges responded to the force of Savage’s arguments without demanding that his views conform to theirs. Yet they also honored a “shallow and annoying” expression of “ludicrous opinions.” Which makes you wonder about the other entries.

At any rate, “it is not the panel’s responsibility to fact-check the entries,” according to McPeek. “The proper forum for rebuttal is with the publications that marketed the article for public consumption, not NLGJA.” In other words, complain to the Reader.

To keep the awards a surprise, NLGJA didn’t notify the winners (or the Reader) ahead of time. “Somebody told me in a hallway while I was on the way to do a panel that I’d won an award,” Savage says. “Until [Merkin’s] letter came, I didn’t know the name of the award. There’s no plaque or anything.”

Savage is supposed to receive a vase. “I’ve been assured that there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell they’ll strip me of the award,” he said. Not that he’s gotten it yet. “Maybe it’s like having ‘her royal highness’ stripped away from Princess Diana. It’s not like they came to her house and removed it from the wall.”

Trib’s Unfiltered Bias

When Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found out that the Leo Burnett advertising agency intended to hold a company meeting in Chicago last week, it decided to attack forcefully and publicly.

The Chicago-based agency has lost some big accounts lately, but it’s still creating advertising for Philip Morris. The Washington-based campaign asked three newspapers to publish an ad urging Leo Burnett to quit the account. All three said no.

“A fresh start for Leo Burnett means kicking the tobacco habit,” the ad began. “It’s been a tough year for Leo Burnett, and new directions are being unveiled in your company meeting today.

“Start by kicking the tobacco habit. Thanks to decades of Burnett’s Marlboro advertising, 60 percent of all American kids who smoke choose Marlboro. And Burnett campaigns push Philip Morris brands throughout the world.”

“They were just ding-a-lings–they were banana boats,” the campaign’s media buyer Loran Brueggen told me when I asked about her reception at the Sun-Times. “They were just unorganized. It had nothing to do with the content of the ad. The guy who normally would approve it was gone for two weeks. But they did get back to me quickly and said they wouldn’t take it.”

Whereupon Brueggen turned to the Wall Street Journal. “They were the most flexible. They just felt the second paragraph was a little bit accusatory. They said, ‘If you can reword it we won’t have a problem.’ But our shop decided it was kind of late in the game. We didn’t have time to redo this.”

The paper that Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids coveted was the first one it approached, the Tribune. Brueggen says the Tribune originally OK’d the ad. But then she received an “urgent” fax from advertising manager Rusty Anglin telling her that the ad “does not meet our principles for advertising acceptability.”

Rejection smarted, and the campaign decided to put up a fight. Gary Slack runs his own small advertising and public relations agency in Chicago, and he’s an old friend of William Novelli, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Slack interceded, calling the Tribune’s senior advertising sales manager, Paul Jenista. “‘I’m trying to find out a little more about why you rejected the ad,'” Slack says he told Jenista. “‘Are those acceptability principles public?’ He said, ‘Those principles are internal–we do not make them available outside the Tribune.’ I said, ‘Can you take me word by word through the copy? I’d like to know what’s so offensive.’ He allowed we could rewrite the ad and he’d accept it. So I said, ‘OK, what do I have to remove to make it acceptable to you?’ But he would not get specific. I ended up saying, ‘Is it the whole block of body copy?’ And he conceded it was the whole block of body copy. We would have had to create an entirely different ad not mentioning Leo Burnett.”

Which was preposterous. Just as preposterous as Leo Burnett kissing off Philip Morris if the ad ran as written.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids made hay of its defeat. The ad was posted on the Internet. A news release announced that in the Tribune “tobacco interests won a new ally.” Novelli wrote Tribune publisher Scott Smith and dispensed avuncular wisdom. “By refusing our ad, especially under such odd circumstances,” he assured Smith, “the Tribune seems to side with tobacco interests. Even worse, the Tribune seems to favor its own self-interest, because it appears to want to squelch any questioning of Leo Burnett…a conduit of advertising dollars to newspapers.”

Though its eyes had been opened, the Tribune stood its ground.

It’s rare for people and institutions guided by principles to behave as if they’re state secrets. I called a Tribune spokesman and asked if he could reveal the principle that had governed the situation.

He did his research and read me the operative maxim. “This newspaper encourages placement of positive, enthusiastic advertising. We discourage disparaging or negative advertising which directly or indirectly tends to mislead or reflect unfairly on competitive organizations, institutions, merchandise, or services.”

This isn’t principle. It’s policy. It approaches principle only at the point where negative advertising becomes unfair or misleading.

Was that point reached? Was the ad unfair to Leo Burnett, which in the last 40-some years has raised Marlboro from nowhere to the nation’s preeminent cigarette? Was it misleading to speak of Burnett pushing Philip Morris brands “throughout the world”? Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids sent me a 1997 Advertising Age chart that shows Leo Burnett hawking those brands in 44 countries. Was it unfair to say that 60 percent of American kids who smoke smoke Marlboro? The campaign sent me a 1994 report from the Centers for Disease Control that said exactly that.

Truth is, that 60 percent figure is a little wobbly. It’s three years old, and in 1994 the number of Marlboro-puffing adolescents was ebbing slightly, according to the CDC report, apparently because of Joe Camel. But if “60 percent” is what compromised the ad in Tribune eyes, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids could have tweaked the copy in seconds.

Once the papers had said no to the campaign, the Leo Burnett agency decided to weigh in. It produced a statement calling itself a “passionate defender of the freedom of commercial speech. However,” the statement went on, “we believe the media…have a responsibility to be fair and accurate. The ad sponsored by The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is neither fair nor accurate. The decisions by the newspapers not to run this ad were made independent of us, and we applaud them.”

I asked a Burnett spokesman what specifically was unfair or inaccurate about the campaign’s squelched ad. “We are not going to elaborate further,” she said. “It’s just engaging in a debate.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has made its mischief and attracted the spotlight. Moreover, it’s won the argument. It supports its case with numbers and research, while the Tribune and Leo Burnett cite credos that they haven’t shown apply. It might be unthinkable for the Tribune to publish an ad provoking a huge ad agency that brings it bread and butter. It wouldn’t be unscrupulous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Savage photo by Erika Langley.