Woody Goes Limp

Post columnist Woody Paige's big shtick shrinks in chilly Utah.

Boy, did it ever. In "Upon Reflection, Utah, All Apologies Offered," the normally snarky Paige was startlingly contrite, doing more than his share of groveling. Not only did he hand over half of his space to Otterson, but he contradicted practically every opinion he'd voiced two days earlier. "Sincerely, I've enjoyed my stay as a bystander. Utah can be proud of its Olympian effort so far," he wrote, adding, "I am not writing this column under duress or threat. It's my choice and responsibility."

His words weren't enough to fully placate Guzzo, who spanked him again in "Paige Column Should Not Have Run." Although the missive didn't receive major play (it was wedged inside the February 17 sports section), its tone came across as unmistakably angry, with Guzzo decrying "a breakdown" in the paper's editing system before declaring, "The Post does not defend this column. It does not represent anything the Post stands for." Guzzo also pointed out that the offending piece had been yanked off the Post's Web site -- and it also vanished from Nexis, the data service used by most media outlets. That's historical revisionism, George Orwell style.

This response was so strong that journalism insiders couldn't help but wonder if it was being driven by something other than embarrassment and shame -- like Post owner Dean Singleton's business dealings, perhaps? Just over a year ago, Singleton purchased the Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City's largest newspaper, setting off a pitched battle between his company, MediaNews Group, and the Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Group, whose members believe they hold an option to buy the Tribune ("Blood Feud," December 14, 2000). Moreover, Singleton's staunchest ally in this battle has been the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City daily that's linked to the Tribune by a joint operating agreement and just happens to be owned by none other than the LDS church.

In a December 2000 editorial, Tribune editor James E. Shelledy even suggested that Singleton, a Baptist by faith, is actually a stealth Mormon. Singleton laughed at this charge when quizzed about it for a Westword profile ("Press for Success," August 2, 2001), but his ends certainly wouldn't be served by a religious war. After all, a lawsuit filed by the Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Group is scheduled to be heard on June 24 in Utah federal court -- and on February 17, a MediaNews request that a related suit in Denver District Court be thrown out was denied.

Singleton, who characterizes the district court's action as a victory, not a setback, dismisses as "absurd" the implication that the Tribune scraps are related in any way to Paige's punishment. He was in Florida for an annual medical checkup when the first column ran, and he says he knew nothing about the resulting brouhaha until Guzzo phoned him that night. "At the time, Glenn didn't know how he was going to handle it," Singleton recalls, "and I told him I'd leave that to him." He adds that Guzzo next called him on February 15 to let him know he was writing a column about the matter, but Singleton insists that he knew nothing about its contents until he read it in the Post two days later.

Even so, Singleton stands four-square behind his editor. "I think Woody is among the best columnists in America," he says, "but I thought the column was crude, insensitive. I detest any time a columnist attacks a class of people, like a religious group or a racial group. I just think that's uncalled for and improper. I don't think there's been another Woody column I haven't been able to defend, but I can't defend that one." Singleton told Paige the same thing and recommended that he re-read his own column, substituting other religions -- Catholic, Jewish, Muslim -- everywhere he used the word "Mormon." After doing so, Paige says he understood he'd gone out of bounds.

Subsequent Paige columns have been so cautious and bland that they haven't needed defending: His topics have included friendship and how curling is nifty. But in his February 14 mea culpa, he all but acknowledged that his Salt Lake jabs were a minor variation on gags he's been wearing out for years: "Honestly, I am not against Utahans and Mormons, just as I am not, despite what they believe, against Nebraskans and Cornhuskers." No, Paige simply recognizes Nebraska as an easy target, as he proved in a November 26, 1999, column in which Big Red fans playing Who From Nebraska Wants to Be a Millionaire? were unable to guess what the "N" on their football team's helmets designated. But Nebraska is hardly the only place he's belittled in his time. Here are ten more examples, culled from just the past seven years:

Greeley. Paige has spent most of his career needling our neighbor to the north, where the Denver Broncos hold their annual training camp. In an August 9, 1995, mock-apology column, he made these amends: "Greeley does not smell quite as bad as an abandoned septic tank. I regret the misrepresentation."

• Tucson. The Colorado Rockies spring-training headquarters has been a consistent Paige target. In the 1995 column noted above, he pretended to back off, stating, "I admit I made up this exchange with a convenience store clerk: 'What's your biggest-selling item?' 'Depends.' 'Depends on what?' 'No, I'm talking about Depends.'"

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