"Based on what I've been told," says Denver Post columnist Woody Paige, "the two evil forces of the Salt Lake City Olympics are the French figure-skating judge and me."
Maybe so -- and the comparisons between France's Marie-Reine Le Gougne and Paige don't end there. Le Gougne was suspended by the International Olympic Committee after reportedly giving higher marks to Russian figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze than Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier because of pressure from her national federation -- an allegation she refutes. Paige, for his part, landed in trouble because of his February 12 column titled "Colorado Real Winner of Games," which affronted Utah natives in general and Salt Lake City dwellers specifically. Two days later, he printed a column apologizing -- and, like Le Gougne, denied that he was acting under pressure. Rather, he says, he did it because of the heat "everyone else at the paper was taking -- not from a subscription or circulation or advertising standpoint, but just in general. People I work with and people I don't even know were getting so much grief that an apology was necessary."
But just how repentant does Paige really feel about the matter? Having spent many hours on buses traveling to and from different events, he's had a lot of time to reflect on his sins, and he swears his remorse is genuine. At the same time, though, he seems to see himself more as victim than victimizer. "The other night I had dinner with a couple of columnists, and I realized that what happened was probably beneficial for them," he says. "Dozens of columnists would have written similar-type pieces -- but as soon as everything occurred, they knew not to do anything negative, facetious, sarcastic or humorous. Since then, everyone's been sweet and kind." The Salt Lake City Olympics organizers "will never thank me for it," he goes on, "but they probably should."
According to Paige, who has written about sports and other subjects in Denver for over a quarter-century, he's gotten more gratitude from readers. He claims to have been stopped for an autograph earlier this week, and to have received 12,000 e-mails, approximately half of which came down on his side. Included among this number, he says, are postings from "columnists from all over the country -- Boston, Las Vegas, the Washington Post, the New York Post -- saying, 'What's the world coming to?' and telling me I never should have apologized." When it comes to his style, he doesn't: "I'm never going to stop being irreverent for you or anybody else."
If only he were as adamant about using fresh material.
In a sense, Paige is the anti-Will Rogers. Whereas Rogers famously announced that he'd never met a man he didn't like, Woody has apparently never visited a city that he could stand. Long ago, he figured out that he could endear himself to locals and piss off outsiders by ridiculing people and places located beyond Denver's city limits. It's a routine that was tired when the first George Bush was in the White House, and for those of us who are subjected to it on a regular basis, it's about as shocking as an episode of Blue's Clues. But such stunts stir the pot elsewhere, as was proven by the dust-up over Paige's allegedly witty February 12 salvo.
Paige argued in the column that Salt Lake City "has royally screwed up the Olympics," using as examples traffic problems and price-gouging hotels -- problems that have never cropped up anywhere before, right? More controversially, he charged the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with turning the Games into "a massive Mormon marketing scheme" in which young women "who act like they're straight out of The Stepford Wives" line up to thrust literature at unsuspecting passersby. He also proposed that Colorado try to attract tourists turned off by Utah with the following pitch: "Visit beautiful Colorado. We won't force you to take a religious brochure at every street corner, make you eat lime Jell-O at every meal, coerce you into joining a private club to enjoy a drink or buying a bottle from a state-owned liquor store, ask you to worship a salamander and a sea-gull, marry three of your mother's cousins, consider you inferior if you're not white, a man or heterosexual...and wear weird underwear under your parkas and ski pants."
These jibes were far from original, but they stood out from other Denver-based coverage, since no one else writing for the Post or the Rocky Mountain News has been allowed to make even mild jokes about Utah customs past or present. ("Take my wives -- please!") Incensed SLC residents flooded the Post's Web site with scathing e-mails; when that lost its fun, they branched out to the Denver Chamber of Commerce -- and a Salt Lake City radio station even delivered a U-Haul filled with lime Jell-O to the Post's headquarters. More seriously, Mormon Church spokesman Mike Otterson called the column "a really nasty piece, an offensive piece to Utahans" in a February 13 Associated Press report.
Post editor Glenn Guzzo, who fully supported Paige last July when a column quoting an Invesco executive's nickname for Denver's new football stadium ("The Diaphragm") sparked lawsuit warnings, was no friendlier. In the same AP article, he branded the scribblings "inappropriate" and pledged that the Woodman's February 14 column would contain an apology.
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.'"
Wisconsin. On January 16, 1998, prior to the Broncos match-up with the Green Bay Packers, Paige offered up "All to Know About State of 'Scansin," which included the following highlight: "There are more cows in 'Scansin than badgers, which are rats with an attitude. And the cows have a higher per capita IQ than the people."
Jacksonville. Paige went out of his way to deride the Jacksonville Jaguars (he dubbed them the "Jagwads") in advance of the team's 1997 playoff game against the Broncos. After the Jaguars handed the Broncos an ignominious defeat, Paige filled his January 10, 1997, column with insults directed at him by Jaguar fans. His retort: "I apologize. I'm sorry I didn't know rednecks and tealnecks could read and write."
Atlanta. On January 28, 1999, just before the Broncos were slated to meet the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, Paige asserted, "Gen. William Sherman did Atlanta a favor by burning it down in 1864."
Miami. The Broncos-Falcons Super Bowl was held in Miami, which allowed Paige to bash two cities at the same time. "Most people never get out of here alive," he wrote. "Miami, where the slogan is: 'Your CD player, your money and your life, por favor.'"
Detroit. On May 1, 2000, Paige, writing about a match-up between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, dropped a typical depth charge on Motown: "Detroit is a third-world, fourth-class city.... It's my second least-favorite city -- to Lincoln."
Canada. On April 12, 2001, prior to the Avalanche's playoff run, Paige impugned the toughness of Canucks by noting that they "still bow to a queen who lives on a distant island. Canada may be the world's second-largest country in land mass, but a U.S. invasion and takeover would be finished by brunch."
New Jersey. In "Avs Make Return to the Dark Side," published June 6, 2001, Paige wrote, "The Devils are the only team in sports that represents a sludgy, slimy, stagnant swamp and a turnpike toilet stop.... And to the millions of Jerseyans who are reading this online, don't waste your e-mails. In hockey, I don't give a flying puck what you think."
London. On July 5, 2001, while covering Wimbledon, Paige had the following to say about the denizens of one of Europe's most cosmopolitan cities: "They drive on the wrong side; they talk funny English; and they've never gotten the concept of a shower in the bathtub or a washcloth."
Granted, Paige has occasionally flattered burgs other than this one. During the last Winter Olympics, in 1998, he expressed pleasure that the host town, Nagano, Japan, wasn't destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II, which isn't quite a compliment, but close. More often, though, he trounces communities and then shrugs the whole thing off as failed comedy if the heat is turned up too high. An excuse printed on May 8, 2000, is a case in point: "Sure I ripped Detroit. But it was meant (mostly) in jest, just as when I make fun of Jacksonville, Nebraska and Tucson. Anyone who reads me regularly knows I shouldn't be taken seriously."
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The folks in Utah don't fit this category, so Paige has had to answer back with as much earnestness as he can muster. In addition to his Post column, he expressed remorse on Channel 9, among other apology tour stops -- and he says that interviewers in Utah, particularly, have been consistently two-faced. "It's amazing to me how the media eats their own," he says. In practically every case, they've told me, 'I agree with what you wrote. I thought it was funny. I don't know why you're apologizing.' And then after that, they've gone after me -- which, to me, is hilarious. There's a strange thing going on in Utah -- a strong fear factor. I think what's different between them and me is that I write what I actually believe.
"This is the way I chose to be a writer thirty years ago or so -- and I knew I was never going to be a safe writer," he notes. "I have gone through probably seventeen editors at the Post and another three or four at the Rocky Mountain News, and there have been editors who have not liked what I've done and tried to rein me in. But if I'm going to be fired or run out of town some day, it'll be on the terms of me being the type of writer I am."
He's right about that. You can bet that in two years, when Paige is covering the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, he'll trundle out a column filled with gripes about crumbling ruins and stupid gods, and how baklava is bakla-awful.
In other words, we'll be reading from the same old Paige.