The state official looked at me and smugly asked, “now what are you going to do?” He had just told me that the experiment of ”allowing” private clubs to advertise in the general media was about to end, and with it, our newspaper, The Private Eye. I told him that we weren’t going away and that our readers would buy the paper. “Really? How’s that?”
“Well,” I told him, “you can’t tell me what I can print and I’m going to run listings that include everything you don’t want clubs to say in their ads, like free nachos and margarita night.
“And to top it off, I’m going to run a picture of a naked Mormon girl on every cover just to make sure it sells.”
I didn’t blink and he did: a wise man, he. Clubs were not banned from advertising—yet. A few years later though, another tactic was applied—writing an unconstitutional law that banned liquor advertising generally. That muddied things for the next five, angry years.
But a year ago, on July 24, 2001, the Denver 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Utah is indeed bound by the United States Constitution, and overturned the Utah laws. That the ruling came on the same day that many Utahns celebrate the entry into the valley of the original Mormon pioneers was, at a minimum, ironic.
More like in your face. Just like us.
In another land, it would be called tyranny. And don’t start up with that preaching about liquor being evil and its consumers being of low moral fabric. We’ve seen that hypocricy before. The issue is one of guaranteed constitutional freedoms. No more, no less.
As I look back on this past decade, few issues resonate with me the way those do. For while I am eminently proud of the work we have done, of the scores of awards and accolades heaped upon our editorial staff, I am forced to temper that pride with the fact that but for lots of luck and fortitude, it wouldn’t have happened. I run into you occasionally, so I know more than a few people remember that this newspaper began as a mailed newsletter to the members of private clubs. We mailed it back in the 1980s because it was illegal for private clubs to advertise at all back then. Yellow pages or nothing. Try publishing a paper when you don’t have adequate revenues or distribution spots. That’s a very difficult equation.
Yet it was always clear that some very important people didn’t want this newspaper around. They badgered us, the clubs, some advertisers and distributors. It was and remains harassment, a tool by which a powerful majority imposes its will upon a contrarian minority. I was told more than once—like the incident at the start of this column—that we should just dry up and blow away.
But we didn’t. We didn’t dry up because I quickly became surrounded by a number of folks who understood the stakes. They were our early freelance writers who gave us a credible voice in a community hungry for one. Readers then and readers now were quite tired of the middle-of-the-road journalism as practiced at the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune. Thus, it was discomfiting for some to learn that so many Utahns would actually embrace a newspaper that didn’t pull punches, that didn’t march lockstep with the majority, and that wasn’t afraid to confront, engage and challenge an otherwise comfortable status quo. Those folks wanted us gone; we folks said, up yours.
Some I can’t name—they worked for other media and we published them under assumed names, a transgression I readily take responsibility for. But others like Richard Barnum-Reece, Ron Yengich, Mary Dickson, John Paul Brophy, Lance Gurwell, John Harrington, Phyllis Shafer and a young Ben Fulton, among many others, all caught the vision of why this community was so in need of an alternative, independent voice and they made no bones about saying so. It was they who laid the groundwork—as we published biweekly starting in late 1988—for those who would follow in 1992, when this newspaper converted to weekly publication.
I remember the period prior to 1992 quite fondly. Threats of physical violence, our office in a decrepit former tavern in Midvale, employees I had to pick up and drive home just to make sure they showed up, you know, the usual stuff. I also remember that period as being flush with an assortment of street characters coming to our office with every angle on every conspiracy conceivable: Aliens, N.W.O., neo-Nazism, fluoride, secret tunnels, secret tunnels filled with the dead bodies of apostate Mormons, secret ceremonies, secret ceremonies of gay Mormon leaders. Where does it end? Well, with common sense, usually. We published stories on some of those themes, but left the gay Mormon gibberish to Sunstone.
Sometime in early 1992, Mary Dickson called and asked if I knew Tom Walsh. I didn’t, only to say I thought he was still serving his mission at KSL where I had seen his mug on TV doing crime stories. Turned out that Tom was no longer at KSL and was looking to try something different—a resurrection of sorts. We met and Tom began what was to be—at this counting—a 10-year chiding of what it means to be a “professional” journalist. Truth is, Tom is a professional journalist and a very good one. Trouble is, as an army brat, Tom had low tolerance for masochistic dreams, yet it was painful nights, fear, and dreams that propelled this paper for a long, long time.
But Tom had his own dream, too. It was he who prodded us to become a weekly, if for no other reason than to afford him full-time as editor, woefully at a pittance. Tom thought it could work because it had worked for his friends at the Phoenix New Times, and Tom was with them in the early 1970s when that very successful paper was founded. So, we brought in a consultant who said he could help us raise money and we put about 25 people in a room at Club 90 and laid out “the plan.” Only three people bit. That left us with 10 times more money than we had and 10 times less than we needed. Business Survival 101 was about to begin.
Tom and I looked around downtown for cheap office space. He introduced me to one acquaintance who suggested we repair his building for rent. That fellow went to jail recently, fraud or something like that. We finally found some space in the Shubrick Building. The first purchase from our new equity was paint, and Tom and I painted away. We painted so well the space is now a tattoo parlor.
That’s where Tom wrote our first weekly cover story on Bob Bennett. We soon found that publishing an alternative newspaper in Salt Lake City was really something. Before he even came to town, Ellen Fagg did an exposé on Ruben Ortega—shoulda listened! We did Tom Green when his wives were teenagers under the headline “Seven Wives for One Brother,” now a Pat Bagley Olympic Pin. We coined the moniker “Overuchi” in honor of Brent Overson and Randy Horiuchi. Ben joined the staff full-time. Yengich and Harrington pounded the establishment and all was fine, until … Lynn Packer got the Bonneville Pacific story. That was rocket fuel.
And rocket fuel smells good. I hope we can deliver 10 more years of it. We will, so long as you are out there caring about the First Amendment and personal freedoms as much as we do. We’ve had a long hard ride—so many memories, so many people to thank. In turn, my Mormon grandmother would thank me for not running photos of naked Mormon girls. I know she’d chuckle, though.
People may call us liberal, but they can’t call us crazy.