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Picture Worth More Than Words?
by tommy kirchhoff
In the spring of 1999, I moved from Denver to Park City. My first night here, my cousin John said, "let's go out for a beer." We met some of John's friends at the Smokehouse (gone), then barhopped with them to O'Shucks and Jammin' Salmon (also gone). I was so baffled by the liquor laws in Utah that I asked these guys questions all night and took notes on bar napkins. I even drilled the bartender at Shucks about Utah liquor laws; he seemed more than happy to tell me, "They don't keep you from getting f---ed up."
I took a real interest in these laws. I read the blackletter stuff on the state website, and kept talking to people about it. I learned all about the DABC, state liquor stores and the sales dichotomy of 3.2 beer. (This led me to my theory that 3.2 beer gets you just as "f---ed up," you just have to pee twice as much)
In July, I was on the phone with Charlie Glass at SKIING Magazine. We were discussing SKIING running something about my book, then Charlie asked me if I had received his query letter requesting story ideas. I told Charlie that I thought SKIING should cover the clash between Utah liquor laws and the Winter Olympics coming here. He said, "If you want to do it, I'll contract you for it." I agreed, and started to moonlight-research the heaps of material associated with the topic.
Back then, you could search the Salt Lake Tribune's archives online for free. I found scores of stories: Tom Barbieri spouting-off about his beloved beer; Jean Claude Killy and IOC officials remarking that Europeans would not be happy without their wine; SLOC officials quoted as saying they would look into it. I racked my brains in books and encyclopedias, called legislators all over the Wasatch Front, and of course, kept drinking.
The load was immense. Tiny questions kept turning into massive sidebars; so at a point, I decided to quit digging and start mining.
I whittled the pile down to the most important info, and wrote the first draft. SKIING didn't like it too much. The piece was full of great jokes about JackMormons and polygamists, and contrasted Utah to "its beer-quaffing cousin, Colorado." SKIING asked for a total rewrite.
This kind of editorial process was something I was not used to. After all, I had been writing humor for almost 10 years; SKIING wanted a news story. I changed the piece around quite a bit, and finally arrived at something they liked. I made some suggestions for a picture to go along with the story; Charlie Glass said, "We've already got it-wait 'til you see it."
The February, 2000 issue of SKIING hit the street with its now infamous "Got Milk?" story. When I first saw it, I thought it was just OK. I hated writing news, and felt sorry that the editors had taken most of the best jokes out of it. I thought the picture taken by Fred Foto was pretty funny-and big! Four weeks went by, and the March issue replaced February's on the magazine racks.
THREE WEEKS after the February issue had been taken out, I got a very strange comment from my business associate, John. He said, "So you're famous now, huh?" I thought to myself yes, but not in Utah. "What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Rock said he saw you on the news last night. I guess you're famous."
I still had no idea what he was talking about. I called Rock and asked him for the scoop. Rock told me he was watching the six o'clock news on KSL, looked down for a second, and when he looked up, there was my name in huge letters. He said he shook his head and started paying attention. It was a short piece on the news about something in SKIING Magazine.
Huh. I started making calls, and calls started coming in. One of my first was to Rick Kahl, SKIING's editor in chief. He said that people were also calling him from across the country, saying they had seen something on the news about this story. He sounded pretty excited. I called KSL and ordered a video of the "Got Milk" news clip.
The Salt Lake Tribune's Brian Maffly ran a fair story WITH the naughty, naughty picture. He covered both sides, and quoted the ridiculous. Larry Jackstien, marketing director for Snowbird Resort, was "irked" by the "inaccurate image of Utah," and his quote took the cake for the absurd. "Some (people) thought it was funny, others said it was in bad taste and one said it was equivalent to a swastika in front of a synagogue."
A swastika in front of a synagogue! This comment pissed me off. It was a beer, not the genocide of 5.7 million people. Maybe it wasn't Jackstien who actually came up with this horseshit, but I wasn't going to stand for it. Somebody was an idiot, and I was going to make that clear.
I quickly parried by writing a letter to the editor at the Trib. They ran it. I told Utah that I was the guy that wrote "Got Milk?" and that "A FREE HAM SANDWICH IN FRONT OF A SYNAGOGUE would have been a lot closer."
Days later, I awoke to the phone ringing at 6:30 a.m. A lady from KALL radio asked if I would do an on-air interview with Tom Barbieri. In the first five minutes on-air, I realized the Barbieri knew almost nothing about the story. Before the show, he had read my letter to the editor-that was it. I started figuring out that almost no one had seen "Got Milk?" The few that had seen the story found it on SKIING's website.
The September, 2000 issue of SKIING hit the street just recently. Several seethingly angry letters to the editor were printed about "Got Milk?" The spearheading letter was written by Utah House Majority Whip David Ure. He said the story was "offensive and derogatory."
Soon after, The Park Record published a front-page story about Ure's letter to SKIING, which also included the naughty picture. The Record's story made it clear that Ure is both a politician and a Mormon-constitutional sodomy in any state in the Union. Ure then sodomized his own integrity by admonishing SKIING for running the story in the light that Utah spends so much advertising money with them. "I thought Utah expected more out of this magazine," he said. "All our advertising is done in good taste and for them to do that, I felt we had been double-crossed." (Like Utah's advertising should have ANY bearing on SKIING'S editorial content…)
When the phone first started ringing at SKIING Magazine last winter, they (as the Trib put it) went right to "damage-control mode." The higher-ups at SKIING may have taken the picture off the website, issued written apologies to everyone that complained, and given media quotes saying that "if we had to do it all over again, we would have toned it way down." But think about where they stand. SKIING plays second fiddle to SKI Magazine. This saga was probably the first national media coverage SKIING had ever gotten. Sure, maybe they lost 12 subscribers, but they probably picked up 10,000.
For a mourning editor-in-chief talking to the author of such a dastardly thing, Rick Kahl sounded pretty excited to me.