Starbucks executive Adam Brotman also was recognized that night, but it was Savage’s pre-recorded acceptance speech that stole the show at a late spring event hosted by the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM) program. After the speech, I found myself anxious to get home and learn even more about this gentleman whose universally embraced It Gets Better project gives so much hope to LGBT youth who might otherwise commit suicide to escape torment and ridicule. I had seen Dan’s name in print, but never paid much attention until I saw him as a guest on a non-descript cable TV show. On television, Savage came off as witty–possibly a bit crass– but comfortable enough in his own skin to say exactly what he felt and why. In short, Savage struck me as the kind of guy you would share a beer and some good conversation with.
As he is a widely read columnist for The Stranger, over time I had run across Savage’s name and through my research I became even more aware of Savage’s notoriety and his De facto leadership in Seattle’s gay community. He was nobody with whom I’d ever consistently agree, but he appeared to believe everything that came out of his mouth and as a radio personality and journalist, I respected that.
Until I did some research on Savage, I was unaware of what I consider Savage’s most notorious and offensive publicity stunt. The same fellow responsible for the groundbreaking “It Gets Better” campaign is also responsible for taunting former United States Senator Rick Santorum with a vicious, intensely dishonest and undeserved campaign of culture-hacking.
How can a guy who saved the lives of bullied kids possibly be the same guy who orchestrated a despicable Google campaign designed to bully a fellow human being whose biggest sin appears to be the honest expression of his feelings toward gay sex? In a 2003 Associated Press interview, Santorum argued that only marriages between one man and one woman stabilize societies. In a poorly worded, yet grossly misreported afterthought misconstrued as a direct analogy, Santorum awkwardly acknowledged that homosexual sex is not “man on child, man on dog, or whatever…” Santorum, currently a presidential candidate with at least one openly gay campaign aide, told the reporter he has “nothing, absolutely nothing” against homosexuals or those of any other sexual orientation. “[Y]ou have to separate the person from their actions,” Santorum said – echoing the same polarizing opinion he has trumpeted throughout his political career.
Despite the unreported nuances to Santorum’s views, Savage took the low road on the digital media map by encouraging followers to memorialize what he called the “Santorum scandal” by synonymizing the senator’s last name with a “sex act that would make his big white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.”
This same Savage, who did everything imaginable to destroy a human being’s reputation, went on to co-produce with Miller a series of videos promising hope to LGBT youth and rebuking bullies who – irony of ironies– taunt and tease others online.
Much is made these days in both business and journalism about the values of authenticity and transparency. These have become watchwords in pressrooms and boardrooms alike. But in Savage’s case, as both a community leader and a journalist, we see how easy it is to be incredibly inauthentic while seeming to be authentic.
Lately Savage has offered to take down the offensive website in exchange for Santorum donating $5 million to a gay marriage advocacy group. Santorum keeps dismissing Savage’s ransom demands out of hand, renewing his request of Google to delete the vulgar site from its search engine index. Google keeps refusing, saying such censorship would “compromise the integrity” of its search results. In a similar incident Google recently did restore an offensive image of Michelle Obama over White House objections.
Before exiting that elegant event on that beautiful June evening, I overheard wisecracks about how “fun” it would be to see Santorum watch Savage’s video and witness the award presentation. Those were the last moments of my naivete. I now knew what most of you had long since known about Senator Santorum’s “Google problem.” Later, I finally found out what all the fuss was about: My graduate program was honoring Savage despite the fact that Savage had executed the digitally disruptive equivalent of a cruel junior high prank. It certainly hasn’t taken four months since that June 10 event in South Lake Union to draw the obvious conclusion only a few of you would ever be willing to voice:
Dan Savage is a bully.
Whether our nationally respected MCDM program is a little less prestigious because we hoisted a glass to a bully is above my pay grade.
But don’t worry, Rick. It gets better.
Or so I’m told.
Thor Tolo is an Emmy winner and longtime radio host accepted into MCDM Cohort 10 last autumn. He expects to graduate this spring – long after Senator Santorum figures to be but a footnote to the 2012 U.S. presidential race.
Dan Savage photo is from his video acceptance speech for the MCDM Giffard Make the Change Award. Rick Santorum photo by Gage Skidmore.