Saturday, November 19, 2005

Salon's Top 10

[[M E D I A]] * Can Salon, the San Francisco-based online journal of politics, books, entertainment, and culture, really have turned 10 years old this week? It doesn’t seem as if I’ve been appreciating it for that long. But appreciate it, I most certainly have. Particularly since the late 1990s, when Salon was one of the few prominent American news outlets to question what was fast becoming conventional wisdom about the need for Republicans to destroy the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton in order to save the office of the presidency itself.

It was Salon that first laid bare the hypocrisy of U.S. Representative Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), then head of the House Judiciary Committee and the man who was expected to sit in judgment of Clinton’s wholly personal relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern--despite the fact that Hyde, three decades earlier, had engaged in his own extramarital affair with a younger woman. Salon also “outed” other glass-housed but stone-throwing GOP politicians, including Congresspeople Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) and Dan Burton (R-Indiana), and raised doubts about the impeachment motives of special counsel Kenneth Starr and some of his principal witnesses. Salon was practicing gutsy, investigative, but controversial journalism, challenging both the righteous indignation of the Republican Party and the simplistic script other publications were using to cover what they’d convinced themselves was a latter-day Watergate. Salon took considerable flak for its exposés, but was eventually shown to have been wise to buck the national media’s over-the-top chorus of Clinton condemnation. The former president has since gone from being the whipping boy of froth-mouthed wingnuts to being christened “the most influential man in the world” by Esquire magazine. And Salon--which started out as a weekly publication, created by escapees from the San Francisco Examiner--has evolved into a daily, award-winning model of how journalism can be practiced on the Web.

There have been losses and potholes along the way. That’s to be expected. I still miss James Carville’s witty “Swamp Fever” column about politics, and I continue to shake my head at the confidence demonstrated by the usually perceptive columnist Sidney Blumenthal, who just a week before last November’s U.S. presidential election was held, predicted that George W. Bush’s defeat was assured. (Senior writer King Kaufman includes that essay in a retrospective piece titled “Salon’s Worst Calls.”) I also miss this Webzine’s former “Wanderlust” travel department, which allowed me on occasion to add my own voice to those of other Salon contributors (see here and here). On the other hand, the number of things Salon has done right over the last 10 years--from its assiduous coverage of the bizarre 2000 presidential race and the horrific September 11 attacks, to its recent reporting on Bush’s CIA leak scandal, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and the rapid decline of public support for the Iraq war--far exceeds that of its errors. I look forward to the introduction of Walter Shapiro, formerly a political columnist for USA Today and Esquire, as Salon’s new Washington bureau chief (as promised by editor in chief Joan Walsh), and would find my days poorer were I deprived of Salon’s War Room political blog, Heather Havrilesky’s sassy “I Like to Watch” TV column, or the lengthy, sometimes quirky interviews Salon does with newsmakers across the political, pop-cultural, and personality spectrum.

But of course, reliable reporting and sharp writing don’t necessarily guarantee commercial success. Look back at so many of the other Webzines that surfed into view during the ’90s dot-com boom, only to fade out again amid the Bush economic bust. Salon has suffered its own financial woes over the past decade, having to seek contributions from readers as well as investments from more deep-pocketed businessfolk (among them Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone). In 1999, the company took its stock public, only to see its demise prematurely predicted; later, it introduced a “premium” subscription component, whereby readers can sign up for full access to the journal’s contents (without any annoying advertising) or partial access (with ads). After watching Salon’s struggle to survive, and appreciating its commitment to alternative journalism, I figured that $35 a year for complete, ad-free admittance was a small price to pay for ensuring this thoughtful publication’s longevity.

Who knows what the next 10 years will bring. More wars? International political realignments? An end to AIDS and “reality” TV? The start of serious attention to global warming? A restoration of the historic separation between public service and private religion? Dubya strapped into a golf cart for the rest of his life? I’m just hoping that Salon will stick around to cover it all.

READ MORE: To find a rundown of Salon’s 10th-anniversary features, click here.

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