Homer Contest

Mike knocks a chunk of sleep out of his eye and grabs the Post off the steps of his two-bedroom in Woodbridge. After getting a bellyful of Denver's dismantling of his oh-and-fucking-four Skins the day before, he went to bed with Norv Turner's locker-room flapdoodles looping through his head. Now he wants to read the obit and the weekly Post lineup of excuses, but he finds something else:

"It's time to get rid of the man who's really an embarrassment to Washington. Impeach Norv....Enough is enough—off with the head! Coach, that is."

Damn, those pansies down at the Post finally had the stones to say what I've been saying for more than a year. Mike looks to see whether it's Wilbon or Kornheiser who has managed to get his head far enough out of his backside to see the truth. Who the hell is Frank Ahrens?

He's a writer for the Style section. Usually, he writes suburban profiles and paeans to decaying dance halls. Last Monday, though, he ended the Post's institutional lockjaw and called for a term limit on Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner. Redskins fans are so thirsty for blood, they'll drink it wherever they find it. Ahrens says he got calls from people lauding his vision and forthrightness.

"I am not a legitimate or credible source," Ahrens says. "This was my little swipe at satire. If Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Tom Boswell, or Jennifer Frey calls for the coach's head, then people should listen to it."

There's a better chance that the folks at Sports will call for the coach's company. A trip out to the Shirley Povich Press Box at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium might explain why. The box was named after the deceased Post columnist before San Francisco's Monday night massacre of the Skins on Sept. 14. Post Publisher Donald Graham and Publisher Emerita Katharine Graham attended the ceremony, as did Editor Len Downie and Sports Editor George Solomon.

The Post, however, owned the press box before they even got naming rights. Visiting scribes are greeted by giant, poster-size mugs of Wilbon and Kornheiser, right next to the complimentary buffet. The Skins love these darn guys, and damned if they don't love the Skins right back.

Kornheiser pleads guilty almost weekly to being in the tank for Turner. And Wilbon has played dutiful stenographer to Turner's hilarious autopsies for all of his five seasons. It's a love affair of remarkable durability. An offensive genius who made his reputation by hanging on to the jerseys of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, Turner lost a few I.Q. points once he got stapled to the likes of Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte, and Trent Green.

At some point, the sports team at the Post will run out of euphemisms for incompetence. After blowouts, Turner jumps on rookie special teamers and kickers while his veterans skate along unscathed. Last year, his charges were assaulting each other at practice in full view of TV cameras. This year, they've taken to acting out on game day, with linebacker Marvcus Patton mugging Frerotte during the Giants game. Just last Sunday, Tré Johnson came off the field after three big penalties in the first half and turned his back on the game to engage in a round of who's-a-muthafucka with fed-up Skins fans—again captured on tape. Back-bencher Jeff Hostetler, a journeyman at best, threw a fit and walked out on his teammates—and was punished by having his hand held by Turner in print. This team is out of control.

Those who know these shenanigans best usually like it the least, but Wilbon and Kornheiser continue to ride a bandwagon that has lost all its wheels. Turner can't coach offense, he has no defense, and his litany of excuses could easily be replaced by a CD-ROM that you plug different opposing team names into.

And that's not just a squadron of armchairs talking. This week, Sports Illustrated walked in right under the Post's nose, pointing out that Turner is often bossed around by his players and may "not have the necessary juice to succeed as a head coach."

But the Post can't tell you that. The paper needs to maintain the illusion of the dynasty so that it can continue to move hundreds and hundreds of breathless inches every season. In the midst of all those inches, you'd think that Turner, who once embodied the future of the franchise, would get a hard pat-down. But, like the coach himself, the beat reporters and the columnists choose to maintain the focus on underperfoming, ephemeral X's and O's. Like Turner, they'd rather be loved than right: They pull punches, abide mediocrity, and excuse the inexcusable. All of those cozy chats in the coach's office would come to a pretty quick end the day a writer pointed the crooked finger at Turner.

Everybody remains on Norv's page at the Post, and if you've followed the chorus, Turner's 26-41-1 record is just the sum of so many bad breaks and missed plays. Again and again we are told that if we remain patient, this team's fundamental and historical excellence will shine through. Kornheiser has no quotable explanation for his complicity: "I write what I think in my column. You're free to do the same."

OK. Last Tuesday, Kornheiser wrote that if the Skins lose another one, "it may not be just Style writers pressing for scalps." Whew. Guess he told them. Maybe Metro will weigh in next week.

Wilbon, calling in from Chicago, is a bit more forthcoming.

"I am not going to fire anybody four games into the season. This is not talk radio. I write a serious column. It's not a tabloid. I don't exist to say that the quarterback and the coach should be fired," Wilbon says.

"I am not like most Washingtonians, who believe that having their team go to the playoffs is an inalienable right. People in this town need to get a dose of reality."

Fine. Let's do a reality check on what Wilbon had to say after the Skins were humiliated 38-16 by the Elway-less Broncos:

Ninety-nine percent of the time, 0-4 means the season is over. Only one thing prevents this season from being hopeless: the pitiful company the Redskins keep in the NFC East. Given how they have played so far, it's dumb to presume they can beat anybody. But the fact is, victories over a mediocre Dallas team and an equally pathetic Eagles team the next two weeks could put them in a first-place tie at 2-4.

He still thinks they're going to win the division. I knew a cheerleader like Wilbon in high school. She never, ever set down the pompoms, no matter how bad it got. People admired her pluck...and generally thought of her as a nincompoop. Wilbon says it's silly to suggest he has his lips on the coach's sweat pants, reminding that just last week he wrote that there is no fear of consequence out at Redskin Park.

The other daily paper in town, the Washington Times, has been less forgiving, but its weekly Redskins column—"Turner's Take"—hasn't provided a lot of perspective on the problems at the top.

Salon Warfare Jonathan Broder worked as the Washington correspondent for Salon, an electronic hotbed of dissent and free-flowing discourse—right up until he spoke his mind. Editor David Talbot knocked him off the masthead after Broder told both the Post's Howard Kurtz and National Journal's William Powers that he didn't agree with Salon's decision to publish a story about Rep. Henry Hyde's 30-years-past extramarital affair.

Broder says he was warned not to break ranks but decided to do so after Talbot mentioned to Kurtz that Broder didn't agree with the decision to publish the Hyde story.

"I figured that my name was out there and that for my own credibility, I had to tell the truth. I thought it would show that there was a healthy debate inside Salon. David didn't see it that way."

Talbot, editor and CEO of Salon, apparently prizes crackle above all else. His Hyde strategy worked. Salon got a jillion hits, and he got his turn as blabbocrat. Talbot's rabid, froth-speckled chautauqua made James Carville seem like a paragon of reason. He didn't return a call, but his suggestion that "ugly times call for ugly tactics" will live in journalistic infamy.

"'Tactics' isn't a word that is generally used in journalism. We don't engage in ugliness. We report on it," Broder says.

Broder's decision to frag his own publication was probably a dumb one in the short term, but remaining silent wasn't a very attractive long-run prospect.

"We have an impeachment inquiry coming. What happens if Salon's chief Washington correspondent can't get his calls returned from the majority side to the House Judiciary Committee?" Broder asks.

That's just the sort of inside-the-Beltway convention that Talbot and his band of Merry Pranksters out in San Francisco are more than happy to take a wrecking ball to. But the editor's belief that the lack of mainstream interest in the Hyde story was the result of overweening journalistic probity is wrong. The Hyde story languished because it lacked salience—not by Beltway standards, but by any standard of common sense.

"I feel like Crispus Attucks," says Broder. "I am the first guy to die in the Lewinsky affair...the first journalist to lose his job over this mess."

A person who has contributed to Salon says Broder and Talbot had a fairly healthy disrespect for each other going into the Hyde affair. "Jon is a serious reporter, and he thinks that it's pretty much Home Alone out there at the home office. And he's right. They're Bay Area fruitcakes, and they are bound to clash with all of the tight-asses out in Washington."

Salon may have trouble hiring a credible Washington bureau chief, but the magazine isn't hurting. Murray Waas' five-part David Hale story was a clean kill, built on the kind of comprehensive reporting that never appears in Net 'zines. Salon's media reporter James Poniewozik is the best prosemeister covering media by a mile, and Talbot's attentiveness to stories on sexual matters is well-calibrated given the times we live in. Salon will continue to roll, but de-pantsing pols is a poor substitute for Broder's timely, smart dispatches.

Those Whacky Guys on the Copy Desk On Tuesday, Sept. 15, a story on Page 11 of the A section of the Post was billed thus: "Clinton Says Adversity May Aid Vote: Democrats Urged to

Beat Off-Year Election Odds." —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.

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