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BEST/WORST LISTINGS CAN GET PRETTY RANK

Readers no doubt found the cover piece of last week's biweekly the Event newspaper highly reminiscent of the late Utah Holiday. It was a best-and-worst issue, much like the one that appeared each August for years as Utah Holiday's most-awaited feature. The editor of Utah Holiday for most of its existence, Paul Swenson, is Event's cover editor, and is giving that publication some of the same touches that gave Utah Holiday its eclat.

The reader's sense of deja vu is enhanced by the cover drawing, which is of Judge David Young, by the same artist, Don Young, who satirized the irascible federal Judge Willis Ritter in like manner in an early Utah Holiday best/worst issue. (The drawing shows Judge Young shattering a bench labeled "Third District Court Justice" as he takes a swipe with his gavel at a woman supplicant who says, "Missed, Your Honor." You quickly get the idea of the kind of satire that's inside the paper.)Some of the items are not best/worst at all, but hang on other superlatives, such as "least," "most," "strangest" and "gutsiest."

Swenson regards the best/worst issue more as fun than as serious journalism. He cautions that "these bests and worsts are not handed down from Mount Olympus" - in other words, they're just someone's opinion - and invites readers to "enjoy."

- BUT OF COURSE it is a risky business, as Swenson is the first to admit.

People held up as "the worst" are unlikely to see the criticism as rib-tickling or to enter wholeheartedly into the jollity. Furthermore, for all of its emphasis on the picks as "a game," the "worst" selections sometimes come off as more mean-spirited than playful. It's easy for, say, People magazine, to play the "game" by spotlighting the "best and worst dressed" celebrities, as it did last week, for some celebrities are fair game and satirizing them is a national pastime. About Hillary, for example, one of People's critics says that "you think she deliberately looks a mess," and Fergie's clothes are characterized as "not so much classic as lacking in class." Or take Newsweek, which has a weekly "winners and losers" column.

But when the prey is well-known locally, satire has a far more acute sting.

- THE PRESS IS of course making judgments all the time, but unlike the analytical story or column, these best/worst items are categorical and brief, some as little as three lines of type. They have to be snappy, pointed and wholly unequivocal. They aren't nuanced, and they don't pretend to be balanced, like a strong but usually unidimensional political cartoon. They often focus on fairly safe targets.

For instance, the issue's citation of Judge Young as "worst contempt of (and for) court" for having "turned his court into a theater of the absurd in cases involving females and gays" deals with a figure about whom a local consensus seems to have formed, though it is at least arguable. Katharine Biele, a Private Eye Weekly columnist, wrote early this month that the media haven't let the facts get in the way of a good story in the "unfortunate tale of David S. Young." Biele says the "frenzy of complaints" could be traced to publicity like the Tribune's "Rolly and Wells" column, "which devoted all 17 and one-half inches to the subject one day. Because of the quippish nature of the column, no complaints merited more than a few sentences in this journalistic volley. . . ."

Some other tough choices seem to have been avoided. In the "Food & Drink" category, as the most obvious case in point, of 22 items, only three deal with "worst" cases, and of these one is a generic case, a complaint about "the insufficiency of . . . European coffees at Salt Lake restaurants and coffee houses."

- PRIVATE EYE WEEKLY, another stylish free-circulation paper, has for the past six years had its own "Best of Utah" annual section based on thousands of reader nominations. It appears in spring. By focusing on the best, however, the paper has by no means avoided the problems typical of the best/worst offering. Says editor and publisher John Saltas: "We lose advertisers and we lose distribution spots" when, say, a competing cafe is named as best.

Both Swenson and Saltas are alert to potential pressures by advertisers, and Swenson warns that editors have to be wary of advertisers trying to stuff the ballot box. Swenson also says that the editors have to be on guard against items that reflect the purely personal biases of contributors or people who want to use the columns for their own ends.

Swenson says he has found that indeed "some people do take the best/worst items very seriously." At Utah Holiday, the threatened libel suits came from this feature, not from the investigative reports that were its forte.

The compensating factors are the popularity of this feature and having a vehicle to involve the reader directly as the paper's collective author and editor. The pluses are so evident that the Event promises that "the Best and Worst game will be played annually" and, like the Private Eye, will be soliciting reader nominations of what's worthy of bouquets or brickbats in a wide spectrum of Utah society. "I would hope," Swenson says, "that this feature opens a new chapter for Event. We want items that have a satirical edge and wit and promote ideas of what is good and what's not."

Last week's maiden feature was initiated in brainstorming sessions with Swenson and some of his contributors, who then accepted assignments. Swenson then edited and winnowed their items. He says that though there are more items in the Event feature than were typical for Utah Holiday's best/worst, he wants to expand on it. I counted 130 items in nine categories, an ambitious start.