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Rick Santorum's Google Problem Becomes The Story

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum during the nation's first primary on Jan. 10, 2012 in Manchester, N.H.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum during the nation's first primary on Jan. 10, 2012 in Manchester, N.H.

Rick Santorum has a problem. The Republican presidential candidate has been dogged by gay rights activist Dan Savage since 2003, when as a senator he supported anti-gay laws, including against sodomy. Savage, an internationally syndicated sex advice columnist, took offense and called on his readers to wage an Internet war. He invited them to name, or re-name, a sex act after Santorum. Then he took a vote and created an anti-Santorum website with the new "definition." It's not delicate.

Since then, Santorum's problem has been a Google one. Even after he came in a close second in the Iowa caucus, a Google search on his name leads to Savage's column popping up first or near the top. Santorum can't seem to escape the, well, savage plays on his name.

NPR, like much of the news media, did a story on the phenomenon. This raised uncomfortable issues of what to say on air. The resulting piece attracted a complaint from listener Brendan Wolff, of Fairbanks, AK, who quite sensibly asked if such stories were appropriate, given that young people are often listening. She also asked if NPR wasn't contributing to the popularity of the site.

This is an age-old question when it comes to reporting on smut, sex scandals and the like, and can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. We asked NPR reporter Laura Sydell why she chose to go ahead in this case. Here is Wolff's letter and Sydell's response. See what you think.

The complaint:

How many children and teenagers have now deliberately accessed (or since your Friday airing on All Things Considered of "How Rick Santorum's Google Problem Has Endured"? One youth would be one too many to see this hate disseminated by activists who clearly have adolescent mentalities. NPR can't describe the material on the radio because it is "so scatological and sexual" but NPR clearly has no problem perpetuating it by providing the name of the website and giving gay activist and columnist Dan Savage a platform to promote his offensive and infantile attack on Rick Santorum. Due to Savage and his readers' perverse definition and NPR's role as an amplifier, how many parents are now left explaining what a [it] is?

All Things Considered has stepped out of bounds for this cheap political smear. If Savage's definition described this as an "Obama" instead of a "Santorum" would All Things Considered have aired the same story? Hell no, and NPR would have been right for not airing it. Hate is hate, call it what it is instead of calling it a "prank". This is the second time I have heard about this odious website from NPR: don't ever divulge it again. Yes, many people curious about Rick Santorum are undoubtedly discovering the website on their own, but they certainly do not need your help in finding the filth.

The reporter's response:

While I understand the listener's concerns about the language on the Savage anti-Santorum site, I felt it was an important and legitimate story in the wake of Mr. Santorum's success in Iowa. Although the site had been up for many years, it was only after Mr. Santorum's success in the caucuses that a large number of people were actually searching for more information about him. Unfortunately, the anti-Santorum site was either the first or among the first they would see when they Googled him. So, I felt that NPR should help explain how Google search algorithms work and why the anti-Santorum site was so prominent.

Most print outlets actually explained the contents of the site in more depth than NPR. We tried to be descriptive without being offensive but still felt it was important for people to get some idea of why the site would cause offense.

I have to say that for myself, I sympathize with Wolff but agree with Sydell. It would be disingenuous to ignore what anyone can see on Google. We Latinos call that trying to cover the sun with a finger. Sydell's story, at least, gives a responsible explanation of why you find what you find on Google. And why Santorum has a problem.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman for NPR. His column can be found on here.
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