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Julia Baugher has written her last sex-advice column for the Hoya, a Georgetown University campus newspaper. The breakup, at first glance, has all the sophomoric trappings of a who-really-cares spat among young journalists.
Baugher has complained in the past that she can’t write about blowjobs in the Hoya, which she paints as an ideological bedfellow for the Jesuit school’s administration. And she pins her Jan. 23 departure from the paper on differences with Hoya Editor in Chief Josh Zumbrun. “To the best of my knowledge, he is quite conservative and I am a little bit more liberal and don’t think he ever approved of my column,” says Baugher.
When asked for his version of events, Zumbrun uses all the buzzwords of an ambitious pre-professional: “The decision was in no way content-based. I don’t think it would be really appropriate to comment on a personnel matter beyond that.”
Zumbrun’s words notwithstanding, Baugher is no ordinary “personnel matter.” In just a year and a half, she outfitted her advice column—“Sex on the Hilltop”—as a vehicle for media stardom. Among the outlets that have produced puff pieces on the 22-year-old: National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Fox News Network.
Baugher’s birth as a media darling dates back to last April, when Post Reliable Source columnist Lloyd Grove wrote about her dinner date at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano with attractive 32-year-old Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.). “It’s amazing what dating a politician will do for your career,” says Baugher.
From that point onward, says Baugher, no self-promotion skills were required: Reporters just called. “Every single one of them came to me,” says Baugher.
And she had an irresistible story line for them: Sweet-looking gal writes sexy stuff at one of the country’s most stodgy campuses. Even better, the columnist relies on close attention from her chief editor—her mother, Robin Baugher.
Under the heading “Carrie Bradshaw Redux,” the Post’s Sunday Source section last September took the story right from Baugher’s painted lips:
“Strangely enough, I have my mother, Robin, look at all of my columns before handing them in. (She’s a great editor.) It’s really changed our relationship in a good way. She started talking to me about sex when I was five, so I was more educated than most kids. Now I’m teaching her a few things. She thinks she’s pretty hip because she knows what a booty call is. I’m like, ‘Mom, that’s so old.’”
Fox News’ Rita Cosby set the same hook for her viewers that same month: “What makes her column different from all the others?” asked Cosby. “Well, her column is for students at a conservative Catholic university, and, get this, her mother, Robin, is her editor.”
The Fox appearance vaulted Baugher to new heights. A talent scout at RLR Associates Ltd., a New York–based agency that promotes entertainment and sports celebrities, caught her on TV and declared, “We’ve got to get this girl,” says Gary Rosen, executive vice president of RLR. Late last year, the agency signed on Baugher as a client. “We see a great future in her—she’s sexy. In short order, her column is the real-to-life Sex in the City,” says Rosen, who wants to land Baugher on HBO or Showtime. “I can tell you that it’s very difficult to get meetings with green-light decision-makers right away, but with Julia, that isn’t a problem.”
It’s a fortunate time for Baugher to take a leave from her newsprint career. Her departure from the Hoya comes with ethical clouds hanging over her celebrated column.
In December 2002, Baugher wrote a column titled “Shopping for Holiday Love: The Ultimate Guide,” which included a clever section on decoding the messages that love interests send through certain holiday gifts. An example from the piece reads like this:
If she gets you this, she’s probably thinking…
A Framed Photo of the two of You: I will stalk you when we break up.
The gags bore a resemblance to a piece from 2000 on iVillage.com, a site oriented toward women’s issues and dating advice. Titled “Gift Decoder: What Your Gifts Really Mean,” the iVillage.com piece included the following:
If You Give: A framed picture of the two of you
You’re Saying: “Either wedding bells are about to ring, or I’m psychotic and will definitely stalk you if we break up.”
In all, four of Baugher’s gag lines appear to be slightly altered versions of the iVillage.com material, and nine others looked partially similar. Only three of the 16 gifts listed in Baugher’s piece were items not found on the iVillage.com gift list.
The similarities prompted a meeting of the Hoya staff after Baugher’s piece ran, and the author insisted that she hadn’t cribbed any lines from the Internet. “It was definitely concluded that I did not plagiarize in any way,” recalls Baugher.
Somehow, that conclusion didn’t reach all Georgetown journos. Just last week, Hoya columnist Adam Jones wrote a letter to the paper demanding action on the Baugher file. “The Hoya has no set policy for handling plagiarism. If Baugher submitted that column for a class, she could have been expelled. Instead, she published it in the school paper, and is able to continue on as a columnist. If The Hoya wishes to remain Georgetown’s ‘Newspaper of Record,’ shouldn’t it start acting like it?” reads the letter, which is signed by six others.
Hoya editor Zumbrun acknowledges the lasting power of the gift-list flare-up. “There were many factors involved in the decision [to part ways with Baugher]. While that wasn’t the only factor, that was something that was considered,” he says.
Her campus critics, counters Baugher, are using an “incredibly ugly accusation” to advance “their own personal agenda.”
Baugher appears to be an expert on personal agendas. Last July, Post financial reporter Frank Ahrens bumped into her in the lobby of West Hollywood’s Mondrian Hotel. Ahrens was minding his own business when he heard a young woman at the hotel’s front desk haggling over her bill. “Seven dollars for half a grapefruit?!” she complained, according to Ahrens’ account.
Ahrens says that the woman then proceeded to identify herself as a columnist for the Post and warned the clerk that it would be best to keep the hotel’s name out of the Post.
“My head swiveled at that,” says Ahrens via e-mail. So Ahrens took her aside and asked her what her name was. He didn’t recognize the byline, but Baugher told him she’d been picked to be a columnist for the Washington Post Co.’s free daily tabloid, the Express. Ahrens warned her against using the Post’s name for personal gain, “whatever it might be.”
Dan Caccavaro, Editor of Express, says the paper had never made an offer to Baugher. “We talked about the possibility of her writing for us at some point. It was really preliminary,” says Caccavaro.
Baugher’s recollection of the hotel grapefruit confrontation differs from Ahrens’ in one key respect: She insists she invoked the universally feared Hoya, not the Post, in her discussion with the clerk. “I’ve found that people are much nicer when you tell them that you’re going to write something favorable about the hotel,” she says.
Nor is she surprised that she turned some heads that day. “I was wearing a very short skirt, so it’s hard to miss,” she says.
To her credit, Baugher has started to draw some limits around her media exposure. Last fall, she says, she received a query from a Playboy photographer who said, “‘We’re interested in working with you,’” recalls Baugher, who rebuffed the request. “I won’t be taking my clothes off for Playboy anytime soon.”
Style writer Hank Stuever, the Post’s in-house pop-culture expert, specializes in baffling stodgier Posties by riffing on hot trends and new lingo. Each year, for instance, he writes the paper’s “In-Out” list, a popular inventory of nationwide tastes and celebrity fortunes.
In a Jan. 11 Washington Post Magazine piece, though, one of Stuever’s riffs hit a sour note. The piece, an introduction to a regular, upcoming Stuever feature to be called “Question Celebrity,” delved into the public’s fascination with Britney, Tommy Lee, Rush, and other Us Weekly figures. “We kvetch about the songs today’s pop stars sing,” Stuever wrote, “the stunt-kissing between divas, and the wiggah-style posturing among baby-faced toughboys.”
The what-style posturing?
A bit of context: The Post is a family newspaper, one that maintains fealty to the principles of the great Eugene Meyer, one of which reads, “As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.”
Most decent private gentlemen these days might hesitate to call someone a “white nigger.” But that’s what “wiggah”—aka “wigger” or “wigga”—means: It’s disparaging shorthand for white kids who worship hiphop artists and wear baggy, urban fashions.
Stuever insists the coinage has gotten enough rotation to strip it of offense. “Once it’s on [MTV’s] Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, to me, it’s a safe word,” he says. “I’ve always felt it was the writer’s job to push and the editor’s job to pull.”
The editors, in this case, weren’t in a position to pull—or push back—because they didn’t catch the reference. “Ideally, someone would have thought of this connection and raised it—and thought of it before we published it,” says Tom Shroder, the magazine’s editor.
Post Managing Editor Steve Coll says he’d never heard of the word.
That puts the Post more than a decade behind popular culture—and seven years behind even the none-too-hip New York Times. In late 1996, Brent Staples of the Times wrote a piece about the word’s emergence: “The ‘wiggers’ and other wannabes identify blackness with the power to generate fear. That power is particularly seductive to adolescent boys….” wrote Staples.
Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis says the paper prints “wigger” and similar terms only in quotes. —Erik Wemple