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Writer Sat on His Own Life-and-Death Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

For a reporter whose specialty is digging out secrets, Murray Waas has been keeping one about himself for a long time.

He was once diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer and told he had little chance of survival. More recently, he had to fight off a recurrence and his subsequent bankruptcy from medical bills.

"I feel almost relieved getting it out," he says. "I'm just fatigued from trying to hide it."

It's hard to say where the line should be drawn when it comes to such an intensely personal disclosure. Did Waas's near-death experience, and subsequent complications, affect his journalism? How could such a searing experience not change your outlook on work and life?

Waas, who works for the National Journal and has drawn attention lately for several scoops in the CIA leak investigation, sued George Washington University Medical Center for failing to diagnose his cancer, winning a $650,000 judgment. But over the years he has persuaded other reporters to steer clear of his medical history on grounds that it was private -- an interesting stance for a journalist who asks probing questions for a living.

"I kept it a huge secret," says Waas, who decided to go public after receiving an inquiry from Washington City Paper and concluding that such questions would continue to dog him.

Waas learned he had colon cancer in 1987, at the age of 26. He says the outlook was so grim that he regarded it as a "death sentence." Legal papers in the case refer to "incurable stage C cancer" and his "terminal prognosis." A pathologist hired by his side told the court that in his experience "over 90 percent of patients" with such an advanced form of cancer "are dead by the end of two years."

But surgery and chemotherapy saved Waas's life. He sued GW for having negligently failed to diagnose the cancer three years earlier, and won a 1992 verdict that was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals. A spokeswoman for the medical center had no comment.

"It was pretty atrocious," says his attorney, Anthony Newman, noting that Waas's doctors never recommended a colonoscopy despite symptoms of bleeding, diarrhea and gastrointestinal problems. "This man had chronically complained to GW and wound up with a tumor the size of a grapefruit that had spread to the lymph nodes."

Waas acknowledges that the disease influenced him in the late 1980s when he was writing for the Boston Globe about the collapse of Florida health care facilities where some cancer patients had died. "I wrote that as someone who my family and doctors thought was certainly going to die from cancer," he says. "Is it relevant to my work when I report on national security, foreign policy or politics? I don't think so."

But the lines are not so easily drawn. In one of several conversations, Waas says his near-death experience made him more determined to report on how the country got into both Persian Gulf wars, with their life-and-death stakes. After watching on Capitol Hill when the Gulf War resolution was approved in 1991, Waas interviewed two men at the Vietnam War Memorial who said two of their friends had died in that war and questioned why the United States was getting into another one. He saw in this "the mirror image of my own life" -- the unresolved questions about why his cancer was missed -- and vowed to fully investigate the war.

"Cancer almost cost me my life, but the experience led me to do the most important reporting of my career," he says.

Waas got colon cancer again in 2000, and a subsequent boost in his health insurance premiums -- to $25,000 a month, he says -- pushed him into bankruptcy. He is cancer-free now, but says the "cancer tax" of crushing premiums forced him to give up freelancing to get company-paid insurance. While Waas recently told his National Journal editors of his past battles, he says he had remained mum because he believes cancer survivors face workplace discrimination.

"I don't want to be known as the reporter who had cancer," Waas says.

Kabul Chicanery

The Christian Science Monitor recently carried an investigative report on how police officials in Afghanistan are deeply involved in drug trafficking. In recorded conversations, one described how he had carried 500 kilos of heroin in his car; another how he pays his men to carry drugs to Tajikistan, but delays the payments to avoid suspicion.

Yet, as the Monitor acknowledged in an accompanying editor's note, the paper violated a fundamental rule of journalism -- or what it delicately described as "a reporting device" that "it normally avoids."

That is, the police chiefs were not told they were being interviewed. Instead, they were secretly taped by an Afghan investigator hired by the paper. The Monitor got only a general comment from an Afghan narcotics official.

Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson says the "primary consideration" was that "we could not find any other way" to get the story.

Once the surreptitious work was done, Ingwerson says, "we had to confront whether it was fair. With a police chief in Appleton, Wis., or Fresno, of course you would have gone back with what you had, through the front door, and said here it is." But the Monitor concluded such an approach would endanger people's lives -- even if done over the phone, which would have required the use of Afghan translators who might be placed in jeopardy.

The result, says Ingwerson, was that reporter Scott Baldauf wrote the piece without the officials' names, using what were clearly labeled pseudonyms instead. But even that, Ingwerson concedes, risked giving readers a "distorted picture" because "these guys, not knowing they're speaking to a reporter, could have been loosely bragging."

So by lying to get the story, not using the officials' names and acknowledging that they could be blowing smoke, what exactly did the Monitor accomplish?

Feeling the Love

Condoleezza Rice wasn't exactly grilled by the Greensboro News & Record during a recent visit to North Carolina. As The Post's Al Kamen noted, reporter Nancy McLaughlin assured the secretary of state that "we love you here in Greensboro."

Editor John Robinson told his readers that McLaughlin's remark "was inappropriate, to say the least, and she shouldn't have said it. She knows it, too. She told me that her mouth outran her brain and that she intended to convey respect for Rice's accomplishments. Didn't come out that way."

No argument there.

Blog Ban

Isn't blocking political Web sites something that is done in totalitarian regimes?

Turns out it also happens in Kentucky, where aides to Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who is under indictment, cut off state employees' access to numerous Internet sites one day after the New York Times quoted a local blogger as criticizing Fletcher. Mark Nickolas of the widely read Bluegrassreport.org had accused Fletcher's administration of trying to "play by their own rules even if it's against the law."

"There is little doubt this was a deliberate banning of BGR," Nickolas wrote on his site, which was one of the first to be blocked. But a Fletcher aide told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the ban, which extends to entertainment, humor and other sites, had nothing to do with the Times story and was simply an effort to promote greater efficiency among state workers.

Finger in the Eye

"The near-sighted hog butchers in Chicago are threatening another round of cuts that could diminish the power and purpose of a great local institution for the sake of kicking the stock up two points." -- Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, slamming the paper's owner, Chicago's Tribune Co., over possible budget cuts.

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