Hits the Messengers
By Howard Kurtz
The reality was a bit more mundane: Jonathan Broder, Salon's Washington correspondent, and three of his editors were at a White House party when the Clintons, working the room, stopped by to chat. The president said he thought Salon's latest scoop casting doubt on a Whitewater witness was "significant"; the first lady said the barrage of allegations had been rough on them. The president talked a bit about the Middle East. End of secret meeting.
The whispering and sniping reflect the intensity of Whitewater's true believers. Conservatives have launched a concerted campaign against a handful of reporters who are questioning the heart of the case -- Broder, Salon contributor Murray Waas and New York Observer columnist Joe Conason. Painted as shoddy journalists who carry water for the White House, the three have been assailed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Weekly Standard and columnist Robert Novak as fiercely as they defend independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his band of Whitewater witnesses.
These conservatives have snidely dismissed the reporters' accounts that money from a right-wing philanthropist may have been funneled to Whitewater figure David Hale. The conservative Landmark Legal Foundation has demanded a federal probe of what it calls Salon's "intimate relationship" with Justice Department officials "who are illegally leaking information."
"I'm just kind of amazed at why I'm being vilified and why it's so personal," says Waas, who has received a telephone death threat and has had trouble sleeping in recent weeks.
"There's a red alert about those of us who've written about this," Conason says.
Broder calls the attacks "laughable," saying: "I'm not on any side. I don't take sides." Still, he says, "I feel uncomfortable that the White House pushes [our] stuff so much. . . . If we write a story that happens to serve the White House's interest and they flash it around, suddenly Salon is in the tank? No."
There is ample fodder available to those who want to cast the trio as Clinton defenders. White House allies sometimes tout Salon pieces to reporters before they are even posted on the Web. Broder, 49, and Conason, 44, are longtime friends of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal; it was Blumenthal who invited Broder and company to his wife's birthday party at the White House, where the journalists met the Clintons.
A partial listing of Broder's pieces, some of them written with Waas: "Blumenthal Blasts Starr as He Exits the Grand Jury Room" (featuring a long interview with Blumenthal). "Paula Jones's Patron Accuses Her Legal Fund of Defrauding the Public." "Arkansas Bait Shop Owner's Anti-Clinton Operation." "Kenneth Starr -- Is a Crazed Sex Cop Running the U.S.?" Conason (who often teamed up with Waas in the past) weighed in with "The Unholy Alliance Between Kenneth Starr's Leaky Office and the Press," accusing journalists of "taking stenography from a venal prosecutor."
What's more, Salon once ran a regular column by presidential pit bull James Carville. One reader even questioned whether Salon had become "an arm of the Clinton spin machine." (For the record, Editor David Talbot says the San Francisco-based magazine is bankrolled by two computer companies, Borders books and an investment bank. He says Salon reached 550,000 readers last month, more than triple last year's circulation, and expects to break even this year.)
Waas, a dogged, somewhat eccentric investigator, is the most controversial of the three. When Waas learned of death threats against his key Arkansas source, he called the FBI and asked that she be protected. When that didn't work, he called two Justice Department officials. When that didn't work, he called former Arkansas senator David Pryor, now the head of Clinton's legal defense fund. Pryor called the FBI, and an agent was dispatched around midnight. "She wasn't concerned for her safety at all," an FBI spokesman said.
"Our attitude toward Murray and Salon is they've become a mouthpiece for the administration," says Mark Levin, president of Landmark and a former Reagan administration official. "We don't view Murray as a reporter. We view him as an ideologue with a pen."
What has infuriated the president's detractors is that Waas (who will reveal only that he's in his thirties) and his colleagues are starting to draw blood. The Justice Department has asked Starr to investigate the allegation of payments to Hale, and the story has moved up the media food chain to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
This, in turn, fueled the speculation that administration sources were spoon-feeding the reporters. Privately, however, White House officials say they were unaware of most of the charges until the spate of stories in Salon.
"These people have engaged in enterprise journalism," Blumenthal says. "Clearly, other news organizations have been following up the stories broken by these reporters. Rather than engage in campaigns of vilification," he says, conservatives should examine "whether the stories are true."
"We've struck a nerve," says David Talbot. The wave of counterattacks, he says, "shows how sophisticated the conservative media machine has become in this country. They have foundations, they have news outlets, and they use them very well."
'A Town of Opinions'
The epicenter of this journalistic effort is Murray Waas's Adams-Morgan town house, its floor strewn with massive piles of old newspapers, confidential files, dirty clothes, compact discs and Senate transcripts. Along the living room wall are framed front pages of some of Waas's scoops, from "Bush and Noriega -- A Love Story" to "The Last Days of Edwin Meese."
Waas, answering the door in a hole-filled red T-shirt and his perpetual stubble, apologizes for the debris, saying he's been so focused on pursuing the story that he's had no other life.
The personalities of the reporters are strikingly different. Joe Conason is confident and combative, never backing away from a verbal brawl. Jonathan Broder is low-key and measured, with the patient air of a man who's covered his share of wars. Waas is obsessive and secretive, his voice barely a whisper as he passes on this or that allegation.
Conason is the most visible, sounding off on programs like "Crossfire" and "Equal Time," his appearances booked by a PR firm. A longtime reporter for the Village Voice, Conason is political editor of the Observer, a provocative peach-colored paper, and a reliably liberal voice.
Broder (not to be confused with the New York Times's John Broder) had been a foreign correspondent for two decades for the Associated Press, NBC, Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Examiner, where Salon's founders worked. After four years in Washington, he professes puzzlement at a media culture in which journalists invite the politicians they cover to black-tie extravaganzas.
"Washington isn't a town of news, it's a town of opinions," Broder says. "When I was based in the Middle East, you were seen as either pro-Israel or pro-Arab. Sometimes you're neither."
Waas is a freelance reporter who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, the Nation and The Post's Outlook section. He and an L.A. Times reporter were Pulitzer Prize finalists for their work on the Bush administration's dealings with weapons and banks in Iraq. Waas has long been a lightning rod for the right.
"Murray is the one who's been getting all the heat on this," Broder says. "His Iran-contra reporting angered a lot of conservatives." Indeed, the Weekly Standard called Waas a "freelance conspiracy theorist," and others have attacked his 1980s reports that the Reagan administration protected Miami-based cocaine dealers and gunrunners who aided the Nicaraguan contras.
The current atmosphere is so filled with accusations that the reporters feel compelled to declare that they're hardly unabashed fans of the president.
"I've attacked the guy bitterly many times," Conason says.
"I think Clinton's terrible on the Middle East," Broder says.
"My best friend says I'm a Clinton-hater who hates Clinton-haters," Waas says.
Salon vs. Spectator
On one level, the so-called Arkansas Project is a tale of two magazines: Salon, which has a left-of-center sensibility, and the fiercely conservative American Spectator.
The Spectator received $1.8 million for its anti-Clinton research project in Arkansas from Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive conservative publisher who makes no secret of his disdain for the president. Last fall, after The Post disclosed the project and the ouster of the Spectator's publisher in a dispute over the funding, Salon began following the money.
The trail led to an Arkansas bait shop owner named Parker Dozhier, who received $48,000 of the Scaife funds through the Spectator to gather documents and clippings on Clinton. Dozhier's ex-girlfriend Caryn Mann told Salon that Dozhier had given some of the money to David Hale, a former judge and ex-convict who has become a key witness in Starr's investigation of the Whitewater land deal. (The AP was the first to uncover financial ties between Dozhier and Hale.)
Still, the case is hardly open-and-shut. Mann admits she didn't see any money change hands; her son Joshua Rand, who was 13 at the time, told Broder and Waas he saw Dozhier give Hale about $5,000 over time.
But Dozhier and Hale deny that any payments were made, and a Spectator audit has found no evidence of such payments. What's more, conservatives have dismissed Mann as a "Hot Springs psychic and tarot card reader," as a Washington Times story put it, and her son as a troubled youth ("the teenage son of a worm merchant's oddball ex-girlfriend," says the Standard). Dozhier even told Salon that Rand was "destined to be a chalk outline somewhere," prompting Waas to call the FBI on Mann's behalf.
If all this seems hopelessly tangled, it's only the beginning. The war of words between Salon's troops and the capital's conservative lieutenants has degenerated into a nasty exchange of conspiracy theories. The reporters have challenged their critics' motives in exactly the way their detractors attempt to marginalize them.
When columnist Novak dismissed the Broder-Waas piece about alleged payments to Hale as a story based solely on Caryn Mann, the reporters did more than insist they actually had four sources. They hit back hard.
"Dishonest and politically malevolent," Broder says of Novak. "I wouldn't call him a journalist."
"Bob Novak should learn to read the English language," Waas says. "He misrepresented what our article said. He wrote something patently false with the express purpose of discrediting our story for ideological and partisan reasons. He's a partisan propagandist."
Novak says he is "very dubious" that the reporters have other sources for their story. And he rejects Waas's charge that he spread rumors about a supposed secret meeting the reporter had at the White House. "That's an absolute lie," Novak says. "A couple of people told me about the meeting. I checked it out with the White House, they said there was no record of any meeting with Murray Waas, and I let it go at that. . . . I don't spread rumors."
The finger-pointing between Waas and the Landmark Legal Foundation has been even more heated. Levin, the group's president, calls Waas a "left-wing writer" who has harassed foundation officials and twice threatened to sue Levin for libel.
Waas says he merely indicated he would consult his lawyer after Levin told him the foundation would accuse him of obstructing justice. "Baloney," says Levin.
Waas believes that Levin bears a grudge against him over his investigations of former attorney general Ed Meese, whom Levin served as chief of staff. Levin calls this "poppycock," saying he'd never heard of Waas at the time.
The verbal jousting often boils down to questions about money and hidden agendas. Waas is quick to note that Landmark is subsidized by the ubiquitous Scaife, whose foundations gave the group $475,000 in 1996. "Mark Levin's patron is Richard Mellon Scaife," he says. "Landmark's efforts have been conducted to stymie legitimate journalistic inquiry of their patron."
Says Levin: "Nobody tells us what to do. I really regret these McCarthyite tactics."
Another recipient of Scaife's largess is conservative author David Horowitz, a Salon columnist who has used his online platform to lambaste Salon's reporters. "Were Waas and Broder in touch with the Clinton camp [before writing their stories]? Did they get a special White House briefing?" Horowitz asked in his column. Conason fired off a letter to the editor noting that Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture received at least $1.75 million over three years from foundations controlled by "the poor, beleaguered billionaire."
(To complete the conspiratorial circle, Scaife funded two law school deanships at Pepperdine University that Starr until recently planned to accept.)
No slight, however fleeting, escapes the reporters' attention. Former House investigator Barbara Olson, appearing on "Rivera Live," spoke of "Salon magazine's meetings with Sidney Blumenthal and President Clinton." Salon reporters indignantly replied that she is married to attorney Theodore Olson, who represented David Hale before the Senate and sits on the Spectator's board.
"That's insulting to me as a woman," Olson says. "They're saying I'm just the 'wife of' and have no brain other than to speak for my husband. I don't speak for him."
And when the Journal's editorial page disparaged the Hale story in "an Internet magazine called Salon (paid circulation zip), based on quotes from somebody's former girlfriend," Salon's David Talbot returned fire in his magazine. He accused the Journal's "far-right propagandists" of a "smear."
While much of the public has tuned out the arcane accusations of Arkansas land dealings, the constant volleys between these reporters and their critics over who has ties to whom and who gets funding from whom are even less of a blip on the radar screen. But it matters intensely to the combatants who have soldiered on for years in the Whitewater wars.
"A lot is at stake here for the conservatives," Broder says. "Our reporting throws Hale's testimony into doubt along with the conservative investment in Starr. I'm not surprised we're being attacked."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company