By Howard Kurtz
Jonathan Broder, Washington bureau chief of Salon, has been forced to resign after criticizing the online magazine's decision to disclose Rep. Henry Hyde's 30-year-old affair.
Broder had argued in a memo that to publicize the 1960s extramarital affair would make the magazine's staff look like "sex-obsessed hypocrites." Salon Editor David Talbot, the story's author, demanded his resignation after Broder responded to a call from The Washington Post by saying: "I objected to it on journalistic grounds, on grounds of fairness and because of the way Salon would be perceived."
Broder submitted a resignation letter yesterday. "I thought I was showing there could be healthy dissent within Salon and I could help protect Salon's credibility," he said in an interview. "My intention was not to embarrass anybody. . . . I truly felt that what they did was over the top, and I had to say that."
Said Talbot: "This was the hardest decision I ever had to make about an employee. It was just a legitimate journalistic difference of opinion we had, but it was so profound a difference that I thought it was best for us to part company."
While he has "enormous respect" for Broder, Talbot said, "Jon took a strong stand against running the piece. We argued it out. Once we made the decision, we asked Jon not to go public with his differences."
Broder said he initially offered to resign after Talbot left what both men describe as a "blistering" message on his answering machine. When Broder later suggested that he fly to Salon's San Francisco office to see if the relationship could be salvaged, Talbot told him not to bother because his resignation had been accepted.
A Salon editorial contended that the sex life of the House Judiciary Committee chairman is fair game because he would head an impeachment inquiry that involves President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Sept. 16 article in Salon, which has been a fierce critic of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, infuriated House Republicans, who demanded an FBI investigation of whether the White House helped plant the story. The administration denies any involvement.
Salon's on-the-record source was Norm Sommer, a Florida retiree who is friendly with the ex-husband of Hyde's former mistress. Ironically, Sommer called Talbot several months after trying to peddle the story to Broder, who brushed it off.
Broder says he was stunned by the editorial acknowledging that the magazine was "descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore. . . . But ugly times call for ugly tactics."
" 'Ugly tactics' is not a phrase I associate with responsible journalism," Broder said. "It smacks of agendas and advocacy, and I don't want to be part of that."
Some magazines have a history of fighting their battles in public. In 1994, when the New Republic published a controversial article linking race and intelligence, it also ran impassioned dissents by 19 staffers, with such headlines as "Dumbskulls" and "Neo-Nazis."
Talbot says that Salon "has prided itself on having a contentious staff that speaks its mind." But the Hyde story was different, he said, because it triggered an unprecedented firestorm, including "fax attacks" meant to disable its office equipment. He questioned how a Washington Post writer who criticized the paper's Watergate coverage would have been treated when the Post company was under assault by the Nixon White House.
Broder, a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Examiner, says he'll do some freelancing and continue writing for the Jerusalem Report while he ponders his next move.
The three-year-old Internet magazine gained a loyal following for its coverage of politics, culture and sex and for such eclectic columnists as Camille Paglia and sex expert Susie Bright. But Salon has become increasingly controversial in recent months for its tendentious coverage of the Whitewater affair, publishing allegations by Broder and Murray Waas that conservative money was funneled to a key Whitewater witness. This led to charges that Salon was in cahoots with the Clintons, particularly after Talbot and Broder chatted up the president and first lady at a White House party.
In his memo to Talbot protesting the planned story on Hyde, Broder said he was already having trouble getting conservatives to return his calls. He said the Hyde story was out of bounds because no public issue was involved -- the woman had not been on the Illinois Republican's payroll, had not sued him and had made no public accusation.
"Deservedly or not," Broder wrote, "Salon already has a pro-Clinton reputation. With the story you are now planning to run, which I do not believe meets the journalistic threshold, Salon will be indelibly stained as a vicious Clinton attack dog. . . . There is no way in the world that you and Salon will escape broad censure as hypocritical thugs. . . . We will become the left-wing equivalent of the American Spectator."
But Talbot maintained yesterday that Salon had "restored some sanity to this debate" by demonstrating "how absurd it is to have sex become politicized."
"There's a very strong pressure for a journalist to conform in Washington, to be part of the club," he said. "Salon is not in that club. What we did was in much more of a California-like spirit, in the tradition of Rolling Stone or Ramparts. We don't live by the Beltway codes. . . . It was right for us to pull Henry Hyde's pants down."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company