Aimai wanted me arrested. RevMetheus envisioned me being dragged by a horse. Relentless2112, the son of one of this newspaper’s owners, decided that I sounded like a dick.
I didn’t know Aimai, RevMetheus, or Relentless2112. That didn’t matter. They had read about me in a Dec. 21 column in the Huffington Post. The piece was written by 30-year journalism vet Murray Waas.
Waas had become my chief media critic for one reason: I was writing about him.
And somewhere in the reporting process, Waas came away with a nasty notion about me. If true, this allegation would justify all the ire directed my way. Waas charged that I had belittled him for having cancer.
And now Waas had an I-Team of Huffington commenters buying his story. To them, I was no mere journalist but a thug who waits outside oncology wards and pelts cancer sufferers with insults. A lot of other people believed it, too.
This allegation was something that I’d had to live with months before the Huffington piece ran. I was vacationing in Asheville, N.C., during the July 4 holiday when I first found out I hate cancer victims.
Waas had hired an attorney, Lanny Davis, who had sent a letter with an abridged transcript of several exchanges between me and Waas, which was taken from the reporter’s “notes and tape recordings.” The worst of the examples centered around the contention that I’d made fun of Waas for having cancer. According to the Davis letter, the tapes would reveal me in the role of Manimal, saying this to Waas about his ordeal with cancer:
“Let me like explain this to you. OK? You went through a fucking hell of a shit. Like, ah...but from what I know about it, the whole thing was your fault. I mean, I have read through the court files.”
“You never did what the doctors told you to do. You fucking did this to yourself.” Mr. Waas said, “Excuse me?” Mr. Cherkis then said: “You fucking did the shit to yourself. It says here you didn’t do what you the doctors’ told you to do.” Shocked by this statement, Mr. Waas said nothing, and Mr. Cherkis said: “Snap to it, dude. You got yourself into a wad of it. And then you blamed everyone but yourself.”
Bug eyes and mouth drool sold separately.
I wanted to hear those tapes.
By the time of those interviews, Waas had long ceased being a cooperative subject and had become more like a hyper jailhouse lawyer spotting conspiracy in nearly every interaction. Our relationship had ground down to e-mails—we’d exchanged more than 100 of them in two months. Waas would send me an e-mail calling me a “pathalogical liar,” for example, and I would try my best to ignore it.
The tapes, when they arrived, contained few rock-’em-sock-’em moments. Instead, they revealed the following embarrassing fact: I am a really inarticulate suckup.
Listening to them now is to hear the sounds of two reporters trying to score incredibly minor points about things that never make it into the story. It’s like footnotes attacking one another.
I played the tapes and heard this about Waas and cancer:
CHERKIS: You went through a fucking hell of a shit, all right? [It was] really bad. OK?
WAAS: What, what did you say, “I went through a what?”
CHERKIS: You went through a hell of a fucking bad time. OK?
WAAS: Why did you make a joke about it?
CHERKIS: I didn’t make a joke about it.
WAAS: You made a joke about it to some, someone you were interviewing.
CHERKIS: No I didn’t. No I didn’t. What joke would that be? You got it, got it written down? On tape or something? What joke? I never made a joke about it. So I don’t know who that is.
WAAS: And what did you say, I can’t I’m not even going to repeat all the expletives, it’s not very respectful, a fucking hell of a something.
CHERKIS: You went through a hell of an ordeal. You did. OK. And whether I’m going to write about it or not I’ve no idea. I’m not sure. But we’re way off topic here.
Let us all now linger on the phrase “fucking hell of a shit.” Not exactly Barbara Walters. It’s not even Rosie during her butch haircut phase. I wonder now how I managed to sound so lame.
The thing is, I knew cancer was a touchy subject for Waas. But he brought it up over and over again. He wanted to know: Were we going to write about it?
Waas rightfully felt more than a little entitled to the subject of his cancer. For a territorial guy, it was the one subject that he could claim as his own. I had gone ahead and read all the court records I could find on his cancer battle and civil suit against his doctors. Truly sad stuff, stuff I wanted for the story. Stuff that I thought would turn this oddly conflicted guy into a human being.
But did the tapes reveal that I blamed Waas for his cancer? Well, no.
What they did reveal was that Waas didn’t care about those tapes as much as I did. While they were on my personal heavy rotation, it seemed as if he hadn’t listened to them at all. He had quoted so much of the tapes incorrectly.
Here’s a breakdown of the Waas attacks against me:
• In the Huffington Post, Waas quotes me saying this about his cancer during one of the taped interviews:
“You told every single person you have had a conversation, ‘I had cancer!’ Don’t tell me it was a secret because you told every single person you have ever come in contact. Don’t you lie to me! You told people if you really didn’t want to keep it a secret, you shouldn’t have told.”
He then glibly added: “You wouldn’t have like passed it out like part of your business card.”
The tapes show that these quotes are inaccurate. Waas also takes care to omit both context and further explanation. In the phone call referenced above, Waas accused me of revealing that he had cancer to sources, which at that time would have included his ex-wife, former colleagues, and neighbors, all of whom he had confided this “secret” to long ago. Here is what the tapes really say:
CHERKIS: You've told everybody you had cancer! Don’t make it out to be a state secret, dude! Don’t. Don’t lie to me. You’ve told every single person you’ve ever ever had a conversation with “I had cancer.” You know how many people I’ve interviewed that said, “He’s got cancer. Did you know that?”…
It’s not a state secret. You’ve told everybody that and whether that is relevant to the story, it’s not. Whether you’ve told 100 people, that doesn’t mean anything to me....Again, I’m going to repeat this for you for the last time: If it’s relevant to your work, then I’m gonna run it. If it’s not relevant to your work, which I don’t know, I don’t know, but in a couple weeks when we’re ready with our questions, I’ll be glad to tell you, “Hey we’re going to write about it,” and you can choose whether to say: “Fuck you, Jason,” or not. That’s fine. But don’t tell me it was a state secret. Don’t lie to me. Because you told every person you’ve ever come in contact with.
And then after some debate, I can be heard on the tapes saying this:
CHERKIS: You told people that really if you really wanted it as a secret you wouldn’t have told. You wouldn’t have like passed it out as part of like your business card. OK.
WAAS: I passed this out as part of my business card to who?
CHERKIS: Why are you so literal? God. You don’t know sarcasm. Unbelievable. You’re, like, such a stiff shirt. Un-fucking-believable...
WAAS: ’Cause I don’t believe I passed it out as a business card or I’ve told everybody I’ve come in contact with.
CHERKIS: I’m being facetious here. You have told every just about every single person that I have interviewed has brought it up without me prompting—“Did you know he was ill? Did you know he had cancer? Did you know he sued? Did you know he won money? How much? I don’t know how much money he won. Don’t tell me.” Listen, you’re the type of guy that talks. OK? Don’t be ashamed of that....
Waas then denies that he’s the type of guy who talks.
CHERKIS: All right, then you know what? You have no self-awareness at all because you talk. You are a very personable person. You’re not a stiff person. You’re not like [a] K Street lawyer. You yourself said, “I’ve spent more time in a courthouse than a green room.” OK? That implies that you may have a fucking personality, OK? You may be more than a stiff shirt at a White House press conference. Don’t tell me you’re not, because you don’t want to go there. Those aren’t the types of stories you do. All right? You’re not the stenographer of President Bush. OK? What you are is a guy that goes around and cultivates sources. You make them your friends. Like you’re like a good reporter in that way. OK. They become people you care about. OK?
Boy does it take me a long time to get to the compliment. But it’s there along with the talk of state secrets and repeated use of the word “fucking.” How important we both must have felt at that moment! I would later apologize for the business-card joke.
• In the Huffington Post, Waas claims I called him “with the discovery that the high costs of medical bills and health insurance had been one large reason that I went bankrupt—something hardly uncommon that for young people who have been cancer survivors.”
Waas should have listened to his own tapes. He appears to be taking something from an instance when he called me on an unrelated matter—I never called him with any “discovery” regarding his bankruptcy filings. I can be heard arguing that his bankruptcy was due to his months of unpaid rent, next-to-zero income, and not his health insurance, as indicated by Waas’ own bankruptcy filings.
• In the Huffington Post, Waas writes:
[Cherkis] then badgered me over the telephone: “So are you a deadbeat of a cancer survivor? So which is it? Which is it?” Then attempting to bully me, he says “You’re like begging me and Erik [his editor] not to write about it. Now you’re like the poor cancer patient. Now you are falling back on your whole fucking tale of woe, dude. Feel sorry for me! I had the cancer thing.”
There are no tapes for this. Nor do I have notes. I simply never said that to Waas.
• From the same piece:
In another instance, Cherkis called my home and screamed at me because I would not answer his questions, saying: “Look, dude, you are so tightly wound. Like one of those balls of rubber bands. I like to get everything out! But you are like....Did anyone ever tell you that you are like this really repressed person?”
He then asked me if I think that people who have cancer have repressed personalities.
I did complain that Waas was repressed and tightly wound but only in the context of not laughing at my attempts at humor. Seems like I need to hit a few more open-mic nights before I start making jokes with story subjects.
• But then Waas goes for the big whopper. He writes:
Cherkis then told me that he didn’t understand what all the fuss is about, and that he has even found evidence that from a Google search that what he said was true. And sure enough, there is a website, Cherkis even refers me which says that people are more “prone to develop cancer that…lack satisfactory emotional outlets, and have a habit of bottling up or suppressing anger.”
This exchange never happened.
• Finally, Waas writes:
People who worked with Wemple and Cherkis told me that they were paranoid that I would make the tapes public and embarrass them. In reality, I only wanted to be left alone.
As to whether or not Waas wanted to be left alone, here is a transcript from the end of one of the taped interviews in which I allegedly demeaned his cancer survivorship and was allegedly abusive:
CHERKIS: All right. Listen, I got to go.
WAAS: Oh, really?
WAAS: Oh, come on.
WAAS: My girlfriend left me.
CHERKIS: I got to go, dude.
WAAS: Now I don’t have anybody.
CHERKIS: [Sighs] I got to go.
WAAS: I don’t have anybody in my life. I mean you’re it.
CHERKIS: You’re being facetious. I got to go.
WAAS: You sure?
CHERKIS: Yeah. I got to go.
WAAS: Aw, man.
CHERKIS: All right. I’ll see you later.
WAAS: God. OK.
CHERKIS: All right. Bye.