1. We Represent Murray Waas
Murray Waas wormed his way into my life last June, when I received a letter from a K Street lawyer named Lanny Davis. Davis, I soon learned, is a prominent and connected lobbyist who once served as special counsel to Bill Clinton. His letter came on law firm stationery and began with two words that every editor learns to dread: “We represent…” It doesn’t matter what follows those two words, the translation is always the same: We represent trouble for you. Your life just got a little worse.
“We represent the Washington-based investigative reporter Murray Waas,” the letter said. Maybe I had heard that name once or twice, or more likely seen the byline, but I knew nothing about Waas. Since then, however, I’ve come to know him pretty well—and to cherish the days when I don’t get an e-mail or a phone call from him.
I’m the executive editor of the Chicago Reader, which makes me the senior editorial hand in the group that owns Washington City Paper. (The companies are separate but owned by the same people.) Technically, City Paper editor Erik Wemple and his staff report to me. So although Davis’ letter was sent to a few people in the Reader office, it was my problem.
As Davis saw it, my problem was that Wemple and City Paper writer Jason Cherkis were doing an article on Waas that appeared to be “a rare instance of journalism motivated by personal animus.” Davis wrote:
…we believe that Mssrs. Cherkis and Wemple may be incapable of pursuing this story in an unbiased manner and writing a balanced article. We propose that new reporters be assigned to the story or, at the very least, that the current writers proceed only under the strictest editorial supervision.
Please find attached some examples of the unprofessional behavior of Mr. Cherkis in particular. These examples demonstrate personal animus against Mr. Waas, and cause him concern that Mssrs. Cherkis and Wemple intend to harm his reputation and livelihood.
As Davis knew well, the suggestion that the writers proceed under the “strictest editorial supervision” and the words “harm his reputation and livelihood” were the equivalent of a 4-foot-tall neon sign flashing “LIBEL SUIT! LIBEL SUIT!”
Attached to Davis’ letter was a document helpfully titled “Examples of Unprofessional and Abusive Behavior by Washington City Paper Reporters Erik Wemple and Jason Cherkis.” Among other things, it alleged that:
• In the midst of a contentious phone interview in which Cherkis and Waas each brought up the other’s past, Cherkis began reading court papers from Waas’ divorce. “Let me break this down for you. All right?” Cherkis is alleged to have said. “This is where the real fun begins….Here we go. This is what your own wife has to say about you.…I mean, do you like this? Are you having fun yet.”
• In a discussion of Waas’ bout with cancer and his subsequent malpractice suit against George Washington University Medical Center (in which he was awarded damages of $650,000), Cherkis blamed Waas for contracting his disease: “Let me like explain this to you. OK? You went through a fucking hell of a shit.…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.”
• In response to Waas’ contention that he had tried to keep his cancer a private matter, Cherkis said: “You told everybody you had cancer! Don’t make it out to be a state secret!…If you really, ah, really wanted to keep it a secret…you wouldn’t have passed it out as part of your business card.”
• Talking about a document that Cherkis was asking Waas to provide, Waas objected that he had no obligation to act as Cherkis’ researcher. Cherkis erupted at this insult to his journalistic pride: “Listen buddy you’re just digging through your fucking shit and finding a file. How hard is that, asshole? God! Don’t fucking tell me that you’re acting like my researcher ever again.”
There was more, but these were the most damning examples in Davis’ letter.