The Story Behind the Story Or, How I Became a Finalist for Worst People of 2006

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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.


Our Readers Say

God you're an asshole Lenehan. So are your reporters. If you want to latch onto the leg of someone who is a biigger media star than you are why go after Murray Waas when there's much bigger fish who are real jerks to go after like Bill O'Reilly or Tim Russert? Hmmmm? I'll tel ya why, you're an asshole and a wimp.
methinks the arsehole doth protest too much.
Michael, you were right the first time; anything beyond the work is unacceptable. And this piece goes so, so far beyond Waas' work that what it does have to say on that subject feels very much like an afterthought.

It's not surprising that you, along with the guys at City Paper, grew to loathe Murray Waas. It is surprising, and totally indefensible, that you let it completely overwhelm your basic news judgement.

I don't recall ever reading a profile that read this way. Not even "The Final Days." You've made a terrible mistake, and in so doing perpetuated the growing sense that much of the press corps simply lacks the sack to go after the powerful, so it goes after the average joe instead.
City Paper sure used lots of resources to write an "expose" of a not very important or significant journalist. The piece, and the 10 page explanation of it, are extraordinarily unprofessional. Yes, how is Murray Waas supposed to defend himself against this extremely unfavorable publicity. It's a hatchet job! Shame on you!
Well, it is good to read this too... all 8500 words of it... to see this guy ain't have no bias either. He seems obsessed with his subjct as much as with himself.
Yeah, the editor is as self asorbed as much as his writers are obsessed.

8,500 words on "The story about the story?" Was this Watergate? Is Mike lenehan ben bradlee in some walter mitty fantasy world?

And what the hell has this guy have to do with anything? Is he even with the City Paper?

Tyhe whole thing is just bizzare, if u ask me. Why did they go after this guy with such a vengance? And is it proper thing for a newspaper, even a rag like the CPaper?
And the editor goes on and one about how he oversees hsi reporter's bad reporting. Yuk. Nobody read the piece, so who wants to read the piece about the peice?

They're their own meta-meta-meta.

Self absorped as much as vindictive and obsessed about their subjects.

Yuk. Yuk. Yuk. Masturbatory is the only way to read this. They shouldn't use a rag even to do that. They should find themselves a Yahoo chatr oom.
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Given that this piece is based on the kind of inuendo and loose research that the authors accuse Waas of using (although they hardly made their case), it could have been a good bit of satire. Instead it's just rather pathetic

Take out all the he said, she said and there's not much to it - other than thousands of word, billions of pixels and lots of dead trees. The fact that the middle is dedicated to innuendo regarding Waas's personal life suggests that this piece was not intended to present much in the way of useful information, rather - like those pictures that made the news the other day - it's a ponderously moving trawler churning up a vast amount of mud in its wake.

Okay. As I understand it, City Paper decided Murray Waas was newsworthy because his work was complimented by several other journalists.

Extensive reporting ensued, revealing that over the almost three decades that he has dedicated to investigating issues of profound concern to the continued welfare of the republic, he:

(a) Sometimes made some errors;
(b) Sometimes perhaps hyped a story in order to advance or promote it in a way that arguably was not ultimately justified by deliverable substance (although the authors do not prove this; and
(c) has written a few stories out of hundreds during a long career that subsequent reporters could neither prove nor disprove -- plausible reasons for which include but are not limited to: that they were operating under different institutional standards and mandates than he; that the blowback from the original reporting prompted a clampdown on potential pertinent sources; and that in objective reality not every story is equally gettable by every reporter of comparable skills and equal repute.

However strenuously these things are situated in the context of (at best) tenuously relevant anecdotes about Waas's personal life, they are not particularly unusual features of a long career in investigative journalism , and if they have larger implications, the story fails to establish them.

Given -- as the story itself makes plain -- that Waas has neither exceptional power nor influence, I guess that City Paper can now congratulate itself for not shirking its obligation to make public the alleged personal difficulties of a poorly remunerated private individual whose work it cannot significantly discredit, thus providing a valuable counterbalance to the inherent threat posed by a few instances of praise from Dan Froomkin and Jay Rosen, which might otherwise have gone unchecked.

Full disclosure: I don't know Waas at all in the present, but I probably exchanged civil greetings with him in the hallways of the Voice 17 or 18 years ago.
The only thing I take away from this is that the editor should get a life (and maybe the writers too!).
Weird shit.
What a strange piece. Somewhere in there, after the part where Ahab boards the ship but before Anna gets off the train, I think I might have read something in there about Murray Waas not being such a good guy. But I forget.
Mike Lenehan writes breathlessly in this article?, sidebar?, rant?-- as if he is taking down, say, the Nixon White House, Al Capone, or some felonious Fortune 500 Company-- sharing his anxiety ahead of time with his readers about what might happen when his article comes out, attempting to preempt any criticism of his and his writers' efforts:

"Waas has already begun his public campaign against this article, and we have no illusions that he is finished. If he is true to the pattern he has established with us so far, he will challenge our facts, dispute our conclusions, and question our motives and those of our sources. He will try to impeach some of his critics by criticizing them."

The only problem with any of this is that it appears that Murray Waas, if described accurately elsewhere in the article, is a marginal Washington journalist, with little power, or institutional support. The authors even imply that he is disabled physically, or worse, psychologically, from once having cancer-- an insinuation that falls flat on its face at best, and if true, is despicable they would find newsworthy.

So why the hyperventilation and breathless complaints by Lenehan that the target of their efforts might respond in some way? Having surfed the Internet some, it does not even appear that Waas ever responded in any way at all to this article-- which shows what a futile and bizarre effort, journalistic and otherwise, it was.
After reading this and the main story(or about half of it-- does anyone want to read 21,000 words about someone else's medical problems and a landlord tenant dispute?) one can't help but wonder how much of these stories might even be true.

Most of the most serious allegations (if you can consider them such-- Waas keeps a messy house, a boss here or there did not like him) are made by entirely anonymous sources. Others are made by people with axes to grind-- which is rarely noted at all in the article. (To find those, a reader simply has to Google the names of some of Waas' accusers in this article to see that he had written investigative pieces about several of them, something not noted at all in the CP article. Ethical journalists would have volunteered that on their own).

Add to that the writers make no bones about their animus towards their subject. And then mix in, as the writers admit, a long time feud that Wemple, his wife, and one of their best friends had with Waas, that predated their undertaking this effort, and one is left wondering just which parts might be true and which parts are not.

I did some of my own fact checking and can attest to one fact in the article. There is in fact a journalist named Murray Waas and the writers do have appeared to have spelled his name right-- although I cannot admit to them having spelled his name right in every single instance because I like everyone else never got through the entire morass to know for sure.
Isn't this a little too long? OK, we get that the editor hates Waas. But doesn't this go to far and on for too long for someone to get their hatin' on?
The editor as Jarvet! So where is the "get". Despite all the heavy breathing and hatin', what exactly did Waas do and why should we care?

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