Murray Waas was sure he had saved Bill Clinton’s presidency.
In the fall of 1998, Waas met with his friend and colleague Jonathan Broder for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle. The two had worked together for the online magazine Salon, covering the various scandals consuming the White House.
The conversation turned to the famous report recently released by Ken Starr. All of Washington reveled in its exhaustive recounting of Clinton’s infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky (Leaves of Grass, blue dress, cigar). Waas, though, homed in on what was missing from the independent counsel’s report.
There were no impeachable offenses cited in connection with that allegedly shady land deal known as Whitewater, a Waas obsession. For much of that year, he and Broder had written stories for Salon shredding the notion of a Whitewater conspiracy. And because of those stories, Waas now was telling Broder, Starr couldn’t accuse Clinton of anything more than lying about a blowjob.
“Murray was convinced that it was those stories we did,” Broder recalls, “it was those stories that ruined Starr’s case.”
Broder tried to put Waas in his place: “I said, ‘You remind me of an ant floating down the river on his back with a hard-on, yelling, ‘Raise the drawbridge.’”
Waas laughed for a moment. And then he continued to press his case. “He was proud,” Broder says. “He genuinely believed what he was saying.…I’m sure he wants to feel his stuff has meaning. It’s his identity.”
For most of his career, Waas has forged that identity from a home office, surrounded by piles of papers, subsisting on one low-paying freelance assignment after another. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but Waas enjoyed some success, collecting bylines from the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, and many other publications, including this one.
And lately, Waas’ star has been on the rise. The outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame—a Bush administration scandal tied closely to pre-Iraq war intelligence failures—gave him more than a year’s worth of juicy material, and the rise of online political journalism has given him a national profile.
In early 2006, he became a staff correspondent at the National Journal, a stodgy policy-oriented weekly with credibility to spare inside the Beltway. One of Waas’ pieces for the Journal, on leaks of classified information, “pretty much crashed” the magazine’s Web site, according to editor Charles Green. After that, Green began notifying his techies whenever a Waas piece was in the queue so that National Journal could purchase additional server capacity.
In March 2006 columnist Dan Froomkin, author of a Washingtonpost.com blog called “White House Watch,” shined the spotlight on Waas in a column titled “A Compelling Story.” He wrote: “Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.”
That April, New York University professor and journalism pundit Jay Rosen declared that “Murray Waas is Our Woodward Now.” That same month, the Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote that Waas is finally “getting his day in the sun.” US News & World Report echoed the sentiment in a fawning piece titled “A Muckraker’s Day in the Sun.” New Yorker investigative legend Seymour Hersh told us in an interview, “He’s every bit as good as everybody else in the business, if not better.”
Last June, Waas arrived at Yearly Kos, a Las Vegas bloggers’ convention, to a hero’s welcome. At 47, he was the veteran reporter preaching to an audience eager for conspiracy babble. “The question that I think journalism faces, the question that I think the panel faces, and the question I think you all face is, Are some stories not even going to get covered at all?” Waas asked the packed room. “And what are you not being told? And what do you not even know you’re not being told?”
“Let’s try and reclaim our media,” he concluded.
Yet there’s a hole in the story of Waas’ ascent to heroism. Froomkin mentioned it in the column that arguably started the bandwagon rolling, concluding, “Waas’ fellow reporters at major news operations should either acknowledge and try to follow up his stories—or debunk them. It’s not okay to just leave them hanging out there. They’re too important.”
Whether Froomkin knows it or not, many major news operations do vet Waas’ pieces. “We look at them to see if there’s new information and see if the new information is of a nature that we want to write about it ourselves,” says Philip Taubman, former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. But the majors aren’t often able to advance Waas’ reporting. A shared experience among Washington correspondents is following up a Waas story and coming away empty-handed.
Perhaps Waas has simply developed sources and unearthed scoops that his competitors have never been able to get. But there’s another way to look at it—namely, that many of Waas’ stories fail to pan out, and many offer less than meets the eye.
The weakness shows up as early as 1983, when Waas wrote that the apartheid regime in South Africa had obtained a secret interest in the Washington Times; it continues through the early ’90s, when Waas co-wrote an investigative series critical of the first Bush administration’s Iraq policy, a body of work that time has treated poorly; it surfaces, too, in Waas’ overreaching coverage of the Whitewater case; and it carries through to his more recent work on the Bush administration’s march to war, which on close analysis seems to consist largely of recycled facts gussied up with dubious news pegs.
Editor’s Note: Months ago, when this article was still a draft, it got Washington City Paper and its staff nominated as finalists for “Worst People of 2006” by Daily Kos. Our subject, Murray Waas, has complained publicly and privately that the authors are prejudiced against him, are incapable of writing fairly and accurately about him, and have acted unprofessionally and unethically in gathering their material. He has also disputed many of the facts presented in the article.