With the help of another journalist, Lewis gets Nichols on the phone. And here’s what Nichols tells him: “Murray Waas called me a little while ago. He told me that you are writing a hatchet job on me for The New Republic.”
When the New Republic published Lewis’ retelling of the episode, Waas went ballistic. Lewis wrote in a follow-up piece, “Murray bombarded me with phone calls and messages, ranging from threats to apologies for saying he planned to have me killed.”
The campaign against Lewis didn’t distract Waas from his beat. He landed bylines in The Nation and the New York Observer. By the beginning of 1998, he had a regular gig at Salon, which was making a rep as the home of investigative reporting on Whitewater.
On March 17, 1998, Waas, along with co-author Jonathan Broder, published an article trumpeted as a “Salon Exclusive.” The story made an explosive allegation—namely that chief Whitewater witness David Hale had been paid off by a right-wing cabal with connections to conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Waas identified the bag man as Parker Dozhier, the owner of a Hot Springs, Ark., bait shop who had been paid by Scaife associates to dig up dirt on Clinton. The story rested primarily on statements from Dozhier’s ex-girlfriend Caryn Mann and her teenage son, Joshua Rand. Salon’s story claimed that these two sources witnessed the cash payments while Hale stayed at Dozhier’s “fishing cabin complex” in Arkansas between 1994 and 1996.
In a subsequent story, Waas and Broder reported that according to Mann, Dozhier received roughly $200,000 from conservative fat cats for his services. The piece bragged that “Dozhier’s name surfaced earlier this week when Salon identified him.”
In fact, Dozhier’s name had surfaced nearly two weeks before Salon’s March 17 piece, when the Associated Press outed Dozhier, his connections to Scaife money, and his relationship to Hale. Not only was the AP first to arrive at the bait-shop scene, its exclusive was far more restrained than Salon’s “exclusive.” The wire service also interviewed Mann but reported only that Hale got free use of Dozhier’s cabin and car—there was no mention of the cash exchanges that made the Salon piece so sexy. And the AP’s scoop wasn’t a quiet one: A Democratic senator had demanded a Justice Department investigation of the Dozhier matter and op-ed columnists had hyped it—all before the Salon story hit the Web.
Salon’s version of the Dozhier story took just a few weeks to crumble, as Mann amended her story in interviews with other media outlets. An April 13 Newsweek piece had her admitting that “she never actually saw money change hands” between Dozhier and Hale. Six days later, the Washington Post reported that she had a “vague memory” of seeing Dozhier give money to Hale on just one occasion. Mann also backed off from the $200,000 claim about Dozhier’s compensation.
Whatever Mann’s change in testimony, Waas was sticking by her. “I think he had his own relationship with Caryn Mann and particularly the boy,” Broder says. “He just went with what they told him. He believed them thoroughly.”
Later that year, Salon’s stories on Hale received the scrutiny of a federal fact-checker. Michael Shaheen, a recently retired Justice official, was appointed to conduct a probe of the supposed scandal. In July 1999, the investigation ended with an announcement that “many of the allegations, suggestions and insinuations regarding the tendering and receipt of things of value were shown to be unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue.”
Waas’ Salon co-author took those findings to heart. “I have a lot of respect for Mike Shaheen,” Broder says. “My feeling was when we interviewed Mann and her son, her credibility as a source would come out.…I presume that there wasn’t enough there.”
Shaheen recalls receiving numerous calls from Waas during the Hale story. But he returned only one. “I never returned the rest because my press officials gave me the scoop on him, and he certainly lived up to what they characterized,” says Shaheen. The scouting report on Waas, says Shaheen, was that he had a “predetermined view and delighted in writing about conspiracies and mysteries.”
When asked whether Waas’ reporting prompted the federal inquiry, Shaheen replied, “I think we wouldn’t normally take the allegations of someone like Waas as warranting by itself an inquiry.…If I saw that Waas wrote an article, I would move to the next article, because it’s in the category of balderdash. I view him as someone who I can’t rely on.”
Before the Whitewater story had run its course, Salon and Waas parted ways. Salon founder David Talbot says the online magazine simply ran out of money to pay the reporter. “Salon owes Murray Waas a great deal of credit for the pioneering work that he did on the Ken Starr investigation,” he explains, adding that “I have nothing but fond feelings for him and the work he did.”
Via e-mail, Waas states that he moved on to embrace “other more prestigous and lucrative writing assignments.”
Three current and former Salon editors who worked with Waas, however, say that the official explanation fails to tell the whole story. “Whatever value Murray had as a journalist, what he brought to the party in the end, was more pain than gain,” says one former editor.
The exit involved a lot of angry phone calls from Waas drilling in on various gripes or unloading tales from his personal life in an effort to win sympathy. “I didn’t have a lot of patience with that stuff,” recalls David Weir, a former editor. “He went into it, and I went into autopilot.”
Another staffer recalls, “At a certain point, he ignored me, which I consider one of the great blessings of my life.”
Even Talbot admits to being on Waas’ call list. “I think he lost his temper with Salon,” Talbot says. “That was also unfortunate and misdirected……It sometimes hurt my feelings about what he said in public and what he said to me……I had it out with him on many occasions and it did hurt.”
Of the entire Waas saga, current Editor in Chief Joan Walsh says, “Murray no longer writes for Salon, and people can draw their own conclusions from that.”
Whitewater brought out the combative side of Waas. As he dug high and low for scoops, he watched as mainstream news outlets broke off big chunks of the story. Those chunks, he suspected, often came straight from the office of Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Waas took to sniping at journalists he thought had forged symbiotic relationships with the counsel’s office—a beef that he continued to express long after the scandal had faded. At the Yearly Kos conference in 2006, Waas said, “Ken Starr was loved by the Washington press corps. He fed them, he took care of them.…If you were a reporter like…well, excuse me, Susan Schmidt at the Washington Post, you were…fed…and looked after.”
Schmidt, who was frequently accused by liberals of feeding at the Starr trough, was one of Waas’ prime targets. A Washington journalist recalls receiving “tips” from Waas on Schmidt. “It was the sort of stuff, ‘Did you know that Sue Schmidt lives in McLean, the same place as Ken Starr?’ It was very suggestive,” says the reporter.
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.