Says Schmidt: “I do not know him. I am aware that he has often called other journalists and made bizarre assertions about me. I first realized this when one of my colleagues told me Murray had called him claiming that I was in league with a Texas private eye and that we were circulating information about his health. Murray claimed to have court documents proving this.”
Waas also made enemies of people he actually knew.
His friendship with Little Rock reporter Gene Lyons began with a phone call. Lyons was a logical guy for Waas to contact. As a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he had turned his sights on the Clinton conspiracy theorists. He had made this rogue’s gallery his avocation, publishing stories for the national press and writing a thorough critique of the then-nascent scandal coverage in a well-received 1996 book titled Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.
Waas and Lyons worked together on several Salon stories. Though Waas didn’t bring much Arkansas savvy, he did bring his phone skills. “He did some terrific work,” Lyons says. “He did some work I wouldn’t have found out on my own.”
Between stories, the two talked about taking their mix of crafty prose and deep reporting to a larger platform. Lyons arranged a meeting with his contacts at Harper’s and flew from Little Rock to New York City, where he joined Waas and several Harper’s editors. Lyons says that Waas showed up wearing an “Al Capone-style double-breasted suit” and carrying an armload of documents Lyons had never seen.
They all convened in a conference room. Waas put on quite a show, Lyons says, passing the documents to each editor “as if [he] got the keys to the Da Vinci Code.”
These were top-secret documents, Waas implied. Nobody in the room could have them. Nobody in the room could make copies. The documents were court papers from a lawsuit involving associates of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. In Lyons’ recollection, they provided proof of Falwell being financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, detailing trips that the preacher had made to South Korea to visit with the Moonies.
Lyons says the documents floored him. “I was like, ‘Wow, Falwell is getting money from Moon.’…It would be explosive in Falwell’s world,” he says, later adding that Waas was peddling the story as an exclusive.
Back in Little Rock, Lyons confided in a journalist friend about the meeting. A few days later, the friend called Lyons and told him to wait by his fax machine. Out came an article by former Newsweek reporter Robert Parry published in summer 1997 in I.F. Magazine. The Parry story documented the Falwell-Moon connection and drew on the same court papers Waas was brandishing before Harper’s editors roughly a year later.
Parry says he had gone down to a courthouse near Lynchburg, Va., to get the documents. After he published his piece, he spoke to Waas, a friend, and gave him some documents. “This wasn’t a big deal to me,” Parry explains. “I think that’s what happened. I either showed them to Murray or gave him copies.”
Lyons was incensed. He called Waas to tell him he couldn’t work with him and that he would have to ’fess up to his editors that Waas had misrepresented himself. “He knew it was published somewhere else,” Lyons says. “He asked Bob Parry if he could have a copy of it.…I thought he really cut a corner.”
Lyons says Waas just screamed at him and refused to apologize. Waas then started calling Lyons—at least 25 times in a single day at one point. “He was ripshit,” Lyons says. “He stutters when he gets upset, and he says the same thing over and over again. He repeats himself. And there’s a lot of these accusations of bad faith. It’s always he’s pure, and you’re corrupt.”
Professional relationships are not the only kind that have ended badly for Waas. The same themes of conspiracy, grievance, and estrangement also turn up in his everyday life. The wrongdoing next door is rarely as compelling as the Bush administration’s possible outing of a CIA operative, but Waas has been drawn to it all the same. And if editors and colleagues were powerless against some of his worst excesses, his neighbors were even more helpless. They were pitted against an unedited Waas working without a deadline, without the constraints of word count or the rigors of a professional code. He was free to roam and report.
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.