City Paper is not for tourists
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.
I was goggle-eyed with surprise and anger. Surprise because I have been working with Erik Wemple for years, and I know him to be a serious, committed, and highly principled journalist.
Anger because I have also been working with Jason Cherkis for years. His case is a little more complicated. He too is serious and committed, but he’s also a hothead. Over the years he has insulted or alienated a number of people in our organization. A big number. If you put them all in the same hotel you could have a management retreat.
Beneath it all, though, Cherkis can be a self-aware and likable guy. Not to mention a bulldog reporter and a talented storyteller. Once or twice a year, in our line of work, you get to publish a piece that reminds you how good our kind of journalism can get and how much fun it can be. Cherkis has written more than his share of those. He has been recognized six times as a finalist in the AAN (Association of Alternative Newsweeklies) Awards, and his Goth-kid murder epic “The Others” was rightly named the alternative press’ best feature of 2002. In other words, he’s worth the trouble.
Unfortunately, as I read Davis’ letter I could hear it all in my mind’s ear. The profanity, the anger, the I’ll-show-you swagger—it was a side of Cherkis that I knew too well. I was ready to tear him a new asshole.
But then I heard the recordings.
Davis said that the damning quotes in his letter came from notes and tape recordings that Waas had made during several phone conversations. “We have additional tape recordings and notes documenting further examples by both Mr. Wemple and Mr. Cherkis, and we would be happy to provide them to you.”
Over the next couple weeks, Davis and I negotiated terms for the tapes’ release. Waas wanted the recordings to remain off the record—this would become a common refrain—and I agreed that we would not use them as new material for our story. Eventually I received a CD and spent an itchy four and a half hours learning what it’s like to talk with Murray Waas on the phone. The best word for it is maddening. Yes, Cherkis and Wemple had shouted and cursed. But I couldn’t blame them. Mother Teresa would lose her temper talking to this guy.
I apologized to Cherkis for having judged him hastily, and I wrote the following to Lanny Davis:
I have listened to the recordings; this is what I heard:
—a lot of gamesmanship, twisting of words, and profanity
—a few angry outbursts, but generally after them the conversations proceed and end on at least minimally cordial terms.
—in one of the conversations, Cherkis asks Waas directly, two times, if he is taping the conversation; Waas answers both times that he is not.
This is what I didn’t hear:
—“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?”
—“The whole thing was your fault…You never did what the doctors told you to do. You fucking did this to yourself.”
As you know too well, it’s a long recording; it’s possible I missed something, but I don’t think either of these is there. If I’m mistaken please let me know where they are and I will listen again.
Thus far, I have not heard anything to indicate that our reporters are incapable of writing a fair and accurate article. I must say, in fact, that I now regard the whole matter of the letter and the recordings as a three-week distraction.
We intend to continue. I assure you and Mr. Waas that before we publish the story we will go over it with him and he will have ample opportunity to respond point by point.
Davis wrote back to advise me (condescendingly, I thought) that I needed to reread his letter: He’d said the quotes came from notes and recordings. He also said that my review of the recordings was not a distraction but a valuable check on possible biased reporting.
And then Lanny Davis disappeared, never to be heard from again. From this point on I had the pleasure of dealing personally with Murray Waas.
2. Adversarial Proceedings
Though I didn’t find any serious breaches of journalism ethics on those recordings, there’s no denying that the conversations were…adversarial. At this relatively early stage in the research, Waas was already dug in and Wemple and Cherkis were clearly frustrated. A lot of the tension seems to be related to what I’ll call the Frank Tamen affair, which sheds some light on Waas’ ways.
Early in their reporting, Cherkis and Wemple became curious about an item that Waas had written on his blog, Whatever Already!, in spring 2005. The posting came in the midst of the Valerie Plame scandal, when the District was abuzz with the possibility that Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper might have to go to jail to protect their sources. Waas weighed in with a bit of journalistic chest-thumping.
“I have invoked the reporter’s privilege of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution” was the title of the item. In it, Waas states: “I have on more than one occasion in the past been subpoenaed to testify regarding sources.” He strongly implies, without actually saying so, that one of the subpoenas came from a federal prosecutor in Miami named Frank Tamen. Cherkis called Tamen, who categorically denied the implication.
Already by this time Waas was refusing to answer any questions by telephone; an indelible e-mail record, he said, would keep Cherkis and Wemple from lying to him. So Cherkis wrote Waas an e-mail relaying Tamen’s response to his blog post; this was on a Friday early in May 2006.
At 6:23 Saturday morning, Waas wrote to ask if he could forward Cherkis’ Tamen-related e-mails to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami.
“You might have violated the ground rules by which you spoke to him,” Waas wrote. “Or you were purposefly misrepresenting [to] me the nature of your communications with him. If you spoke to him on a bacground basis you should never have disclosed his identity to me or anyone else, and you should not have lied to me in several emails that he siad these things for the record.” Waas concluded by saying he would be sending the e-mails to DOJ by Sunday “at latest.”
That same afternoon, Waas wrote that he “infromally” sent the e-mails “to acquaintances in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami and the Department of Justice in Washington D.C.”
“I am told informally that Jason’s emails and my questions about his conversations with Frank Tamen have been forwarded…and I will receive some type of official response,” Waas continued. “An informal process will begun Monday as well at DOJ, I am told, to determine what Frank Tamen may or may not have done. I am not going to tell you anything I have learned.”
This maneuver includes several features that I have learned to recognize as characteristically Waasian. First, there’s his masterful manipulation of the rules of reporting—on the record, off the record, on background, etc. This makes Waas a lot harder to deal with than your typical source or subject. He knows what buttons to push; he can drop a phrase like “reckless disregard of the truth” in a way that will make your libel lawyer squirm.
Second, Waas’ e-mail contains a threat thinly veiled as a courtesy: He requests permission to reveal something that could get you into a lot of trouble. In this case Waas was threatening to sic the Department of Justice on Cherkis and/or his source, a DOJ employee.
Finally, there’s the upshot: none. We never heard from the Justice Department on this matter. This, too, is typical of our dealings with Waas.
Here’s another stunt that provoked Cherkis and Wemple: In one of the e-mails he sent to Cherkis, Waas perhaps mistakenly attached a note addressed to “Joe,” who Wemple and Cherkis believe is probably attorney Joseph A. Artabane, a lawyer who has worked with Waas before (and will appear again, briefly, later in this story). In the note, Waas wonders if it’s his responsibility to stop the City Paper from publishing material he knows is not accurate. “Why not just let them,” he writes. “A legal question as well as [a] practical one.” I don’t believe it’s a subject’s duty to correct errors in a story that’s being written about him, but Cherkis and Wemple were offended that a reporter—an asker of questions, a seeker of truth!—would contemplate snaring his brother journalists in a libel trap.
Waas concluded his memo to Joe with this: “Hoped u like young Mr. Cherkis; u might be spending a lot mroe time with him than u like AFTER their story appears. Lol.”
3. 130 E-Mails
Between Aug. 12 and Jan. 11, I received 130 e-mails from Murray Waas, and 11 voice-mail messages averaging more than four minutes each. (Do you have any idea how long a four-minute voice mail is?) I have no record of how many real-time phone conversations we had or how much time we spent on them, but they were numerous and rarely less than 30 minutes long; some easily exceeded 90 minutes. It was silly of me not to keep track, I guess. I must have been telling myself that each call would be the last.
What did we discuss at such great length? A meeting, for the most part—and Waas’ various reasons for not coming to it. Wemple and Cherkis wanted to interview Waas in person and get on-the-record comments for their story. I wanted something slightly different: to present the contents of the story to Waas and give him a chance to object, as I had promised in my e-mail to Lanny Davis. I wanted Waas to know what we were planning to say. If we were about to make a stupid error, he might set us straight and save us both embarrassment. If we wound up in court, the fact that we had offered this opportunity might count in our favor. Although I didn’t say so explicitly, I figured I would let him read a draft of the story—an offer that Cherkis had already extended. Many editors would consider that idiotic, but I have done it before and found that in certain circumstances it can be useful.
Waas had other ideas—a lot of other ideas. His overarching theme was that Wemple and Cherkis were biased against him, as demonstrated by their unprofessional and abusive behavior. The most common and recurrent subplots were these:
1. Early on, Waas claimed that a certain e-mail was going around and that an unnamed blogger had contacted him for comment on it. According to this supposed e-mail, I had ruled that certain personal info about Waas was off-limits for our story (this much was true), and Cherkis subsequently tried to leak that info to Matt Drudge or some other blogger (Cherkis denies this).
According to another e-mail that Waas supposedly had or knew of, Cherkis had encouraged a source to surreptitiously record phone conversations with Waas. (I didn’t consider this charge significant, since I already knew that Waas had taped conversations and lied about it.) In addition, Waas claimed, someone had obtained a draft of our story and was asking him to comment on that. And he had tape of a phone call in which Cherkis harassed or abused his father in some way.
Waas repeatedly drilled me on these charges and others like them. Would I deny on the record that Cherkis had done such and such? Would I consider it a serious matter if Waas could prove that he had? What disciplinary action would I take? I assured Waas that if Cherkis had tried to peddle info that I had ruled off-limits, I would consider that a serious breach of trust. But for the most part I tried to avoid answering his many hypothetical questions; instead I emphasized that I was eager to consider any information he might provide, whether it concerned the conduct of the reporters or the substance of their reporting: Show me what you’ve got, I said over and over, and I will take appropriate action. Upshot: none. No draft, no e-mails, and no further recordings ever materialized.
2. Soon Waas was adamantly refusing to participate in any meeting, or any phone call, with Cherkis or Wemple, because, he claimed, they had been so abusive toward him. Later he theorized that they wanted to provoke him into an outburst that they could use in their story. He insisted that Wemple and Cherkis were never to call him. They were to stop pestering him with their e-mails. He would communicate with me only. I considered this a tactic meant to set me at odds with the reporters. As I wrote Waas at one point, trying to set up a meeting, “[Wemple] is a responsible and reputable journalist, the longtime editor of a well-regarded publication. Surely a Washington-hardened investigative reporter who plays hardball with the White House every day can stand to be in the room with him for an hour or so.” But Waas never relented.
3. Waas maintained that Cherkis was unworthy of my trust because he had behaved badly in matters unconnected with this story—he’d had run-ins with his supervisors and coworkers, he’d written stories whose veracity Waas questioned, and so on.
4. Cherkis and Wemple were inappropriately investigating Waas’ private life and were harassing his ex-wife and his father with their questions. (Cherkis had contacted Waas’ former wife and his father, as any diligent reporter would, and both spoke to him. He denies being unpleasant or abusive.)
I knew that Waas could not possibly have a draft of our story, because he clearly didn’t know what was in it. He was working himself into a froth about matters we had no intention of writing about. That’s another reason I wanted to meet with him: Once he knew what was in the story, I hoped, he would stop wasting our time (and his energy) with these distractions and side issues.
4. The Wagtime Affair
In late November Waas brought up a new charge. It’s a long story; let me start at the beginning.
Wemple and his wife, Stephanie Mencimer, live in Logan Circle. Mencimer is a former City Paper staff writer; she has also worked for the Washington Post and Legal Times.
In summer 2003 a dog-care business called Wagtime moved into the commercially zoned property next door to Wemple’s and Mencimer’s house. They complained, as did other neighbors, about barking and suchlike. One day, Mencimer found a plastic bag full of dog shit on her patio; assuming it was a present from her next-door neighbors, she carried it over to the office and…
Testimony differs as to what happened next. Either Mencimer calmly deposited the bag on the counter and asked the proprietor of Wagtime to stop dumping dog shit on her property (Mencimer’s version), or she went ballistic and threw the shit at the proprietor (which is how the proprietor and two employees told it). The police evidently bought version number two; they arrested Mencimer for “assault with a dangerous weapon,” and she spent the rest of the day in jail.
Mencimer was later exonerated. The Wagtime proprietor and an employee later signed statements swearing that the alleged assault never happened. The arresting officer signed a statement admitting he’d made a bad collar. (Read statements here.) A D.C. Superior Court judge later ordered the offense expunged from Mencimer’s record.
Wagtime left the neighborhood in 2006. Also in 2006, not long after Wemple and Cherkis began researching their story on Murray Waas, the saga was resurrected, sans exoneration, in the D.C. blog Circumlocutor, complete with links to government documents from zoning hearings in which Mencimer and Wemple had testified against the pet spa.
By this time Wemple and Cherkis had become familiar with their subject, and they thought the blog item had a Waasian whiff to it. They also thought that if Waas had planted the item, that might become part of their story. So they tried to find a connection between Waas and Circumlocutor. Cherkis told me he made some calls over the course of a couple days. In the office, there was some banter about how they might smoke Circumlocutor out. It was suggested half-jokingly that someone should get the blogger on the phone and pretend to be a disgruntled City Paper employee looking to dish some dirt on Wemple. Wemple and Cherkis think they eventually figured out who Circumlocutor was, but by that time they’d lost interest and they never bothered to call him.
This played out as a major scandal in Waas’ bill of particulars against Wemple and Cherkis. (Evidently he had a mole in the City Paper offices.) Wemple, he charged indignantly, had inappropriately deployed the resources of his paper in an attempt to dig up some dirt on Waas. Worse, Wemple had directed someone to pose as a disgruntled staffer or former staffer. Repeatedly when I asked Waas to commit to a meeting, he would insist that I first deny these accusations.
5. We Meet at Last
After vacations, holidays, an illness in Waas’ family, and numerous e-mails, phone calls, and postponements, Wemple and Cherkis gave up hope of getting their interview and in mid-October e-mailed Waas a list of questions that went through their story point by point. After more delays and postponements, Waas answered on Dec. 4 with a 36-page, 25,000-word memo—all off the record, as we had learned to expect.
On Dec. 9, a Saturday, I flew to Washington and met with Waas at the City Paper’s offices. Also present were City Paper senior editor Mike DeBonis and a friend of Waas, reporter/blogger Justin Rood (now at ABC News writing for the Blotter). We met for about five-and-a-half hours, much of which Waas spent delivering a lengthy explanation of his more erratic behavior—an explanation he decided, in the end, to keep off the record. In the inadequate time that remained, we showed Waas and Rood a draft of the story, handing it to them one page at a time. Waas quickly made it clear that he could and would dispute almost everything down to the punctuation. That cute anecdote about him playing reporter in D.C. as a kid? He had tapes to prove it was all a joke! That characterization of Jack Anderson as Waas’ mentor? No way was Jack Anderson his mentor. He never called Jack Anderson a mentor! And so on. If Rood hadn’t been there to keep Waas focused and speed him along, the meeting would have ended before we got past the introduction. We did get through the whole story, but not without hurrying.
Once he knew the territory Cherkis and Wemple intended to cover, Waas turned his attention on some of their sources, and things started getting ugly.
On Dec. 18 Charlie Green, Waas’ editor at the National Journal, wrote me an e-mail expressing concern about information given to Wemple and Cherkis by Waas’ former assistant Bryan Keefer. According to Green, this included information about stories that Waas had investigated but never published. Green wrote:
“I am disturbed that the City Paper would consider running such material. As you know, much of the information that reporters gather during the course of working on stories never makes it into print for good reason. [I had been saying as much to Waas for months, in response to his incessant protests that Cherkis and Wemple were asking inappropriate questions about him.] Sometimes the information isn’t published because it turns out to be false or misleading. Other times the thesis of a piece can change dramatically between the start and finish of the reporting process. For the City Paper to disclose unpublished, unverified information provided by a former research assistant to Murray strikes me, at least, as irresponsible.”
So far, so good. But then Green’s e-mail takes a weird turn:
“I don’t know Bryan Keefer, Murray’s former research assistant, and can only assume that as a young journalist he made an error in judgment about the propriety of sharing e-mails and files about matters that never made their way into print. I hope that your reporters, as more experienced journalists, made Mr. Keefer aware that his actions could damage his career. I, for one, would have serious doubts about hiring someone who had divulged such matters and betrayed the confidence of a fellow journalist. I know many other editors share my view. I would hope that you wouldn’t compound Mr. Keefer’s error in judgment by printing such information.”
What was extraordinary about this friendly advice was that the e-mail was copied to Bryan Keefer himself. We expected that Waas might contact our sources and try to get them to back off or “clarify” what they had told us. However we were quite surprised to find the editor of the National Journal quite literally sending Bryan Keefer a message. So surprised, in fact, that Wemple felt the need to call Green to be sure that the e-mail really came from him. Green confirmed that it did.
Waas, meanwhile, had taken aim at Katherine Boo, who has come to occupy a central place in this saga. This is another story that needs to be told from the beginning:
As our main article explains in greater detail, in the early ’90s Waas investigated a story about Forest Haven, the city’s institution for the mentally retarded, for the Washington Post. In the end, the Post bailed out, and Waas published his story in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Years later, Katherine Boo did a Post story on the city’s inadequate treatment of mentally retarded patients in the residential homes that replaced Forest Haven after it closed in 1991. When Boo’s story came out, and later won a Pulitzer for the Post, Waas complained publicly to other journalists and privately to Boo and editors at the Post. He expressed some complaints in terms of concern for the mentally retarded patients who had been mistreated and in some cases killed by the city’s neglect. He maintained that the Post’s editors should have acknowledged that they knew about this mistreatment years ago—when they spiked his story—and that they were therefore complicit in the victimization of patients; they had “let the fire rage out of control.” He also asserted that he should have received credit for blazing a trail to the Post’s Pulitzer.
Boo says she shared Waas’ dissatisfaction with media coverage of issues affecting the poor, but she didn’t believe that she had personally wronged him. Waas pressed his case on and off over the course of three years, in ways that eventually unnerved her, as our story relates.
Boo, who is now a staff writer at the New Yorker and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, was a City Paper writer in 1989 and ’90. She is a big part of the office legend and beloved by and friendly with several City Paper people, including former editor David Carr. She worked with Mencimer at the Washington Monthly and was a bridesmaid when Mencimer and Wemple married in 1997.
In Waas’ mind, his past dealings with Boo, and her close relationship with City Paper, became the motive for the hit piece that he thought Wemple and Cherkis were doing on him—or if not the motive, at least the reason why their impartiality couldn’t be taken for granted. He told me once that he was the victim of City Paper groupthink—that because of the history, no one at the paper could give him a fair shake.
As is often the case with Waas, this contention is built on a grain of truth. Wemple tells me that it was his wife who first suggested doing a story on Waas, after reading Dan Froomkin’s effusive praise of him on Washingtonpost.com. Mencimer and Wemple both suspected that some of Waas’ reporting was less substantial than it seemed. But that doesn’t amount to conspiracy, vendetta, or even groupthink. That’s just the way story ideas come: They are hypotheses. Sometimes they’re suggested by friends, spouses, or (as Waas knows well) even by people whose motives are not so pure; usually they are informed by a guess or a suspicion or some prior knowledge. A reporter’s duty is not to discard all such hypotheses, it is to test them: to do the reporting and follow the facts where they lead.
Before our Dec. 9 meeting, Waas said he would show me evidence that Kate Boo’s version of their past was not accurate: He had offered to help with her story, and he maintained that she had asked for and willingly accepted his help.
On Nov. 30, he sent an e-mail to Boo saying that he planned to post online some 30-plus e-mails between the two of them, evidence that would challenge the story she tells in our main article. Professing concern for her privacy, he invited her to identify any passages in their correspondence that she might consider personal, offering to withhold them from his postings. (Threat disguised as a courtesy, see above.)
Kate Boo is not a delicate person. Her deep reporting on race and poverty has taken her places and shown her things that many journalists would consider scary. But she was rattled by Waas’ message and wary of rekindling his anger—which, we suspect, is part of the effect Waas intended.
But if Waas has convincing evidence to challenge Boo’s account, he has yet to produce it. At the Dec. 9 meeting, the e-mails he showed me were almost all messages that he had sent to her; they showed that he had offered help but not that she had accepted it. I told Waas that I was not persuaded by this “evidence,” and he said he had more. This, among other loose ends, became the reason for our second meeting, which occurred on Dec. 29.
In the meantime, Waas took the case to his public.
On Dec. 19, Wonkette published an e-mail exchange between Cherkis and Keefer, Waas’ former assistant, who at the time was working at CJR Daily, the online arm of the Columbia Journalism Review.
In this exchange, which had occurred back in August, Cherkis asks Keefer if he has any clues about the identity of Circumlocutor. Keefer relates that Waas has called his boss at CJR Daily “to complain about me, and, I think, try and pitch my boss on having CJR write a story about your as-yet-unpublished piece.” Keefer tells Cherkis he’s expecting his own call from Waas, and Cherkis says if Waas does call, try to tape it.
(Steve Lovelady, Keefer’s boss at CJR, described Waas’ call to us: “He thought that Bryan was spreading bad stories about him from the distant past.…I think what he wanted was—although he didn’t make it explicit—he wanted me to lean on Bryan.”)
The Wonkette item goes on with a fulsome reaction from Waas himself; because of its length, Wonkette claims, the post was saved for “the slow-ass Holiday season.” Perhaps this post prompted what came next, or perhaps it was the first salvo in a premeditated barrage. In either case, we don’t know how Wonkette got these e-mails, but they seemed to be some of the messages that Waas had been claiming to have or to have knowledge of.
The next day, the Left Coaster’s eriposte chimed in with a lengthy rebuttal to an accusation that had never been made. Eriposte wrote that “an article might get published…which suggests or alleges that Waas stole some of my reporting for use in one or more of the articles he published in National Journal in early 2006….[L]et me state unequivocally that if anyone were to make an allegation that Murray Waas stole any of my reporting, such an allegation would be complete nonsense.” (Hyperlinks, bold, and italic text are in the original.) All this energetic subjunctivizing had been occasioned by a question that Wemple and Cherkis had put to eriposte seven months before. Having noticed some similarities between Waas’ reporting in the National Journal and eriposte’s on the Left Coaster, they asked her if she and Waas had collaborated.
Waas himself entered the fray the day after that, with a long disquisition in the Huffington Post. It starts with the same complaint that National Journal editor Charlie Green had e-mailed me about a few days before: Our story might reveal something about Waas’ sources or about stories he had worked on but never published. Then Waas justifies his campaign to preempt our story: “[A]s an independent journalist,” Waas writes, “and one who embraces the concept of citizen journalism, I have relied on the public as much as my peers and colleagues to have my back. The relatively small media company I work for, which embodies high standards, has little power to do much of anything regarding someone I had hired prior to my employment there.
“My only tool is public censure directed at those who are engaging in actions that are in direct contradiction of a central tent [sic] of journalistic ethics.”
We disagree with much of what Waas writes in this post. Jason Cherkis offers his rebuttal here. For my part I note the following, all of which occur in the brief span of seven paragraphs:
• Waas writes: “I should note that Mike Lenehan, the editorial director of the company that owns the City Paper, came to Washington recently and allowed me to read a draft of his newspaper’s story about me. At Lenehan’s insistence, the five hour meeting was tape recorded by everyone present and I was allowed to take verbatim notes of the story.” The claim that I insisted on taping the meeting, which Waas also made in the Wonkette post mentioned above, is simply not true. When we entered the meeting room I saw that Waas’ friend, Justin Rood, and City Paper senior editor Mike DeBonis had drawn their tape recorders. I asked Waas and Rood if they were going to tape the session and said if they did, we would, too.
• Concerning the phone interviews in which Wemple and Cherkis shouted and swore at him, Waas writes that, “By mutual agreement, many of those interviews were taped by all of us.” Again, not true. There was never any such agreement; Wemple and Cherkis in fact recorded no calls; as I stated earlier, in one of the recorded conversations, Cherkis twice asks Waas point blank if he is taping, and both times Waas answers that he is not.
• Waas quotes me as follows, regarding the abuse that Wemple and Cherkis supposedly subjected him to: “The process of reporting a story is sometimes messy. Sometimes reporters do or say things that don’t belong in the journalism textbook….But in the end what matters is what gets published.” Those are indeed my words, written in one of my many attempts to get Waas off the subject of the reporters’ conduct and into a meeting where he could learn what we intended to print. This message, and all of our correspondence, was supposed to be off the record. Later in the Huffington item Waas again quotes from one of my e-mails to him.
I wrote Waas to complain: “I see that you’ve taken to quoting from our email correspondence. I’ll interpret that as your agreement to put it all on the record.”
Waas replied: “Those PARTICULAR comments were on the record. Go back and look at our notes.”
I did go back and look. The e-mails in question contain nothing that even remotely suggests they are on the record.
Waas’ Huffington Post item continues: “Those comments [my comments quoted above] reflect that over the course of the past several months, the City Paper has indicated that if I do not make an issue of their conduct, they will not include certain information regarding my private life in the article, or suggested that perhaps the tone will not be as harsh as it would be otherwise.
“I provide them with my answer here: No deal.”
(If this were audio, we’d now hear the sound of a heavy door closing: ker-chunk.)
The deal Waas refers to is completely imaginary. But never mind that, who’s counting? Let’s get to the part where he explains WHY there’s no deal:
“I believe that I have a clear obligation to other cancer survivors not to remain silent about such acts of prejudice and intolerance.”
And with that deft turn, what once was a dispute about an unpublished article became a story of cancer survivors and the people who abuse them. Most of the rest of the post is about Waas’ experience with cancer, cancer survivorship in general, and the ways Wemple and Cherkis showed their prejudice and intolerance toward cancer survivors. Five paragraphs are about Lance Armstrong!
Two points I’d like to make here: One, I reiterate that the recordings Waas provided of his conversations with Jason Cherkis do not contain the vile quotes about Waas having given himself cancer. Cherkis denies having said those words, and Waas asks us to take his word for it. Two, in one of his wacky disputes with his neighbors, Waas offered to fight a 60-year-old man and wished cancer on him, according to an interview with the man involved.
Anyway, a few hours after Waas’ post appeared on Huffington, no less a blogosphere personage than Kos himself delivered an opinion on the matter. In a stunning display of credulity, he swallowed Waas’ diatribe whole and named me, Wemple, Cherkis, and the whole Washington City Paper finalists for Worst People of 2006.
6. Two Random Notes
1. True or false: Over the course of our long interaction, Waas told me many true things that helped us make the article more accurate. He also made many points that were open to honest disagreement: He saw it one way, I saw it another. But too many of the things he told me were simply not true, which made the “strictest editorial supervision” that Lanny Davis’ letter had demanded a lot more difficult than it needed to be: I could never tell when Waas was blowing smoke.
Actually sometimes I could tell. I have already twice mentioned the recording of Waas telling Cherkis that he is not recording. Coming right at the beginning of our relationship, that did not set a very good tone for the rest of it. I’ve also mentioned some of the untruths told in Waas’ treatise on Huffingtonpost.com. Then there’s the tape Waas claims to have showing reportorial abuse of his father: I do not believe it exists. Waas has had many opportunities to play it for me on the phone and in person, and if it shows what he said it shows it would certainly serve his interest to do so, but I have not seen or heard it, and frankly I doubt that I ever will.
During one of our phone conversations, Waas told me a whopper of such majesty, such sheer brazen audacity, that even if our conversation were on the record I would not repeat it here, for fear of embarrassing Waas and the other people involved. As I did with the alleged father-abuse tape, I seized on it as soon as he said it, and he began backing off just as quickly. I told him that if it were true, it would drastically alter my opinion of the article or at least a major part of it. I asked for more details a couple of times subsequently, and then the matter faded away, never to be mentioned by either of us again.
2. On and off record: From the beginning, by mutual agreement, my conversations and correspondence with Waas were meant to be off the record, which I understood to mean not to be quoted for public consumption. It seemed the only possible way to proceed. I was supposed to be taking in information and making a judgment about the motives and methods of Wemple and Cherkis; I certainly couldn’t do so if I had to fear that my words might be made public. I felt that Waas, for his part, had legitimate reasons as well: In the recorded conversations, and presumably in those that would follow, Waas might make reference to stories he was working on, sources he’d relied on, or something else of a sensitive nature. He had to know that he could talk frankly without jeopardizing any of his journalistic secrets.
Eventually, however, I came to feel that Waas had something more in mind: that to his way of thinking, “off the record” meant that he could feed me information that could only work in his favor—information that could undermine our reporters or their sources but could never be used to criticize Waas or even be subject to verification. Let me illustrate with a made-up example: Let’s say that Joe Blow, an editor in New York, is quoted in our story describing some unsatisfying experience he’s had with Waas. Waas might try to refute that by telling me that Joe Blow cannot be trusted because he pees in the shower. According to the rules Waas wanted to play by, no one except me would ever know that Waas had accused Joe Blow of peeing in the shower; I couldn’t even call Joe and say, “Murray tells me you pee in the shower. Any comment?” Waas wanted to turn my brain into a roach motel: Information—his information—could go in, but it could never check out.
In this “story behind the story” I have tried to honor what I view as Waas’ legitimate interest in keeping our interactions off the record. But I don’t believe that our agreement, or any agreement, prohibits me from describing in broad strokes the nature of those interactions.
Waas may disagree; if he does, I’m sure we’ll all hear about it. As I have pointed out, he has already made part of our correspondence public, both by describing it in general terms and by quoting my exact words. An agreement to be off the record is a verbal contract. Waas has breached the agreement, which by my rules makes it null and void.
7. We Meet Again
On Dec. 29, DeBonis and I met with Waas and attorney Joe Artabane at Artabane’s office on 18th Street NW. With the last meeting in mind, I had tried to specify exactly what kind of information Waas could provide in this meeting that might influence me or the course of the article. He’d said he had more evidence to present on the Kate Boo matter, and I wanted to see that. I also wanted to know as much as he could tell me about his reporting and sourcing for several National Journal stories that Wemple and Cherkis found wanting.
By comparison with many of our other interactions, this was a civil, almost pleasant meeting. Waas quickly decided that he wanted to speak with me one-on-one, so DeBonis and Artabane were dismissed to spin their wheels while Waas and I commandeered Artabane’s office. Waas showed me a paper copy of an e-mail in which Kate Boo supposedly expressed interest in info he might have about two former residents of Forest Haven. I say “supposedly” because, as Waas admitted at the time, the e-mail is incomplete and contains no header information. In any event I spoke with Boo later and she explained the situation to my satisfaction: This e-mail was probably sent shortly after their lunch meeting, at a time when she was indeed interested in information Waas might provide. It was later that she decided to go it alone and she never accepted any of the files or info he offered.
Waas and I also discussed three of the National Journal articles that are criticized in the main story. Waas showed me a heavily blacked-out document that didn’t mean a whole lot to me, and he told me things about his methods and sourcing that were at least plausible if not utterly convincing. (He did not identify any sources or even come close.) When I said that most of the material in these stories had been reported elsewhere, he objected, one writer to another, that not every article could be a home run. So I asked him to name some stories that contain what he considers major revelations. I made notes on two: “The Meeting,” his American Prospect story of August 2005, which is described (and praised) in our main article; and an April 2006 piece in National Journal titled “Cheney Authorized Leak of CIA Report, Libby Says.” Wemple has examined both these articles and believes they belong in Waas’ plus column.
My recollection could be wrong, but I think it was in this second meeting that Waas asked me, in a tone I can only describe as plaintive, “How am I supposed to defend myself?” against the kind of article Wemple and Cherkis intended to publish. Maybe he shouldn’t try, I answered—“Maybe you should just wear it.” It sounded lame to me even as it came out of my mouth, but as I look back on the article and all our discussion of it, I notice that many of the complaints made against Waas—by Wemple and Cherkis and by their sources—concern not the quality or the impact of his journalism but his behavior in trying to defend it from criticism, to protect it from encroachment by others, to assert its importance, or to press his grievances (professional and personal, real and imagined) far beyond the tolerance of the people he was dealing with.
When I first got involved in this affair, I told Wemple and Cherkis that it wasn’t our job to scrutinize Waas’ personal life or even his professional conduct. If they intended to criticize him, I said, they’d have to confine themselves to his journalism, to show that what he wrote was somehow irresponsible, destructive, or at least inconsequential. But over these past many months I have come around to their way of thinking: It’s not possible to separate the journalism from the personality. It’s all part of the same story.
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—for transgressions committed against him personally, and for conduct wholly unrelated to him or to this story. He will claim to have certain damaging information and he will vaguely threaten to make it public. He will scare some people and he will persuade many, especially his friends in the blogosphere, some of whom will excuse themselves from having to learn the facts by saying they “have no reason to doubt” his version of events.
Notwithstanding all of the above, this is our story, and we’re sticking to it.