Salon Editor and CEO David Talbot says the criticism is a "completely inaccurate" and "desperate" attempt by the "extreme right" to deflect attention from "investigative reporting [that] has drawn blood."
Since March, Salon has been breaking stories about how conservative philanthropist and publisher Richard Mellon Scaife funneled $2.4 million through The American Spectator magazine from 1993-1997 to pay for a myriad of non-editorial activity aimed at digging dirt on Bill Clinton, including direct cash payments to witnesses who have testified against the president. Salon has also unearthed internal Spectator documents showing how executives there worried that Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s generous compensation package might contravene IRS rules governing tax-exempt non-profits (the Spectator is published by the non-profit American Spectator Educational Foundation, Inc.).
Salon's critics have attempted to equate the Spectator's involvement with Scaife to Salon's relationship with William Hambrecht, the founder of investment bank Hambrecht & Quist, which owns a 12% stake in Salon. Hambrecht & Quist is a Bay Area publicly traded investment bank that has underwritten more than 475 public offerings of companies such as Apple, Netscape and U.S. Robotics.
The Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm that reportedly received $525,000 from Scaife in 1997, announced April 30 that Hambrecht and his family gave more than $384,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations from 1991-1997. Executives at two other Salon investors, Apple Computers and Adobe Ventures, also donated more than $300,000 to Democrats during that period, Landmark said.
"Salon's pedigree reveals that it is not a serious media outlet, but a political tool of liberal fat cats," Landmark Legal Foundation President Mark Levin wrote in the Washington Times. "Until it discloses the full extent of its financial relationships with the likes of Hambrecht & Quist, Adobe Systems and Apple Computers, Inc., it must be viewed as just another weapon in the White House's spin arsenal."
Landmark's report was used by the Spectator, the Weekly Standard, WorldNetDaily and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page as key exhibits in their arguments dismissing Salon's coverage, especially the Web magazine's assertion that Scaife may have tampered with Whitewater witness David Hale, and that Hillary Clinton was correct when she complained of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy."
"If Dick Scaife's political opposition to Bill Clinton is such big news," wrote WorldNetDaily Editor Joseph Farah in a May 6 column, "why isn't it equally newsworthy that partisans like Hambrecht -- and a thousand others like him in the media -- are using their own presses to push their own agendas?"
Talbot said his critics are "shooting wildly" with the Hambrecht charge, since the investment banker does not personally own any shares in the magazine, nor has he ever had a seat on the board of directors. "I've met him only once," Talbot said.
Comparing the two magazines also misses the main thrust of Salon's coverage, Talbot maintained.
"There is absolutely no parallel between The American Spectator and Salon," he said. "Salon is a private company, while the Spectator is a taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit foundation. It was used, and allowed itself to be used, as a conduit for money for one of their main backers, Richard Mellon Scaife, to conduct a covert policy they called the Arkansas Project to undermine the president... R. Emmett Tyrrell willingly and gladly went along with this scheme."
Farah and Levin both told OJR that the comparison between the Spectator and Salon is valid, even if, as Farah said, Hambrecht was "of a secondary issue, only brought up by me to show the ludicrous nature [of] the Scaife conspiracy."
"We're just applying Mr. Talbot's standard against himself," Levin argued. "That standard is, if you receive one dollar from somebody who may have a particular point of view, then anything or everything you do is somehow tainted or somehow influenced by the person who gave you the dollar."
But Salon's reporting was not about Scaife funding the Spectator -- which he has from 1971 until recently -- but instead about how "they just pocketed $2.4 million apparently to attempt to buy or undermine the 1996 presidential election," said Salon Managing Editor David Weir. "As far as I'm concerned it was a huge campaign finance scandal."
The war of words between Salon and its critics has been colorful, frequently loaded with heavy partisan and personal invective. While Salon staffers, like former managing editor Andrew Ross, have exhorted the right-wing media to start "crawling back into the holes from which they oozed," magazines like the Weekly Standard have gleefully dredged up the 10-year-old case of Salon correspondent Jonathan Broder, who resigned from the Chicago Tribune for plagiarizing descriptions in a dispatch from the Middle East [see related story].
There have been charges that Salon reporters were threatened with subpoenas by the conservative organization (and Scaife funding recipient) Judicial Watch, and reports that the Arkansas Project paid for the investigation of Salon contributor Murray Waas.
Frequently lost in the din has been the substance of Salon's reporting, and the concrete rebuttals against its assertions.
Salon's coverage, and critics' rebuttals
Since March, Salon has published approximately 50 articles and commentaries in its "Newsreal" section that relate in some way to Kenneth Starr's investigation and/or Bill Clinton's critics.
The story that made the largest splash was a March 17 piece by Broder and Waas quoting "two eyewitnesses" and "two other sources familiar with Scaife's campaign" as saying that key Whitewater witness David Hale received regular payments from officials connected to the Spectator and Scaife through a secret campaign called the "Arkansas Project."
The Justice Department quickly asked the Independent Counsel to investigate the charges, and Starr responded by establishing an independent panel of legal specialists to oversee the job.
In a follow-up Salon commentary, then-managing editor Andrew Ross called the Spectator "a virtual washing machine for money paid to liars and convicted felons," and said that the Paula Jones lawsuit was "bought and paid for" by "billionaire reactionary" Richard Mellon Scaife as part of an "attempted putsch" that reflected "the paranoid, fascistic mentality exemplified by the forces determined to topple an elected president."
Criticism of Salon's coverage focused on key source Caryn Mann, who told Salon that her ex-boyfriend, Arkansas bait shop owner Parker Dozhier, received approximately $200,000 from Arkansas Project operatives and funneled piles of it to key Whitewater witness David Hale from 1994-1996.
Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Spectator all dismissed Mann as an "astrologer" who changed her story about seeing any payments when interviewed by Newsweek magazine.
"Miss Mann is a former tarot card reader and astrologer," Tyrrell wrote on April 10. "She is a self-professed psychic and clairvoyant... She also knows the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa, the secret of turning the rain on and off, and how the Gulf War was won. As a CIA employee she used her powers of mental telepathy to direct Desert Storm's troop movements."
In a June Spectator article, Senior Correspondent John Corry further charged that Mann "had once worked for the private investigator who had tried, without success, to check out rumors of an affair between Starr and a woman in Little Rock," and that she "had been a 1992 Clinton delegate to the Florida state Democratic convention."
"In the interviews with other news organizations... Mann's story changed," Corry wrote. "For one thing, she had not actually seen Dozhier pass money to Hale; she had only heard about it from her son. She was also no longer sure about the payments to Dozhier for his credit cards and back taxes."
Mann wasn't the only one changing one's story, Corry continued. "The 'two eyewitnesses' who allegedly saw the payoffs to Hale, for example, almost immediately shrank to one; the stacks of hundred-dollar bills, supposedly in the bait-shop safe, soon were forgotten."
A reading of the Salon archives, however, shows that the magazine continued to stand by its two eyewitnesses. Mann's changing story has generally not been addressed, and her extra-curricular flakiness was barely touched upon.
Though the Spectator's internal audit of the Arkansas Project is still ongoing, the magazine -- as well as Dozhier and Hale -- have all denied that the payments took place. Even so, the Spectator has argued several times that if the money was handed out as alleged, the dates of those disbursements prove that the charges don't hold up.
"If The American Spectator's Arkansas Project was going to bribe, suborn, or otherwise influence Hale, it had to do it in the early summer of 1993, or before he started talking," Corry wrote. "The Arkansas Project, however, did not come into existence until several months after that. This means that no matter what the White House and its acolytes say, it had nothing to do with Hale's testimony against Clinton."
In its June issue, the Spectator grudgingly acknowledged that the Arkansas Project was problematic.
"Even if the stories in Salon were junk, it must be admitted that the Arkansas Project was flawed," Corry wrote. "Journalism is best practiced by journalists, and neither [of the two men who led the investigation] was a journalist... Most damaging of all, the Arkansas Project hired a private investigator, and while he was hired because of his expertise in financial crime -- a ripe Whitewater area -- his presence was ill-advised. White House damage-control teams use gumshoes, but respectable magazines do not."
Beyond this mea culpa, however, neither The American Spectator nor its supporters have directly challenged the bulk of Salon's findings, including:
Hambrecht, through a spokesperson, said he has never had any involvement with the editorial content of Salon.
Talbot said three other companies, combined, hold a roughly 48% interest in the publication: Adobe Ventures, Japanese technology publisher ASCII Corp., and Borders Books & Music. The rest, around 40%, is owned by staff.
Salon's board members, who Talbot said meet every four to six weeks, include President/Publisher Michael O'Donnell, Talbot, ASCII America President Sada Chadambaram, Adobe Ventures representative Standish O'Grady, Hambrecht & Quist associate Kate Geldens, and former CBS Television president Jim Rosenfield.
"Salon's board is a hodgepodge of political affiliations, from Libertarian to Democrat to Republican to Independent," Talbot wrote in a June 19 editorial. "Their only common passion is money, and the fervent hope that Salon makes lots of it."
Talbot said that he "never thought of it as necessary" to disclose who owns how much of Salon, though he might post something in the future. "We're a small start-up company... with a million things to think about," he said. "It only came up because of our political coverage."
Salon editors dismiss the notion they are slaves to any politics, pointing to such regular columnists as Camille Paglia and David Horowitz.
Horowitz, whose Center for the Study of Popular Culture received $250,000 a year from Scaife foundations until 1995, echoed the stance taken by Salon's critics that his former patron "has not been accused of anything more sinister than funding investigative reporting into the dubious activities that the Clintons have spent millions of taxpayer dollar in an effort to cover up."
But at the same time, Horowitz thanked Salon for the opportunity to criticize:
"In the midst of this Clinton-inspired morass we've all been wading through, the bright spot that remains for me, at least, is Salon's provision of a platform from which I can write these columns."
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