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Features Posted March 31, 1998
Stop The Presses -- Print The Madness!

Salon's Stories Reveal What Print Has Avoided.
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Related Story
Salon's Coverage Commands Respect for Net Journalists
Some of the best reporting last month on the investigations of Bill Clinton never made it to newsprint.

Investigative reporter Murray Waas wrote a series of muckraking stories for Salon Magazine that revealed, among other things, that key Whitewater witness David Hale received numerous secret cash payments from a man linked with conservative millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, and that the sworn deposition of Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson contradicted crucial statements attributed to him in the first "Troopergate" articles by the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator.(See Editor's Note.)

The Hale revelations, which Waas obtained in part by interviewing the former live-in girlfriend of Arkansas middle-man Parker Dozhier, were followed by news that the FBI has recommended a formal inquiry into the conservative money trail. Waas' pieces have gone largely unnoticed in the print media, with the exception of a couple of Hale follow-ups by the Associated Press.

"It's becoming scandalous how the press seems to be deliberately turning a blind eye to these nationally important stories," said Salon editor and CEO David Talbot.

"It's becoming scandalous how the press seems to be deliberately turning a blind eye to these nationally important stories," said Salon editor and CEO David Talbot. "The press is STILL way behind on all these stories."

Complaints about the mainstream press have driven a number of quality reporters from print to digital, fostering a handful of Web sites that investigate and break legitimate stories, including Salon, WorldNetDaily, The Consortium, The Putnam Pit and Tabloid.

New Media writer Jon Katz of Wired has taken note. "Salon is an intelligent, influential Web site, one of the best," Katz said. "I have followed its Trooper stories and they are as good as any journalism anywhere on the scandal -- much better than most."

Waas, who won the 1993 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting along with Douglas Frantz for their L.A. Times series revealing how the United States armed Iraq from 1986-90, said he approached Salon because he had a "good opinion" of the site's journalism -- even though he'd only been on the Web once, at a friend's house. "People would fax me articles two or three times a month," he said.

Talbot said his site, which pays $250-$1,000 per article, attracts top talent "because we're one of the only publications that seems willing to explore the conservative network of shared interests and finances that underlies much of this story."

Salon, launched in November 1995, includes a travel magazine, several provocative columnists (Camille Paglia, Erica Jong), interviews and reader forums, in addition to the Real News page.

"Murray called me a month ago after he heard Salon was starting to publish some interesting stories about the Starr vs. Clinton battle, including Mollie Dickenson's fine report on the political roots of the Whitewater investigation," he said. "In fact, Salon is now in the process of building an investigative team to work on these Clinton/Starr stories. The team includes Murray; our Washington correspondent Jonathan Broder who has shared bylines with Murray on several stories; Center for Investigative Reporting co-founder David Weir ... [and] Andrew Ross, our managing editor."

Another factor in luring good reporters to the Web, Talbot said, is that "corporate journalism has become a lazy and pampered old dog slumbering quietly in the corner."

Another factor in luring good reporters to the Web, Talbot said, is that "corporate journalism has become a lazy and pampered old dog slumbering quietly in the corner."

WorldNetDaily founder Joseph Farah couldn't agree more. "Whenever you have a decreasing number of voices, you have less diversity of opinion expressed in the media and, more importantly, the press is more easily controlled in terms of news," Farah said. "With about 15 corporations now owning most of the press in this country, along with one dominant news service -- AP -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how stories can be spiked and ignored."

Farah, a former editor of the Sacramento Union and executive news editor of the L.A. Herald Examiner, founded the Western Journalism Center in the early '90s, then threw his energy into it after failing a controversial attempt to buy the Union in 1992. "The idea was to sponsor the good, old-fashioned kind of muckraking into government waste, fraud, abuse and corruption that Jefferson and Paine had in mind for the press," he said.

The nonprofit Center, which gives reporters grants and internship with its $500-600,000 annual budget, launched WorldNetDaily in May 1997. The result is a mixture of stories culled from the mainstream press, Farah's biting columns, and original reporting on topics such as the government's use of IRS audits, and the deaths of Ron Brown and Vince Foster.

Though the Center won't disclose its corporate backers "because they have faced [government] retaliation," Farah emphasized that he gets "NO money from Dick Scaife or any of his foundations and haven't for about three years," and has "NO political ties to any party or organization." WorldNet's March 30 edition even included Waas' Troopergate story from Salon.

"Howard Kurtz and the CJR can whine all they want about online news forcing traditional media into a scoop contest of shoddy reporting, but I can face myself in the mirror knowing I haven't published 600 Monicagate stories regurgitating the same tired crap we all published two months ago," Layne said.

"I never talk about a liberal bias in the press because I think it is too generous to my colleagues. I say they are cowards -- afraid to do their jobs. Even the most powerful corporate media establishment types hunt small game. They have licenses to protect. They seek favors and corporate welfare from the teat of big government. My colleagues are kept in line, not only by political correctness in the newsroom, but by corporate edict."

Farah's work has earned him an award from the Washington Times Foundation.

Investigative journalist Robert Parry's Consortium Web site is known for its series on the political influence buying of Washington Times owner Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Parry, an Emmy nominee and a winner of the Polk Award for National Reporting, worked for AP from 1974-87, uncovering several stories about covert CIA operations in Central America.

"I wrote the first story about Oliver North and his Contra support work in June, 1985," he said. "With Brian Barger, I co-authored the first story about the Contra-cocaine connections in December 1995."

Parry moved to Newsweek in 1987 as the Iran-Contra affair broke open, but found his editors "increasingly opposed to my tracking the scandal closer to Reagan and Bush." He left the magazine in 1990, wrote the books "Fooling America" and "Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery," worked for PBS Frontline, then started the Consortium in November 1995. The biweekly site, which costs subscribers $10 a year, includes two or three new investigative stories each issue, plus links to other journalism sites.

"Many of our stories go against the grain. After Gary Webb's series for the San Jose Mercury News [on the CIA's role in inner-city drug dealing] ran, for instance, we reported more information about Contra drug trafficking," he said. "Most of the Big Media chose to attack Webb. When the recent CIA report came out, we found in the body of the report major concessions by the CIA about Contra drug trafficking. Most of the Big Media focused on the CIA's exculpatory press release."

Like Farah, Parry hearkens back to a better era of muckraking.

"Ours is truly a site for independent investigative journalism," Parry said. "We have no major backers nor deep pockets. We put out stories that are well documented and carefully sourced. We try to practice old-fashioned journalism. We follow the leads where they go, without ideological concerns."

Parry decries the product of corporate journalism, and believes the political Right has scared off investigative reporters.

"In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, conservatives raised vast sums of money to build their own ideological media and to create anti-press pressure groups to force the mainstream media more to the right. I believe those efforts were successful. Today's Washington journalists fear being labeled 'liberal' as a death knell to their careers. So they shy away from tough investigative stories that might generate that kind of criticism."

Tabloid, featured in last month's OJR issue, didn't intend to break news when Ken Layne and Charles Hornberger launched it a year ago. "Our plan was to find neglected news and play it up, add relevance and excitement to big stories by pushing the weird human element into the leads and provide biting commentary and a well-packaged daily Web paper," Layne said. But as talented and frustrated correspondents from around the globe began discovering Tabloid as an outlet for honest after-hours writing, the scoops started coming.

"Sometimes the stuff we break is entertaining, weirdo news," Layne said. "Monkeys attacking a village in Japan, England going wild over a pair of escaped pigs, a presumed-dead guy who walked out of an Egyptian morgue, U.S. drug dealers switching from pit bulls to alligators as the watchdog of choice, a cartoon in Tokyo sending thousands of kids into seizures and vomiting fits ... We've seen all of these Tabloid stories show up in American papers and wires days or even weeks after we've given them the front-page treatment."

Like Salon, WorldNetDaily and the Consortium, Tabloid is run by award-winning reporters, and read voraciously by other journalists.

"Even within the States," Layne said, "we regularly find ourselves beating the wires and big papers with stories like U.S. hippie murderer Ira Einhorn's capture in France and the renegade Tennessee newspaper publisher who sued for his city's Web logs."

That renegade publisher, Geoff Davidian, has a muckraking site of his own called the Putnam Pit, which specializes in terrorizing public officials in sleepy Cookeville, Tennessee (such as "Putnam county clerk of court's LEWIS COOMER IS A THIEF"), with a blizzard of Freedom of Information requests and taunting headlines.

Davidian, who taught journalism at Marquette and has worked for the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic, traveled to Putnam County from Beverly Hills to investigate a suspicious local fire that killed a woman.

After getting a parking ticket from local cops and confronting the "corruption" and "evil" of town officials, he decided that Cookeville needed its own watchdog newspaper. The Pit started as a four-page fortnightly, but the emphasis has since shifted to the Web. Typical stories include a list of every police officer's overtime pay, routine savaging of the local newspaper of record and wicked columns.

The Pit is most known for its suit demanding that City Hall reveal the Internet "cookie" files on public officials' computers. The files could reveal which Web sites have been visited by town employees, files that "could show whether taxpayers are footing the bill for city employee access to Internet sites focusing on such issues as white supremacy, pornography and pedophilia," Davidian told the news service Newsbytes.

"I intend to create an atmosphere in which corruption cannot occur," Davidian told the L.A. Daily News in November. "I am the beginning of what I hope to promote -- little modules of journalistic skills. Get printed, lay it out with WordPerfect, get it distributed, go forward. In my opinion, newspapers don't do it any more."

Editors of Web journalism sites are not only bored and disappointed with major media, they're fed up with how their profession is discussed by major media -- usually in ominous tones and almost always quoting the Drudge Report. Rarely do media pundits talk about the sites mentioned above, or the stories those sites are breaking.

"Howard Kurtz and the CJR can whine all they want about online news forcing traditional media into a scoop contest of shoddy reporting, but I can face myself in the mirror knowing I haven't published 600 Monicagate stories regurgitating the same tired crap we all published two months ago," Layne said.

"Traditional media is obsessed with what I call 'Logo Stories'. Once a newspaper makes a logo or graphic for Monicagate, O.J., Iraq, whatever, it's all settled: Readers will see a bunch of crap about these subjects, whether there's any new developments or not."

Parry said it's too early to determine whether the New Media will pick up the journalistic slack. "Unless there is more money generated, I'm not sure the future is that bright," he said. "Investigative journalism is time-consuming and money-intensive. I have tried to show that one can do a creditable job with limited resources. But without more money flowing into independent sites, I fear the Internet trend will be toward corporate cross-marketing sites with a smattering of sites financed by ideological interests."

Waas says he's happy for now with breaking his stories on the Web. "I like the immediacy of it," he said. "In that sense you can be very competitive."


* [Editor's Note: One of the Times reporters involved in the "Troopergate" story "vehemently denied the charges" in a statement to Salon.(Back to top.) ]
 
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Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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