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Salon's Coverage Commands Respect for Net Journalists

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Web-only journalism officially graduated to the Beltway's radar screen April 25, when Bill Clinton kicked off the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner by saying: "I just want to know one thing: How come there's no table for Salon Magazine?"

The president has good reason to stump for Salon these days. Thanks to the work of reporters Murray Waas, Jonathan Broder and Joe Conason, Kenneth Starr's key Whitewater witness David Hale has suffered a serious blow to his credibility, and the independent counsel himself has been forced to fend off conflict-of-interest questions from the Justice Department.  

The Wall Street Journal editorial pages dismissed Salon as "an Internet magazine... paid circulation zip." The reporters have been profiled by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, and attacked in the very pages of Salon by regular columnist David Horowitz.  

"Now I get my calls returned a lot easier," Broder said.  

Broder, who worked overseas from the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia to the end of the Cold War, has spent the 1990s reporting in Washington for the San Francisco Examiner and National Public Radio, before joining Salon full-time a few months ago.  

"At the beginning... people thought it was a hair-cutting magazine," he said. "Some people though it was the national magazine for the former Sri Lanka."

Now Broder finds himself accused by the likes of Horowitz of possibly receiving a "special White House briefing," and being on "White House aide Sidney Blumenthal's direct feed list."  

"I think it's ridiculous," Broder said. "We're not in the tank. We're reporters. We talk to people in the White House, we talk to people not in the White House, we talk to people in Arkansas... If a story becomes useful to one side or the other in the perpetual battles in Washington, well that's just the way it goes sometimes."  

Broder, who still specializes in foreign affairs, dipped his toe into the Whitewater morass only recently. Conason, the political editor of the weekly New York Observer, has been in the fray since at least Feb. 29, 1996, when he and Waas penned a groundbreaking cover story for The Nation about Starr's undisclosed possible conflicts of interest over his law firm's lawsuit with the Resolution Trust Company, which Starr was investigating at the time.  

The Nation piece spurred the New York Times to call for Starr to step down, way back in April 1996. But the three reporters' unraveling of the Arkansas Project, a four-year $2.4 million campaign financed by conservative activist Richard Mellon Scaife to investigate Bill Clinton and his associates, has generated the most reaction of Conason's career.

"I think this thing has gotten a lot more attention than it deserves," he said.

The trio followed Scaife's money to uncover the following:

  • Hale received regular payments between 1994-96 from Parker Dozhier, an Arkansas bait shop owner who received Arkansas Project money from conservative activist Stephen Boynton. (Broder and Waas for Salon, March 17.). This was alleged by Dozhier's former live-in girlfriend, her teenage son and two anonymous sources "familiar with Scaife's campaign." 
  • Arkansas Trooper Danny Ferguson told friends privately during the time that he and three other troopers were talking to the L.A. Times and the American Spectator, that the other troopers were exaggerating to the reporters. According to a taped conversation listened to by Waas, Ferguson also said he was afraid of coming clean because of reprisals from unnamed Republicans. "They will do things to me," he reportedly said. "They will do that. That is going to happen." (Salon, April 9.) This article also refuted a key contention in the original L.A. Times stories -- that Clinton had initiated the phone calls with the Troopers.  
  • Top Newt Gingrich fundraiser Peter W. Smith had several discussions with the Troopers about providing them with financial security, and that Smith introduced them to American Spectator reporter David Brock. (Conason and Waas, New York Observer March 30.)              
  • Some of the materials used by Starr in his successful 1995 motion to disqualify Judge Henry Woods from a case involving then-Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker were erroneous newspaper articles in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that relied heavily on allegations circulated by Dozhier and others on the Arkansas Project payroll. (Gene Lyons, Conason and Waas for Salon, April 22.)  
  • Deputy Whitewater independent counsel Hickman Ewing met several times during his investigation with a private investigator employed by Scaife. (Waas for Salon, April 20.)  
  • A Scaife-funded investigation into CNN correspondent John Camp (who reported that drug allegations against Clinton were groundless), wound up in the hands of the House Banking Committee. (Waas for Salon, April 17.)  

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak dismissed the Hale story as being based on "a single, dubious, unconfirmed source." The Wall Street Journal said it was "based on quotes from somebody's former girlfriend." Many others made much out of Conason's and Broder's friendships with Blumenthal.

Conason, who is working on a book for Random House with Salon contributor Gene Lyons about the right-wing activities surrounding Whitewater, says the attacks on the reporters are a "diversion" from the damning evidence they've uncovered.  

"I've known Sidney for well over 20 years, so in other words long before he showed up in the White House," Conason said. "If anyone thinks I'm going to stop talking to an old friend just because he has a White House job, that's ridiculous."  

Conason writes a weekly 850-word column for the Observer, and occasionally collaborates on pieces for Salon. The Observer has its own Web site, available exclusively on America Online (keyword: NYO).  

"There's been quite a bit of response" to the site, Conason said. "There's a mixture of support and insanely obscene critiques. I get flamed a fair amount there."  

But the reporter really feeling the heat is Waas, the self-styled "independent reporter" whose career has included exposes on the U.S. arming of Iraq, the cozy relationship between George Bush and Manuel Noriega, and the Iran-Contra connection.  

Mark Levin, president of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation and a former Reagan administration official told the Washington Post that "We don't view Murray as a reporter. We view him as an ideologue with a pen."

That makes Conason mad.  

"I don't understand these basically McCarthyite smears of him," Conason said. "The truth is, (Waas) was a Pulitzer prize finalist at the L.A. Times," he said. "That's all anyone needs to know. For the likes of Mark Levin... to be knocking him. What qualifies them?"  

Broder thinks Waas is getting payback from a right-wing annoyed by his past coverage.

"Murray made his name for writing on Iraqgate and Iran-Contra," he said. "My understanding is he probably displeased not a few Republicans, because these things happened under their watch."

The attacks, which have come from Novak, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator and the Washington Times, provoked a fiesty response April 17 from Salon Editor David Talbot.

"Our reporting on the Clinton-Starr national drama has not only been more enterprising than the Wall Street Journal's, it has been more reliable. Let's not forget the Journal's only 'scoop' to date -- that a White House steward had caught the president and Monica Lewinsky alone together. Unfortunately, this shocking exclusive proved to be untrue, which the Journal was forced to concede a few days later," Talbot wrote.

"How did a great national newspaper allow its editorial pages to be hijacked, for many years now, by far-right propagandists? During the Clinton presidency, these propagandists have turned the Journal's pages over to some of the most noxious sludge that has ever been dredged up in American politics."

Broder said the level of invective on both sides reflects the highly charged atmosphere of Washington politics, which he happily avoids. "I'm not invested in this story, the way I think some members of the press are," he said. "They confuse me with someone who gives a shit."  

Because of the Justice Department's reaction to Salon's coverage, Starr had to assert April 17 that his office has no conflict in investigating the charges that Hale was paid off while giving Whitewater testimony.

"Washington right now is a city where you have sort of two camps," Broder said. "One camp is the Kenneth Starr camp. Across town you have the White House and all the people who support the president. And they are sort of pulsing hatred at one another, shooting across town. Anyone who gets caught in the middle gets smeared... It's totally understandable, given the stakes involved... David Hale is Kenneth Starr's chief witness, probably his only witness, and a lot is riding on him and his credibility. So if a story appears that questions his integrity and credibility as a witness, it becomes a case of smear the messenger."