The Web: A new channel for investigative journalism

Salon’s groundbreaking stories on the Ken Starr investigation challenge the conventional wisdom laid down by the mainstream media’s wolfpack mindset

This article appeared in the June 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review as a sidebar to Salon: The best zine on the Net?

By J.D. Lasica

For years, the mainstream media have taken shots at the Internet for allowing anyone to spread rumors, lies and conspiracy theories to a global audience of millions. But now the flip side of that equation is beginning to emerge: The Net is becoming an alternative channel for original, honest investigative journalism shut out of the mainstream press.

Salon’s coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter — its first sustained foray into classic investigative journalism — has served as a counterweight to the mainstream news media’s wolfpack mindset. That contrarian approach earned it a swipe by Chris Bury of ABC’s “Nightline,” who suggested on the air in late February that Salon’s findings, which poke holes in the accounts of many of President Clinton’s accusers, were part of a “White House public relations” strategy.

Editor David Talbot bristles at that. “We are offering alternative news perspectives that you’re not reading in the New York Times and Washington Post on the Clinton scandals. Salon has been one of the few places to raise a dissenting voice to the conventional media wisdom laid down by the Post and the Times.”

Salon says it was the first news organization to report Linda Tripp’s connection to Lucianne Goldberg, beating the New York Times and other news publications that had the story the next morning. Salon was the first news outlet to report that a social-conservative organization in Southern California called Citizens for Honest Government with ties to the Rev. Jerry Falwell had been funneling money covertly to major witnesses and media sources in the Whitewater investigation.

Most significantly, Salon reported that chief Whitewater witness David Hale had received cash payments funneled through the American Spectator magazine from foundations controlled by right-wing multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who had funded a $2.5 million campaign called the Arkansas Project to undermine the Clinton presidency. The fund also paid $50,000 of Paula Jones’ legal expenses, Salon reported.

David Weir, co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting, former vice-president of content for Wired Digital and a new media fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, says Salon’s coverage represents a “fascinating breakthrough” for news sites on the Web. “This is the first time we’ve seen an Internet news organization dig out an impotant national story that the rest of the media missed.”

Through all of this, Salon has fired frequent shots across the bow of the mainstream media for ignoring or underplaying those revelations. “How strange,” says managing editor Andrew Ross, “that the media elite have not exhibited the slightest curiosity about the backgrounds of Clinton’s enemies. Whenever a voice is raised that questions the motives of these shady individuals, the Times, Washington Post and ABC say it’s part of the White House’s spin control.”

Among the print journalists writing for Salon on the Clinton investigation are Murray Waas, a former special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for coverage of the United States’ Gulf War policy; Salon Washington correspondent Jonathan Broder, who has worked for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Examiner and NPR; Gene Lyons, a political columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; and reporter Joe Conason of the New York Observer.

Waas says from his home in Washington: “I’m hardly a renegade. If anything, the bar is raised much higher because you’re going against the pack. It’s strange: If you report accurately and truthfully, you get attacked. If you make a mistake with the herd — by reporting a semen-stained dress or nonexistent Secret Service agents who saw the president in a compromising position — there are no consequences.”

In its overall coverage, Salon has hardly been an apologist for the president. Ross himself has repeatedly written that Clinton should resign if he lied to the American people. Conservative columnist David Horowitz has relentlessly slammed the president’s character and credibility, and Camille Paglia has weighed in harshly as well.

But it’s Salon’s investigative journalism that has raised old media’s hackles because, Ross says, it was done the old-fashioned way: shoe leather, cultivating sources, working the phones — no new-media tricks here. Indeed, Waas, who has written a dozen stories for Salon, is a bit of a technophobe; he never signs onto the Web and has never seen his stories online. He writes for Salon, he says, because “I like the daily rhythm and the immediacy.”

Adds Ross: “Before the Web, you would find these stories cropping up weeks or months later in places like Harper’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books. Now that Salon is around, we’re getting first crack because the writers want the story out fast. Throwing new media into the mix has been a terribly interesting development.”

Lewis Perdue, a new-media entrepreneur and former investigative journalist, thinks this may be just the tip of the iceberg. “I think the Web will bring us more investigative reporting because the cross-ownership of big media by large corporations that always have their eye on the bottom line has done a pretty good job of stomping on investigative journalism in the print world. Nobody wants to stir things up, the stockholders might get upset.”

Weir says the appearance of investigative reporting in Salon reminds him of other eras when muckrakers started popping up in magazines, underground papers and community weeklies. “It’s always taken a while for these kind of exposes to percolate up from the marginalized media like alternative weeklies into the mainstream press,” he says. “On the Web, not only does the material transcend the boundaries of space and time through linkages, it can travel faster and have a wider impact sooner. It’ll be interesting to see how these findings trickle into the mainstream media.”

On April 3, 17 days after Salon’s first report about the payments made to David Hale, the New York Times made its first mention of the charges in a small story on page A16 announcing that Attorney General Janet Reno had launched an investigation into the charges — and with no mention of Salon. The Times’ Web site did not even include the story in its National/Metro news headlines that day; a user would have had to search under “David Hale” or “Janet Reno” to discover the eight-paragraph story.

The Wall Street Journal, in its lead editorial April 17, disparaged the accusations against Hale and dismissed Salon as an “Internet magazine … (paid circulation zip).” Talbot, in a rare editorial the same day, fired back: “How did a great national newspaper allow its editorial pages to be hijacked, for many years now, by far-right propagandists?”

Talbot says he’s not surprised by the mainstream press’s reaction. “How sad that the Times and the Post — which once distinguished themselves with Watergate and uncovering other scandals — have become overly invested in Kenneth Starr’s version of the truth and have decided to look the other way instead of aggressively pursing this story.”

Talbot sees the trial judge’s decision on April 1 to dismiss Paula Jones’ lawsuit as “vindication” of Salon’s coverage — and as a watershed in the news media’s coverage of the Starr probe. “The coverage is now shifting from looking at every misdeed and infidelity of President Clinton to looking at his accusers and their motivations.”

He shakes his head. “The role of the press in this sordid chapter in American politics will be debated in journalism schools for years to come.

“As far as little Salon’s role in this, it’s sort of like the mouse that roared.”

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JD Lasica
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