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From AJR,   June 1998

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom   

Salon's coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter served as a counterweightto the mainstream media's mindset.

By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     

Related reading:
   » Breakthrough On the Web

For some time now, the mainstream media have takenshots at the Internet for allowing anyone to spread rumors, lies and conspiracytheories to a global audience of millions. But now the flip side of thatequation is beginning to emerge: The Net is becoming an alternative channelfor original investigative journalism shut out of the mainstream press.

Salon’s coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter—itsfirst sustained foray into classic investigative journalism—has servedas a counterweight to the mainstream news media’s mindset. That contrarianapproach earned it a swipe from Chris Bury of ABC’s “Nightline,” who suggestedon the air in February that Salon’s findings, which poke holes in the accountsof many of President Clinton’s accusers, were part of a White House “publicrelations” strategy.

Editor David Talbot bristles at that. “We areoffering alternative news perspectives that you’re not reading in the NewYork Times and Washington Post on the Clinton scandals,” he says. “Salonhas been one of the few places to raise a dissenting voice to the conventionalmedia wisdom laid down by the Post and the Times.”

?alon was the first news organization to reportLinda Tripp’s connection to publicist and Clinton antagonist Lucianne Goldberg,beating the New York Times and other news publications that had the storythe next morning. It was first to report that a conservative organizationcalled Citizens for Honest Government with ties to the Rev. Jerry Falwellhad been covertly funneling money to major witnesses and media sourcesin the Whitewater investigation.

âost significant, Salon reported that keyWhitewater witness David Hale received cash payments funneled through theAmerican Spectator magazine from foundations controlled by right-wing multimillionaireRichard Mellon Scaife.

David Weir, cofounder of the Center for InvestigativeReporting and a new-media fellow at the University of California at Berkeley,says Salon’s coverage represents a “fascinating breakthrough” for newssites on the Web. “This is the first time we’ve seen an Internet news organizationdig out an important national story that the rest of the media missed.”

Salon has fired frequent shots at the mainstreammedia for ignoring or underplaying its revelations. “How strange,” saysManaging Editor Andrew Ross, “that the media elite have not exhibited theslightest curiosity about the backgrounds of Clinton’s enemies. Whenevera 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 spincontrol.”

Among the print journalists writing about Clintonfor Salon are Murray Waas, a former special correspondent for the Los AngelesTimes who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist with an L.A. Times reporter forcoverage of the United States’ Persian Gulf War policy; Salon Washingtoncorrespondent Jonathan Broder, who has worked for the Chicago Tribune,the San Francisco Examiner and NPR; and Gene Lyons, a political columnistfor the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Some critics say that Salon has become an apologistfor the president. In a column in the National Journal, William Powerslikened it to a left-wing version of the American Spectator. But Salon’scoverage of Clinton has not been completely positive. Ross has repeatedlywritten that Clinton should resign if he lied to the American people. Conservativecolumnist David Horowitz has relentlessly slammed his character and credibility,and Camille Paglia has also weighed in harshly.

?ut it’s Salon’s investigative journalism thathas flustered the old media because, Ross says, it was done the old-fashionedway: shoe leather, cultivating sources, working the phones and naming sources—nonew-media tricks here. Indeed, Waas, who has written more than 20 storiesfor Salon, is a bit of a technophobe; he never signs onto the Web and hasnever seen his stories online. He writes for Salon, he says, because “Ilike the daily rhythm and the immediacy.”

Adds Ross: “Before the Web, you would find thesestories cropping up weeks or months later in places like Harper’s magazineand the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books. Now that Salonis around, we’re getting first crack because the writers want the storyout fast.”

üeir says Salon’s investigative reportingreminds him of other eras when muckrakers popped up in magazines, undergroundpapers and community weeklies. “It’s always taken awhile for these kindof exposés to percolate up from the marginalized media like alternativeweeklies into the mainstream press,” he says. “On the Web, not only doesthe material transcend the boundaries of space and time through linkages,it can travel faster and have a wider impact sooner.”

The New York Times and Washington Post began topursue the David Hale story only after Attorney General Janet Reno announcedan investigation of the charges. The Wall Street Journal, in its lead editorialApril 17, dismissed Salon as an “Internet magazine…(paid circulation zip).”Talbot, in a rare editorial the same day, fired back: “How did a greatnational newspaper allow its editorial pages to be hijacked, for many yearsnow, by far-right propagandists?”

Talbot says he’s not surprised by the establishmentpress’ reaction. “How sad that the media elite—which once distinguishedthemselves with Watergate and uncovering other scandals—have become overlyinvested in Kenneth Starr’s version of the truth and have decided to lookthe other way instead of aggressively pursuing this story.”

Talbot sees Judge Susan Webber Wright’s decisionon April 1 to dismiss Paula Jones’ lawsuit as “vindication” of Salon’scoverage. “The coverage is now shifting from looking at every misdeed andinfidelity of President Clinton to looking at his accusers and their motivations....

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