The world according to Russ Baker

Illustration by Roan Smith

You meet Russ Baker at The Smith, a busy watering hole in the East Village with bustling waitresses and rattling dishes. It looks nothing like a newsroom, though news is Baker’s business. Baker doesn’t do his work at this particular restaurant, but he does write stories and edit pieces for his aggressively anti-establishment website, WhoWhatWhy, at other Village hangouts, which is just one indication of how his career has changed since he first became a journalist.

Baker would prefer you not mention where he works or lives. It’s not that he’s paranoid, he says. It’s that he does “sensitive investigative work,” and he doesn’t want people he doesn’t know showing up on his doorstep. As a journalist, Baker has been in the trenches for more than 25 years. Among the many stories he has covered are New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s misleading scoops about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the West’s indifference to capturing accused Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic, the practices of Scientology, and George W. Bush’s National Guard record, which he expanded upon in his magnum opus, Family of Secrets, a heavily-annotated deep dive into what he argues are the decades-long transgressions of the Bushes.

For most of his career, he has been a mainstream journalist writing for mainstream publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the Village Voice. But WhoWhatWhy is an entirely different animal. It purports to take readers beneath the news—“deep politics,” Baker calls it—and highlight a vast, secret nexus of power and money that Baker says the mainstream media dare not reveal because they are entwined in that same nexus. Arrayed across the top of WhoWhatWhy are some familiar leftish topics—War & Peace, Threats to Democracy, Big Money, and Earth—along with one heading dedicated to the presidential race and a catchall titled Mindscape. The site’s slogan reads, “We don’t cover the news. We uncover the truth.” 

 

“When people ask me, `Who are you like?’ I say, `We’re not like anybody.’ ”

 

Supporters and detractors alike might call WhoWhatWhy rabid in its pursuit of that truth. Its stories have pointed to the unreliability of FBI agents’ investigative reportsscrutinized the Pentagon’s Jade Helm operation, in which the military conducted “realistic” training in several communities to test coordination with local authorities, and noted that it could violate laws prohibiting the armed services from directly engaging in law enforcement activities; and described how taxpayers may be left holding the bag for coal companies forced to reclaim land ruined by mining.

Baker is far from the only journalist, and WhoWhatWhy far from the only news organ, with the lofty ambition of exposing misdeeds and challenging the journalistic establishment. There have been dozens of others, both right and left, including The Intercept, which calls its content “adversarial journalism”; The Huffington Post, before it became an aggregator; Vice; The Daily Caller; and those venerable old war horses, The Nation and Mother Jones, not to mention investigators like Seymour Hersh and the late I.F. Stone, and muckrakers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell before them. But Baker and other journalistic “adversarials” operate in a different kind of media environment than previous gadflies. For one thing, the internet makes it easier for adversarial journalists to disseminate their work. For another, readers are migrating from old media to new, with a Pew Research Center survey finding “significant” declines in cable news viewership and falling newspaper circulation last year, while another Pew survey found the public’s evaluation of media performance “mired near all-time lows.” The same survey found people strongly supporting the press’s “watchdog” function. That offers Baker an opening. 

 

Key Audience Trends

 

But while Baker talks boldly about his site one day being the primary investigative organization in journalism and the daily “second read” after The New York Times, WhoWhatWhy, like most adversarials, is still a journalistic minnow. It got roughly 600,000 unique visitors last year, though the numbers have been growing as the site posts new material more frequently and as it links its stories to other sites, like Salon, that drive traffic back to it. Still, consider that The Huffington Post gets around 100 million unique monthly visits, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze 15 million, The Drudge Report four million, and Think Progress 10 million. As far as visibility, WhoWhatWhy exists in the shadows. 

That doesn’t seem to bother Baker. Wary of the role that money can play in journalism, he established WhoWhatWhy’s parent entity, The Real News Project, Inc., as a 501C3 nonprofit, which he says insulates the site from commercial pressures. “Too small to fail,” is how he laughingly puts it. There are no ads, no T-shirts or baseball caps with the WhoWhatWhy logo, no clubs for readers to join. That also means there is little money, as in very little. The site takes in roughly $400,000 a year from a base of donors that Baker estimates at about 1,000, most of whom give small amounts. Nevertheless, he is convinced it has a better chance of survival than other adversarial sites. For one thing, he has recruited a number of veteran journalists whose experience helps blunt potential criticism that the site is just another amateur propaganda organ. His board of directors includes Margaret Engel, the executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation,* and longtime editor Jonathan Z. Larsen, while Daniel Ellsberg, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sydney Schanberg, and Salon founder David Talbot serve on the site’s advisory board. WhoWhatWhy’s staff of about 40 is overseen by Baker and a group of editors, including Gerry Jonas, a Yale graduate who worked as an editor and writer at The New Yorker for 30 years. Its politics editor, Klaus Marre, who is German, cut his teeth at Inside Washington, which publishes newsletters for government insiders and lobbyists, then went to work for The Hill, then for the German Press Agency, then back to The Hill, and then to WhoWhatWhy, which he calls “the site for people who are fed up with journalism the way it is now.”

Beyond the quality of his staff, Baker thinks he has another advantage: his boldness. He says no other news site is willing to take investigations as far as he does or to risk the opprobrium he gets for connecting the dots where other journalists may see simple ineptitude or corruption. “When people ask me, `Who are you like?’ I say, `We’re not like anybody.’”

“In all journalism, almost everywhere,” Baker says, “everyone has been taught: Don’t go too far. Don’t dig too deep.” Critics reject that claim. Rather, they assert, reporters are warned not to go farther than the evidence warrants, and they say that what Baker sees as audacity is just a cover for sloppy reporting. Tim Rutten, the longtime former media critic of the Los Angeles Times, thinks that Baker may have once been a serious and talented journalist. Then he got ensnared in investigative journalism and became “mesmerized by the idea of secrets and the Great Seduction. It causes you to lose your perspective and balance.” For Baker to say that so-called mainstream journalists aren’t willing to dig deep while Baker does is both arrogant and just plain wrong, Rutten says. “Jim Risen nearly went to jail for reporting on the CIA,” Rutten says, citing the New York Times reporter who refused to testify at the trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking secrets. “To say that [Baker] holds a superior understanding and a superior reportorial ability to [Risen]—that’s hubris.”

Nevertheless, Baker is convinced that because WhoWhatWhy is so aggressive, he is the one who can win the battle against what he sees as the mainstream media’s incuriosity and overweening deference to the so-called establishment of American elites—the one outlet that can ultimately change America’s media ecology. He knows it will be a long, hard slog. But it raises a question: In this internet age of populism and skepticism, is Russ Baker a nut who sees the world as a conspiracy? Or might he be the future of American journalism? Or possibly both?

 

Baker doesn’t much look like a nut. He is in his 50s, but could pass for 40, with long, neatly-coiffed gray hair, fashionable rectangular black-rimmed reading glasses, the compact build of an athlete (he swims regularly), and the exuberance of a teenager. People who know him describe him as “intense.” He speaks quickly, as if he has too much to say and is running out of time. One of his donors, the distinguished documentarian Alvin Perlmutter, calls him “reasonably aggressive.” “He thinks about this stuff, I won’t say 24 hours a day,” says senior editor Jonas jokingly, “—but maybe 22.”

Baker himself says that he regularly works 14- and 15-hour days. If he has a family, he won’t divulge it, presumably to shield any loved ones against his alleged enemies but also because he says it is irrelevant. And yet, for a man who makes his living disinterring scandal and doling out gloom, he is surprisingly upbeat, affable, and funny, able to find humor in even his darkest investigations. (Among the intra-chapter titles in Family of Secrets are “The Burning Bush,” “Hanky-Panky, Cuban Style,” and “Rove at First Sight.”) And while you certainly can’t call someone who expects his site to be the second read to The New York Times humble or self-effacing, he exhibits none of the self-righteous indignation or certitude you might expect of a man taking on the world.

That part is important to understanding Baker, his site, and the future of journalism as he sees it. He says he doesn’t believe in received wisdom or sacred cows, and that he isn’t advancing a particular political agenda, which he admits has irritated some of his left-wing donors, who have pressed him to be more partisan. One recent story, for example, was titled, “What Both Hillary and the GOP Are Covering Up About Libya.” On the other hand, Baker is equally adamant that there are no “false equivalencies” on WhoWhatWhy, of the sort that, he says, are a staple of the conventional press. “When we look at the history of the Democratic Party and the history of the Republican Party, we don’t see the same things. … When we look at a labor union that wants to get into McDonald’s and we look at McDonald’s, we don’t see the same thing. When we look at the Sierra Club and we look at the Koch brothers, and they’re arguing over who’s telling the truth, we don’t see the same things.” Reporters for the mainstream media know that “in many of these cases, one side or one group is telling much more of the truth than the other,” he says, ”but they can’t say that.” His site does. 

 

In this internet age of populism and skepticism, is Russ Baker a nut who sees the world as a conspiracy? Or might he be the future of American journalism? Or possibly both?

 

WhoWhatWhy’s donors include Joan Konner, a former dean of the Columbia Journalism School and CJR board member; California businesswoman-turned-fundraiser Cheryl Hylton and her psychotherapist husband, Jeff; Seattle car dealer Bill Korum; the Larsen Fund, which is operated in part by Baker’s old editor at the Voice, Jon Larsen; and TV producer Norman Lear. (Disclosure: I am a senior fellow at the Lear Center at the University of Southern California, which Norman Lear founded.) WhoWhatWhy has no single sugar daddy like The Intercept’s Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay and who also funds CJR’s local news coverage. But Baker reframes the site’s shoe-string budget as an advantage. Where critics would logically see a lack of money as a detriment to reporting, he says that his limited budget means he isn’t beholden to big donors and doesn’t have to do their bidding. And while most of his big donors are progressives, Baker does have a following among conservatives, and has been an occasional guest on conservative/libertarian radio talk shows, like the old Gene Burns Show on KGO in San Francisco and disgraced former Florida congressman Mark Foley’s erstwhile radio show on WSVU in Florida.

When Baker talks about taking on conventional news sources like big newspapers and broadcast television news, though, he is not talking just about taking on partisanship or false equivalencies or establishing economic independence; he is talking about changing assumptions. He’s not the first to say that the so-called mainstream media operate within narrative constraints that discourage journalists from looking for things that don’t comport with the official version of events. This is where reporters like Baker and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald part company with legacy papers like the Times and The Washington Post, and with the news divisions of NBC, CBS, and ABC. They don’t buy into what they see as the basic civility of conventional journalism—the media’s reluctance to rock the boat, whether it is disrupting the celebratory mainstream press narrative about George H. W. Bush being a sage leader or, back in 2003, taking on the government narrative that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

This is likely why adversarial sites are gaining readers who instinctively question those official versions, too. If Baker calls his subject “deep politics,” he calls his practice “forensic journalism,” by which he means probing a story to find what might be going on beneath the surface–whether the attack on a US embassy in Benghazi might have been the result of a botched CIA operation, or how much the FBI knew about the Boston marathon bombers long before the tragedy and whether they were insufficiently vigilant. Those are Baker’s strengths. Bill Moyers, who doesn’t know Baker personally, calls him an “indefatigable researcher from whom I could  learn something about a subject that I hadn’t known because he so often looked under the next rock, rounded the next corner, asked the next question after everyone else had gone home or to the local bar.” Moyers adds, “He seemed unimpressed with conventional wisdom, quickly spotted and dismissed spin, and wasn’t intimidated by the powers-that-be.”

Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Daily News columnist, sees things differently. He cites an aphorism of Einstein’s: “The peril of the creative mind is that it discerns patterns where none exist.”

 

You could say that Russ Baker, not to be confused with former New York Times columnist Russell Baker,  was a born iconoclast. He grew up in Venice, California, among surfers and street gangs. His father was a systems analyst at a major aerospace company with serious misgivings about the Vietnam War and his own contribution to it. The elder Baker was a political activist, and Russ remembers putting together packets as a boy advocating for fair housing policies in California. His parents also sent him to a progressive school run out of UCLA. “What I remember from the school early on is that I never wanted to be a conformist,” he says. “Never.” 

If UCLA taught him progressive values, Mark Twain Junior High taught him how to fight—literally. “Really rough. The girls had razor blades in their hair.” Returning to UCLA, where he majored in political science, he revived the moribund Democratic Club, graduated in three years, then backpacked around the world and returned to California at 20 to run a ballot initiative to ban public smoking. It failed. Needing money, he formed his own company of sales reps selling stationery, which is when, he says, he started developing his marketing skills by driving all over the state with suitcases full of greeting cards.

On a whim, he decided to vacation in Nicaragua in 1986 during the Contra War and found himself accompanying journalists on their rounds because he spoke Spanish. That is when, he says, “I got the bug,” meaning the journalism bug. He sold his business, wound up at the Columbia Journalism School, broke a story for a local paper on corruption in New York public schools, and landed a summer internship at Newsday. When he left, he maxed out his credit card traveling the world as a journalistic vagabond, covering tribal genocide in Burundi for a Dutch paper and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the fall of the Berlin Wall for CBS Radio and the Christian Science Monitor, and the fall of Romanian dictator Ceausescu. This time he returned to a spot on the Village Voice where, almost by accident, he began specializing in pieces about twisted plots and unholy alliances, which led to a cover story titled “CIA: Out of Control.”

By now, Baker was a journalistic romantic, entranced by the old-school notion of a reporter wearing out shoe leather while hunting leads, ripping the paper out of his typewriter, and yelling, “Hold the presses!” At one point during his Voice tenure, he got a call from an editor at the Times who asked him to come down with his clippings. Baker thought he had arrived. But as the man flipped through the pages, he stopped at the CIA cover story, which concluded that many critics thought of the agency as little more than “the foot soldiers of the rich.” As Baker recalls it, the editor slammed his palm on the table. “Why do you write things like that?” he asked querulously. To which Baker answered, “I think it’s true.” And, according to Baker, the editor answered, “It doesn’t matter.” Baker could see his dream evaporating, not because, he says, the man was bad, but because the man “knew the limitations of the mainstream media.” And, he says, “That shaped me forever.”

No one falls harder than a jilted romantic, which is what Baker became when he left the Voice and began to freelance. Any time he challenged the prevailing narrative now, he says, he ran afoul of the mainstream media. He was so gunshy that he sought out and paid Jonas, the New Yorker perfectionist, to pre-edit his pieces before submitting them. It didn’t insure protection. He wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine on a CIA mind control program that had dosed a man with LSD, and the Times, which had commissioned the article, declined to run it. But it was in 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, when, largely for the excitement, he took a position training journalists in Belgrade under the auspices of the US Embassy there, that his disillusionment curdled into anger and then action. Watching the coverage of the war from afar and appalled by it, he says he concluded, “The US media are in the tank with the bad guys, and I said something has to be done about this.”

What needed to be done, he determined, was to return to the states and begin investigating George W. Bush as he prepared for his reelection campaign. But once again, Baker found that the magazines that had commissioned his pieces would refuse to run them. Then Baker got hold of Bush’s purported National Guard documents—the documents that would ultimately sink Dan Rather. Baker did not run with them; they weren’t authenticated. But he did contact Mickey Herskowitz. Herskowitz was a popular Houston sports columnist who moonlighted as a ghostwriter, and who had been ghosting George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign biography when he was unceremoniously dumped, amid a whispering campaign that he had a drinking problem, and his computer seized.

According to Baker, Herskowitz dished about things W. had told him, including a pronouncement that if you wanted to be a successful president, you needed a war. Baker was sure he had a story, but he didn’t have an outlet. The Nation had funded some of his reporting on Bush and considered running the story, but Herskowitz, terrified of retribution from the Bushes, insisted that the conversation had been off the record, even though Baker had him on tape, and The Nation stepped away. The piece finally ran on Common Dreams, a progressive website that, like WhoWhatWhy, is a nonprofit. “I reported in totalitarian Eastern Europe,” Baker says. “I reported in Central Africa where there were Hutu-Tutsi massacres going on. I lived in the former Yugoslavia when it broke apart. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country where people are as scared as they are in this country.” Hyperbole aside, Baker recalls: “I was so despondent about journalism. That’s probably the moment where the idea of doing WhoWhatWhy really clicked into my mind: We need to start a new journalism outfit that will publish everything fearlessly, so long as it’s right.”

 

Baker can sound confident, even arrogant, but he has sometimes questioned his own instincts. Was he connecting dots that really had no connection? Was he discerning patterns where there weren’t any? When he began working on Family of Secrets, he said he was astonished to find that the Bush family’s tentacles reached into every nook and cranny of American politics and finance. He was so worried that he might be losing his bearings that he consulted New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walt Bogdanich. They talked for an hour, Baker says. “I said, `Walt, if I’m walking off a plank here, if I’m going to destroy myself and my career, please tell me and help stop me.’ And he looked at me and said, `Listen, buddy. You better watch your back.’ I’ll never forget that.”

When he began working on WhoWhatWhy early in 2005, friends urged him to desist. He had no resources, only moxie and a vision. “I was a guy with $2,000 to my name and a lot of debt on my credit cards.” Eventually, the donations grew, the staff expanded, and the site hit its stride. And it did break stories—like those challenging the standard narrative of the Boston marathon bombing, about which the site has published some 80 posts, and an investigation into the practice of American prisons holding juveniles simply because they cannot post bail. Baker also unearthed and published an astonishing 2007 clip of a speech delivered by Gen. Wesley Clark in which Clark claims to have seen a government memo listing countries the United States would invade using 9/11 as a pretext.*

 

 

Baker followed up with an exclusive interview with Clark on his knowledge about the centrality of oil in America’s Middle East ventures. Baker says that no mainstream reporter picked up the story, which he finds outrageous. 

 

 

If Clark had said that the US needed to challenge Russia in Syria, Baker posits, “Do you think they’d quote him? You bet!” More recently, he has posted stories about the technology boom in Africa, pollution caused by the funeral industry, and radioactive dust left by depleted uranium in Iraq.

Despite these investigations, Baker would be the first to admit that he’s made it easy for the mainstream media to disregard him and the site. That’s because he has done something so-called reputable journalists don’t do: He questions the official narrative that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK by himself. In his book, he even hints darkly that George H.W. Bush may have known more about the assassination than he let on, noting incredulously that Bush once told an interviewer he couldn’t remember where he was when Kennedy was killed. (He was in Dallas.) “I have always talked openly about assassinations and things like that, and that is the electrified third rail,” Baker says. He even appears at assassination conferences and defends doing so, despite the damage he realizes it does to his reputation and to the site’s credibility. 

Conspiracy theories aren’t the only things that make Baker and WhoWhatWhy vulnerable to the criticisms of more staid, corporate journalists. There is the operation itself, which, by conventional standards, is certainly ramshackle, albeit by design. Baker believes that If you want a different kind of journalism, you need a different kind of organization from that of traditional newspapers and magazines. WhoWhatWhy’s staff is paid in a variety of ways, from hourly rates to shifting salaries, and is supplemented by auxiliaries, including photo wranglers, Web designers, and programmers who either volunteer or get paid by the job. Baker even asks staff members who can afford it to take less money so that others can have more. They are a polyglot group, and Baker prides himself on the site’s inclusiveness. Two of its supervising editors, including Jonas, are in their 70s. Two new reporters are still in college. He also encourages volunteers. And he has set up an apprenticeship program for those, young and old, transitioning into journalism. “I can teach anybody how to write a good story,” says Marre. “But I cannot teach passion.” And he says that WhoWhatWhy is the most passionate place he has ever worked—“by far.”

It may also be, according to its employees, the most democratic place in journalism. Every assignment is examined by every editor, even though it means that editing a piece takes longer. “Being first is not a priority,” Marre says somewhat ruefully. “Getting it right is the priority.” (Baker is proud that in his long and contentious career, he has never had to issue a major correction and has never been sued.) To take democracy a bit further, Baker solicits input not only from everyone within the staff but from donors, outside experts, and readers. The website even asks readers to recommend writers who work at a “level comparable to what you expect” from the site, which, critics claim, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. As Tim Rutten puts it, “That’s like an open casting call. That’s like the open mic at a comedy club.”

Baker probably wouldn’t object to that characterization. He wants WhoWhatWhy to be a bit of a fly-by-the-seat-your-pants sort of operation. He says he tells his staff, “Don’t get stuck in your house in your pajamas where you haven’t combed your hair in days. Take a break. Meet a friend for lunch. Do some work on a laptop in a café. Call me if you just want to talk. But get some balance in your life.” And he adds, “We have to be having fun or we’re not going to do this.” And by “do this,” he means disrupt the narratives of the mainstream media and create a more aggressive, questioning journalism—a journalism for those who no longer believe the conventional news media.

 

When Baker projects WhoWhatWhy’s future, he thinks of more investigations, more deep politics that, he hopes, will “impact the way people will look at government and the media.” To that end, the site recently added a Deep Politics editor. Baker has also launched a Public Records unit to dog government agencies that have proven reluctant to honor the Freedom of Information Act, and he has assigned two staffers to work with legal advisors to file lawsuits in the public interest. He foresees a day when, after an event like the recent bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan, he will be able to flood the zone with a team of reporters to investigate and go beneath the news.

That is, if WhoWhatWhy can afford to keep operating, which seems to be the primary threat to many adversarial sites. Of WhoWhatWhy, even donor Alvin Perlmutter wonders, “How can they survive on being a nonprofit? How can they continue to do what they do with the energy and time and talent and money that it takes?”

Baker doesn’t disagree. He says he spends as much time on the phone raising money as a political candidate. “Our No. 1 priority is to raise money and then be able to bring on more people,” he says, and he believes that his own entrepreneurial training in business will enable him to do so. “This is something that is going to be around, we hope, forever, or at least as long as there is life on earth.” That is why he’s training another generation of investigative journalists.

Others, even staff members, aren’t so sure. Maybe the mainstream media are mainstream because conventional political coverage, not going deep and asking dangerous questions, is the surest path to sustainability. Or maybe people profess to want an adversarial journalism, but are unwilling to reach into their pockets to support it. Baker thinks otherwise. He compares his forensic journalism to hand-tooled Rolls Royces. “We’ve got them all parked in the garage right now. We want to get them out of the garage and get them on display.” Maybe it’s a pipe dream that WhoWhatWhy could ever move from the journalistic margins to the center. But you have to remember that Baker is either hopelessly deluded, or a visionary who has seen the future and thinks he is it.

*An earlier version of this story misstated Margaret Engel’s title and gave an incorrect date for a video clip of Gen. Wesley Clark featured on WhoWhatWhy.

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Neal Gabler is a Senior Fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at USC and the author of five books. He is working on a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.