The Wag Time Pet Spa Conspiracy... And a Cancer Survivor's Right to Respect

The independence that emboldens my journalism has also proved to be its greatest vulnerability, as the following episode illustrates.
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As an investigative reporter and independent journalist, I have pursued a career course of independence so as to not be beholden to anyone. A grandiose notion, perhaps, and I will perhaps leave it to others to judge my work against the ideal. But the independence that emboldens my journalism has also proved to be its greatest vulnerability, as the following episode illustrates.

Email correspondence made public by Wonkette on Tuesday, as well as a draft of a story about me by the Washington City Paper, shows that one of my former research assistants, Bryan Keefer, provided the paper with confidential materials about stories that I was pursuing--but didn't write. The former assistant is also quoted in the story draft as claiming to know the identity of a confidential source during the time he worked for me.

The last claim is the most disturbing. I have never shared with an intern or assistant any information as to the identity of a confidential source. Most professional journalists share the identities of their confidential sources only with their editors. In my case, I would only do so with the permission of the sources themselves.

If a researcher for The New York Times or Time or Newsweek walked out the door with confidential files regarding yet unpublished stories, or attempted to disclose the identity of someone they thought was a source for one of the publication's reporters, they would almost certainly face the universal condemnation of the journalistic community.

But as an independent journalist, and one who embraces the concept of citizen journalism, I have relied on the public as much as my peers and colleagues to have my back. The relatively small media company I work for, which embodies high standards, has little power to do much of anything regarding someone I had hired prior to my employment there.

My only tool is public censure directed at those who are engaging in actions that are in direct contradiction of a central tent of journalistic ethics.

I should note that Mike Lenehan, the editorial director of the company that owns the City Paper, came to Washington recently and allowed me to read a draft of his newspaper's story about me. At Lenehan's insistence, the five hour meeting was tape recorded by everyone present and I was allowed to take verbatim notes of the story. If either he or his reporters believe that I am misrepresenting what the story said-- especially regarding Keefer-- I am more than willing to post online the relevant portions of the draft story and tape recordings.

During the course of their reporting, City Paper reporters made numerous demeaning and degrading comments in questioning me about my being a cancer survivor. Those comments were not only outside the norm of journalistic ethics, but simply common human decency.

By mutual agreement, many of those interviews were taped by all of us. If they want to question my description of their behavior, I am more than happy to post online excerpts of the tapes.

Despite the fact that last May I sent Lenehan the tapes of his reporters making these comments, he has not once since ever apologized on behalf of himself or his reporters, or once said that he believes that their conduct was in the least bit wrong.

Lenehan had written me to say that I should simply put the comments behind me: "The process of reporting a story is sometimes messy. Sometimes reporters do or say things that don't belong in the journalism textbook." He added: "But in the end what matters is what gets published."

Those comments reflect that over the course of the past several months, the City Paper has indicated that if I do not make an issue of their conduct, they will not include certain information regarding my private life in the article, or suggested that perhaps the tone will not be as harsh as it would be otherwise.

I provide them with my answer here: No deal.

I believe that I have a clear obligation to other cancer survivors not to remain silent about such acts of prejudice and intolerance.

That obligation stems out of the fact that in too many ways I have been more fortunate than most that have to endure the experience of having had cancer and its aftermath.

When I was first diagnosed in my twenties as having cancer, a pathologist informed me that "over 90 percent of patients" with such an advanced form of cancer "are dead by the end of two years." Few people thought that my diagnosis was anything other than a death sentence.

I was fortunate in other ways as well: In my single most difficult year fighting the disease, I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a winner of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School's Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, and a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. In my private life I also successfully prosecuted a civil lawsuit against a hospital whose delayed diagnosis of my cancer almost cost me my life. An appellate court decision affirming the jury's decision significantly expanded the rights of other cancer patients and their families seeking justice in the courts.

I probably am that rare reporter who was relieved not to win a Pulitzer Prize, but rather named a finalist. I knew the inevitable news stories about the cancer survivor who somehow won a Pulitzer just as he learned that he had survived what was believed to be an incurable disease--and had brought to justice as well the large hospital corporation that almost cost him his life.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and family were already treating me as a hero--something that I wasn't.

In my mind, my only triumph was simply one of getting out of bed each day and trying all over again.

As Patrick Gavin wrote in a column in the Washington Examiner speaking directly to Lance Armstrong just prior to his racing his last Tour De France: "No matter what happens in the Tour's remaining three stages, you've already won.

"In fact, you won eight years ago, when... after months off the bike and in chemotherapy. You walked into the garage, took your dusty bike out onto the driveway and got back to the work of living, one slow pedal stroke at a time."

And that is why Lance Armstrong would have been a transcendent figure to other cancer survivors if he had came in seventh, or never won another race at all.

The experience of surviving cancer is compounded by other adversities than simply the disease itself. Washington Post writer Abigail Trafford has written: "An estimated 10 million Americans are cancer survivors. The shock for many of them is that as traumatic as the illness phase is to deal with, the recovery period can be even harder. Discrimination in employment, financial losses, and isolation from friends and family are sometimes the unexpected side effects of surviving a life-threatening illness."

Consider the case of Lance Armstrong: While still in the hospital, he was fired by the bicycling team he rode for at the time, and faced the loss of his health insurance if he were to competitively race again. When he held a press conference to say he would race again, he said: "I don't feel like damaged goods," even though so many people thought otherwise. When he was engaged to be married, someone asked his then-fiancee's mother: "How could you let your daughter marry a cancer patient?" And when Armstrong first attempted to find a new team that would offer him a chance to compete again he has to initially, at least, face the fact "that no one wanted me."

And that's Lance Armstrong's experience.

Everyone who has had cancer knows that it is a struggle to retain dignity not just from the onslaught of the disease but often times one's dignity because of the way that the rest of society sometimes treats you. We have come a long way in recent years, but hardly far enough.

A friend of mine, a Canadian writer, would write me regular emails about her experiences battling breast cancer--while trying to raise her daughters, go about her life, and continue writing-- and what was most extraordinary is that she never let the disease or any person take away her dignity for even one moment. When I would email her, she ordinarily would respond the same day, or at the very latest, the next. Once, when she didn't respond to a few emails, I telephoned. Except when I called her voice was no longer on her voicemail. Instead it was her husband's voice, asking anyone calling to leave a message for their daughters. That's how I know she had passed away.

Why is it my responsibility to speak up against any act of prejudice against cancer survivors?

It's because as a young cancer survivor, I have an obligation to do anything that I can to make it easier for anyone who comes after me.


As a journalist myself, although I respectfully disagree, I can surely understand why there might be any number a to why someone might to write that I am a cancer survivor--although it is unclear to me why anyone would want to write about my private life at all. But as a journalist I know that you always try show respect and sensitivity to those you are interviewing or writing about--especially when asking about the most intensely private aspects of their lives.

During the course of reporting his story about me, Jason Cherkis, a City Paper reporter working on the story about me with Wemple, badgered me to consent to an interview.

When I expressed concerns for my right to privacy, and said that nobody had written about me being a cancer survivor, he screamed at me over the telephone: "You told every single person you have had a conversation, `I had cancer!' Don't tell me it was a secret because you told every single person you have ever come in contact. Don't you lie to me! You told people if you really didn't want to keep it a secret, you shouldn't have told."

He then glibly added: "You wouldn't have like passed it out like part of your business card."

Cherkis called later with the discovery that the high costs of medical bills and health insurance had been one large reason that I went bankrupt--something hardly uncommon that for young people who have been cancer survivors.

He then badgered me over the telephone: "So are you a deadbeat of a cancer survivor? So which is it? Which is it?" Then attempting to bully me, he says "You're like begging me and Erik [his editor] not to write about it. Now you're like the poor cancer patient. Now you are falling back on your whole fucking tale of woe, dude. Feel sorry for me! I had the cancer thing."

Later, Cherkis told me that this was all a lie, and that I really went broke because I was living high off the hog. He screamed at me: "Don't tell me that in 2005 that the effect of your cancer survivorship made you bankrupt! Maybe it was living in fucking house where the rent was $2,800 a month!"

Taken aback, I asked Cherkis: "You know how much the rent on my house was? How would you know?" He then inexplicably screams the answer at the top of his lungs: "I'm a fucking reporter!"

When I inquired of him: "Why would you care about my rent?" And add, "You don't know my finances", he creepily responded, "Do I? Don't I? Do you want me to get out the filings?" referring to the bankruptcy proceedings.

In another instance, Cherkis called my home and screamed at me because I would not answer his questions, saying: "Look, dude, you are so tightly wound. Like one of those balls of rubber bands. I like to get everything out! But you are like... Did anyone ever tell you that you are like this really repressed person?"

He then asked me if I think that people who have cancer have repressed personalities.

The last comment is offensive not just to me but probably millions of other cancer survivors. The canard is that somehow people who have had cancer brought it on themselves. It is one of the most hurtful things you can say to someone who has battled the disease.

Cherkis then told me that he didn't understand what all the fuss is about, and that he has even found evidence that from a Google search that what he said was true. And sure enough, there is a website, Cherkis even refers me which says that people are more "prone to develop cancer that... lack satisfactory emotional outlets, and have a habit of bottling up or suppressing anger."

When I hang up the telephone I was left to wonder what was going on. Was Cherkis making some kind of twisted joke about me not getting mad back at him? Did he actually believe these things? Another obvious question arose: Were he and Wemple attempting to get me to lose my temper?

As it turns out, there apparently was actually some reason to the madness. Someone who has worked with Wemple and Cherkis called to warn me they were purposely calling me up harassing me and screaming at me in hopes that I might reciprocate. As it was explained to me, much of their story is about how I am aggressive over the telephone and supposedly have a horrible temper. They were determined to get some first-hand quotes for their story.

The journalistic ethics of that conduct aside, one would simply have to wonder about their humanity--and their motives.

To try and stop them from harassing me, I made copies of various tapes of Cherkis and Wemple screaming at me and harassing me and send them to Lenehan, their editorial director in Chicago.

Instead of having the desired effect, they had the exactly the opposite. People who worked with Wemple and Cherkis told me that they were paranoid that I would make the tapes public and embarrass them. In reality, I only wanted to be left alone.

Wemple and Cherkis escalated their conduct and continue to call, even though Lenehan tells me they will stop.

Their reporting effort, it seems, over time turned into an effort to discredit me to blunt the possible disclosure of the tapes. They intensified their investigation (which took seven months) of my personal life, hoping to find enough that they will be able to intimidate me from making public the tapes of them, and other evidence of their misconduct towards me.

One thing that became certain over time was that they became determined to somehow get me on tape screaming or acting inappropriately as they have been to me. When yelling me at me himself did not work, Cherkis adopted a new tact: He began to ominously suggest in emails that all sorts of people have said horrible things about me-- then emailed or called those people to say that I might be calling soon, and asked them to tape the conversation--in hopes that I would I blow my stack.

In the case of Keefer, Cherkis suggests to me over and over again that Keefer has handed over to him all sorts of confidential files to him.

Then Cherkis emailed Keefer hoping that I would call him: "if Waas does call, please try and tape it," Cherkis emailed Keefer, in one of the emails made public by Wonkette earlier this week.

Keefer, either not knowing he was being played, or perhaps wanting to be, emailed back: "Oh, believe me, if he does call me, I'll definitely tape it."

All of this took a bizarre turn earlier this week with the publication by Wonkette of emails between Cherkis and Keefer in which Cherkis attempted to enlist Keefer to out the identities of various local Washington D.C. bloggers who had written about a notoriously long dispute between Erik Wemple, his wife, Stephanie Mencimer, and their neighbor, the Wag Time Pet Spa. Mencimer had been arrestedsome time ago for allegedly assaulting the proprietor of the pet spa.

Wemple also utilized the resources of his newspaper to investigate whether I have ties to the pet spa owner and her blogger friends. What all of this had to do with me I had no clue when I first found that Wemple was enraged at the pet spa proprietor, her neighborhood friends who blogged in support of her, and myself. What was personally so bizarre for me is that I have never even heard of any of it until Wemple has become blamed me for some plot that has existed only in his own imagination.

As it turns out, it was the Wemples themselves who had sought out publicity regarding their dispute with their neighbor and Mencimer's arrest. They sought out a Washington Post columnist to write about the issue. As late as last week, even though the pet spa relocated because of the dispute with the Wemples, Stephanie Mencimer wrote a long account about her dispute with the pet spa on her very own blog.

If all of this might seem strange to anyone else, it was less so for me. Over the course of several years, Wemple has besieged me over the telephone for a purported injustice he perceives against his wife, Stephanie, and her best friend, Katharine Boo, a former City Paper editor who has moved on to write elsewhere. I believed that I had resolved the matter by avoiding ever being anywhere in Wemple's presence or taking his calls. Then he repeatedly phoned to say that he was going to write a story about me. He began asking about the matter all over again.

When I emailed him asking what he wanted to ask about, the very first thing on his list was my "interactions with Kate Boo."

When I complained to Wemple's boss, Lenehan, he in turns emailed me to say: "Erik and I have spoken on this matter in some detail. I don't think that Stephanie Mencimer's friendship with Kate, or Kate's history with City Paper, necessarily impair Erik's ability to write this story fairly or objectively."

But this is hardly the first time that the newspaper has been used to settle personal scores for Wemple and his writers.

When Cherkis' landlord and most of his housemates asked him to move out of their home, Cherkis took to writing an expose of the landlord and roommates as a cover story for his newspaper. The issue of the obvious conflict of interest aside and the ethics of using a newspaper to settle a personal score aside, six house mates of Cherkis' questioned the veracity of quotes, incidents, and scenes in the article. In addition, his landlord and another of his tenants complained that portions of Jason Cherkis' story were either exaggerated or just fabricated.

The response of Wemple, Cherkis' editor, to their complaints of fabrication and shoddy journalism? Since the author only used the first names of the people he wrote about and the article appeared in an alternative paper that few people read, the veracity of the article was unimportant. And as to their complaints, the eight were only accusing him of the very serious charge of journalistic fabrication because they did not like the story written about him and had personal beefs with him to begin it (which begs the obvious question as to why an editor would let a reporter go ahead with a story about people who the reporter has had a long personal dispute) Therefore, no investigation of the accuracy of the article was necessary.

On yet another occasion, Cherkis comes to believe to believe that a a writer with Washingtonian magazine named Harry Jaffe has stolen a scoop of his. It turns out that both writers had written accounts of the mayor's use of profanity. But the Mayor made the profane comments during a press conference, making it difficult, well, for one reporter to accuse another of stealing their exclusive.

A frustrated Jaffe, ordinarily known for his civility as much as his writing, was left to post a comment on cyberspace saying "So this is the City Paper writing about the City Paper in the City Paper. Three for Three... Chump change."

Landlords and housemates they don't like, reporters they believe stole their work, the pet spa next door, bloggers who criticize them, and myself--- someone Wemple has rightly or wrongly believed to have wronged both his wife and his wife's best friend-- are all the subject of investigation and attack by his newspaper.

When I point this all out to Lenehan, he insists that I am attempting to curtail Wemple's First Amendment rights. Hardly.

Perhaps Lenehan might realize from this experience that his newspaper has strayed from the path of principled journalism and basic decency, make amends and then attempt to treat all who come in contact with his newspaper with fairness and respect.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors Statement of Principles states: "Newspapermen and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust."

There are of course other means available for Erik Wemple to express his dislike of me. Perhaps he should consider the utility of starting his own blog.

As for myself, it might seem beneath me to respond to any of this, or care about it very much, except for two very important reasons:

First, it is my responsibility to speak out against any act of prejudice against someone who is a cancer survivor. One of the many obligations of having survived cancer is to make it easier for anyone who comes after me. There would be no excuse if I did anything otherwise.

The second is that Wemple and Cherkis present me in the draft of their article as a person who was so broken by the experience of having cancer, bitter and angry from the experience. I exist in their mind and in their story as a projection of their prejudice. Bryan Keefer is quoted as saying that when he worked for me that I could barely make it through the day and take care of myself. Besides being cruel, even if true, why would that be anyone's business but my own? It feels like an attempt to rob me of my humanity.

But conversely, there are those who have portrayed me as a hero for having been a cancer survivor and for some modest achievements in life. And even though they don't know it, by putting me up on a pedestal, even though they have had good intentions, they have taken away from me a portion of my humanity as well.

As to the allegation that the experience of having almost died of cancer at an early age, and the aftermath of that, has made me a broken person, I think that I speak for many others when I say that while having had cancer was a nightmare, it also taught me much about compassion, resiliency, toughness, and tolerance that I would have never been able to contemplate otherwise.

Much of the good I have done for others in my lifetime has been because I am a cancer survivor.

As to the charge that I am somehow less of a person, or broken from the experience, I believe I speak for many others when I simply say this:

It is from the wellspring of our despair and the places that we are broken that we come to repair the world.

Previously: A Reporter's Bias

Dan Froomkin, "A Compelling Story," the Washington Post, March 31, 2006.

Jay Rosen, "Murray Waas is Our Woodward Now," Pressthink (NYU), April 9, 2006.

Ryan Chuttum, "Reuters is Excellent in Digging of A Health Insurer's Tactics," Columbia Journalism Review, March 17, 20010.

Howard Kurtz, "The Lone Ranger," the Washington Post, April 17, 2006.

Liz Halloran, "A Muckraker's Day in the Sun," U.S. News & World Report, May 15, 2006.

Jim Boyd, "Editorial Pages: Why Courage is Hard to Find," Nieman Reports, Spring, 2006.

Murray S. Waas, "Jack Anderson: An Appreciation," the Village Voice, Oct. 13, 2005.

Eric Alterman and Dannile Ivory, "Blogosphere to Mainstream Media: Get Off the Bus," Center for Amercan Progress, Mary 4, 2009.

Matt Welch, "Salon's Coverage Commands Respect for Net Journalists," Online Journalism Review, April 30, 1998.

Reporters and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Receive Barlett & Steele Awards, Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Oct. 4, 2010.

Murray Waas can be reached through his Facebook page.

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