CJRColumbia Journalism Review

March/April 1996 | Content

The Vincent Foster Factory

and "Courage in Journalism"

by Trudy Lieberman
Lieberman, a contributing editor to CJR, is senior investigative editor at Consumer Reports. This article reflects her conclusions, not those of Consumer Reports.

That Christopher Ruddy would win the Western Journalism Center's first "Courage in Journalism Award," with its crystal trophy and $2,000 check, is hardly surprising. Ruddy is a free-lance writer for the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Tribune-Review, whose oeuvre is the 1993 death of White House aide Vincent Foster. The Western Journalism Center, based in suburban Sacramento, bills itself in a biweekly newsletter as a "nonprofit tax-exempt corporation promoting independent investigative reporting" and "the only national news agency supporting a full-time probe of the mysterious death of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster, Jr." What this means, it seems, is that the Center mostly recycles stories written by Christopher Ruddy.

Ruddy was a reporter for the New York Post until the summer of 1994. A few months later he was hired by the Tribune-Review, which is owned and published by Richard Mellon Scaife, a Pittsburgh philanthropist well-known for funding right-wing causes and media watchdog organizations (see "Citizen Scaife," cjr, July/August 1981). At the Tribune-Review, Ruddy, who did not return calls to cjr, turns out frequent Foster stories, often on Sunday. The Western Journalism Center, too, has a strong connection to Scaife: last year a good chunk of its funding came from the Carthage Foundation, one of several foundations connected to him. Another large Center contributor is James Dale Davidson, who co-edits the newsletter Strategic Investment and is also chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative group whose research arm has received thousands of dollars from Scaife foundations.

One of the Center's major activities is trying to inject the dark view of Foster's death into mainstream reporting and thinking. Last year, to this end, the Center bought full-page ads in several major newspapers, including The New York Times, to showcase Ruddy's work and to offer for sale special Vince Foster reports, including a compilation of Ruddy's stories, titled "The Ruddy Investigation," for $12, and a forty-minute "riveting new video documentary" titled "Unanswered -- The Death of Vincent Foster," which Ruddy helped produce, and which goes for $35.

The documentary is introduced by Davidson of Strategic Investment. As it begins, Davidson says that one of his newsletter's intelligence sources reported early on that "Foster had met with foul play." From there, the documentary goes on to accuse the news media of lacking the "appetite to ask the tough questions" and to focus on what it claims are unanswered questions and inconsistencies that need to be addressed. The Center has placed some fifty ads in The Washington Times reprinting Ruddy's Tribune-Review stories. "We can reach key legislators, key journalists, key radio talk show hosts," says Joseph Farah, the Center's founder and executive director. "It's an easy, inexpensive way to make sure Chris Ruddy's work just doesn't appear in Pittsburgh and just die."

Farah runs the Center as a volunteer, he says, taking no salary, and earning his living from media consulting, developing TV shows, and writing books. (Rush Limbaugh, in his second book, See, I Told You So, praises Farah in the book's acknowledgments for being "the guiding force behind the effort." Farah says he did "some writing" for the book.) He is the former editor of The Sacramento Union (see "Why the Liberal Press is Out to Get Us," cjr, January/February 1991), which was once owned by Scaife and folded in 1994. He has assembled a high-profile board of advisers to help with fund-raising, including such conservative luminaries as Sally Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute, Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, and Arianna Huffington. Both Olasky and Huffington are senior fellows at Newt Gingrich's Progress & Freedom Foundation. Farah says Huffington's work on Pablo Picasso was "some of the best investigative reporting I've seen."

One mainstream press organization that has noticed Ruddy's reporting is 60 Minutes, and the newsmagazine was highly critical. In a segment last October, 60 Minutes examined theories about Foster's death, including those of Ruddy and the Center, and picked them apart. Farah says 60 Minutes made "at least four major factual errors." The producer of the segment, Robert G. Anderson, says "the piece speaks for itself."

As 60 Minutes reports, Ruddy has acknowledged one serious error. In two chapters of "The Ruddy Investigation," both copyrighted in 1994, he questions how the fatal gun could have been found in Foster's right hand when Foster was left-handed. In fact, Foster was right-handed. Farah says, "Ruddy and I have been at the forefront of the information trail to correct" this error. But in early 1996, the Center was continuing to sell "The Ruddy Investigation" with the error still standing.

Farah bristles at suggestions that his Center is profiteering from Foster's death. He says he founded the Center "to reinvigorate the idea of a vigorous watchdog on government." One way it does that is with lawsuits. For example, the Center recently sued the Whitewater Office of Independent Counsel for backup notes on public FBI interview statements.

In addition, the Center publishes two newsletters -- Dispatches, with a circulation of about 2,000, and Inside California, about 1,000. Until mid-September, Farah positioned Dispatches as a cultural watchdog -- "From the front lines of the culture war." Now the slogan reads "A news publication of the Western Journalism Center," and Farah says he's urging contributors to focus less on rhetoric and more on information. As for Inside California, he says "most of the important radio talk show hosts use it as their Bible. It makes waves in the state."

 Both publications also pitch the Center's Vincent Foster material, and Dispatches features a Ruddy/ Foster story in nearly every issue. Profiteering or not, sales of this material are lucrative. About half of the $500,000 that came into the Center last year came from individuals who bought Foster merchandise, some of whom made additional contributions as well. (The other half included a $100,000 Carthage Foundation grant and contributions from a handful of corporations and other foundations.) The Center, with its staff of two, has doubled its incoming dollars each year since 1994, the year after Foster's death. This year, Farah says, it will take in close to $1 million. He says the Center intends to spend most of that on more special reports and Ruddy's continuing expenses, including travel and a cellular phone.

And then there are the journalism prizes. Along with Ruddy, last year's winners included David Brock of The American Spectator, for his report on the White House travel-office flap, and ABC correspondent John Stossel, for his special reports on victims and risk. Farah says he hopes to increase the amount of the prize money for future winners to "equal or rival" the $3,000 awarded for a Pulitzer. "If we want to encourage a certain kind of reporting, the best way to do that is to pay for it."