Update: September 10, 2012, 5:08 PM
In 1998, Joseph Farah’s WorldNetDaily warned the world that Bill Clinton had a mad plan to hold on to power, by exploiting panic over the Y2K bug. Fourteen years later — with two presidential transfers of power safely and peacefully completed — Farah and his gang are still sounding the alarm as the chief purveyors of undead conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birth.
Farah’s WorldNetDaily, now known simply as WND.com, has carved out a niche for itself as the go-to destination for Americans who doubt the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
But Farah, who launched the website out of his bedroom in 1997, says that despite WND’s growth during the Obama era, its relentless pursuit of birth certificate stories is actually bad for business.
“There are advertisers who are afraid of WND because they think we’re obsessed or we’re out on a wild goose chase or it’s just too controversial,” Farah told TPM in a phone interview recently. “We would be making more money if we pretended like the rest of the media there’s no controversy here, there’s no question about that.”
A former California newspaper editor, Farah started out thinking most of WND’s profits would come from ad sales. Though he claims the site reaches eight million unique visitors a month, most of WND’s profits come from the WND Superstore, which sells items like a magnetic “Birther On Board” bumper sticker, and from WND Books, which has published tomes by Sen. James Inhofe, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller.
WND, which recently underwent its first major redesign in its 15-year history, is headquartered in Chantilly, Va., a suburb of Washington. It has roughly 35 full-time employees, about 15 of whom are on the editorial side, but much of their work is contracted out.
Farah bristles at WND being labeled “conservative,” and says the site appeals to what he considers the “heartbeat of America.”
“If you look at every poll, every survey that is done, most Americans have what we would call conservative values or some kind or another, they love their country, and those are the people that we wanted to appeal to,” Farah said. “They love what America stands for.”
Farah insists that WND is still primarily a journalistic enterprise. He credits the hand of God with WND’s success but said anger against the Obama administration has something to do with it.
“Certainly some of the products we’ve had have been successful because they’re about Obama and there’s a lot of resentment against Obama,” Farah said. “The Bush years were kind of almost a holding pattern for us. For eight years, we were criticizing the Republican president, and that did not play well with our core audience, quite honestly.”
When WND launched, Farah was running a non-profit organization called the Western Journalism Center, an outlet best known for publicizing rumors that the Clinton administration was involved in the suicide of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster.
Farah grew up in New Jersey and considered himself a “revolutionary communist” in high school. He says he voted for Jimmy Carter and George McGovern and was arrested in Washington, D.C. during a 1971 anti-war protest after helping overturn cars and setting bonfires in the streets.
Like many reporters of Farah’s era, his entrance into journalism was inspired by Watergate. After serving as editor of The Beacon newspaper at William Paterson College, Farah worked for local newspapers in New Jersey. At 24, he was a self-described “young journalist on the fast track” and was hired as a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald. Three years later, he was running the newsroom.
He loved L.A., but said it hit him one day that out of all the journalists he had come to know, he “was probably the only one who went to church on Sunday.” Farah wrote in his book that he was experiencing a “coup” as America’s newsrooms were “hijacked” by “ideologically motivated extremists.”
Farah’s first big attempt to push a conservative agenda at a newspaper came when developers bought the Sacramento Union in 1989 and installed him as its top editor editor the following year. Not long after, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that the Sacramento newspaper had “become a mouthpiece for the fundamentalist Christian right, preoccupied with abortion, homosexuals and creationism.” Eleven top editors and managers quit, retired or were fired in just a matter of months.
By 1992, the newspaper was in serious financial straits. Farah resigned, writing later that the paper’s owners weren’t providing the financial resources to turn it around.
The Union’s failure, Farah says, was largely due to the limitations of newspapers. He believes it had an audience in the larger Sacramento area but that the cost of delivering the physical newspaper to those subscribers was too high. The Internet solved the distribution problem, and pretty soon WND was encouraging the failure of newspapers.
Farah became a fan of the Drudge Report and believed he could do the same thing.
“I saw what Drudge was doing and I said ‘This is easier than I thought,’ because it didn’t mean building up a huge staff first,” he said. He and his second wife Elizabeth — he met her at a Pat Buchanan speech — launched WND on a shoestring budget and were surprised at how quickly it took off.
WND encouraged readers to “Quit [their] daily rag, go cyber, send us the difference” and promised to “blow your socks off — not only with the most courageous investigative reporting in America, but with lawsuits, Freedom of Information Act disclosures and a marketing plan to wake this country from its dangerous, complacent slumber.”
While it originally began as a spin-off of the Western Journalism Center, Farah said he quickly learned WND’s future would be as a for-profit. Rather than running the site out of New York or Washington, which he saw as part of the problem, Farah leased a 250-acre ranch in south Oregon and invited all new staff members to join him there.
“We didn’t choose southern Oregon as an out-of-the-way corporate headquarters just because we liked it. It was a place with few distractions other than beauty, serenity, and good fishing and hunting,” Farah wrote. Ultimately, Farah decided that it made more sense to work from the D.C. area.
Farah claims WND has paid a price for its pursuit of the birth certificate issue but says he’s fine with that being what WND is best known for.
“I’m totally convinced now that we’re looking at a fraud,” Farah told TPM. “If we ever see the real birth certificate it will be the legacy of our site.”