Joseph Farah found his calling in Obama-bashing

Sipping coffee in a strip mall, Joseph Farah looks like something out of a spy novel -- suave, mysterious, bushy black mustache. He's surprisingly relaxed, considering he believes his life is in danger because of his occupation. He runs a must-read website for anyone who hates Barack Obama.

Once a little-known Los Angeles newspaper editor, Farah has become a leading impresario of America's disaffected right, serving up a mix of reporting and wild speculation to an audience eager to think the worst of the president.

"Minister: Obamacare kills African-American babies . . . Sign at homeless camp: Welcome to Obamaville," the headlines holler at WorldNetDaily.com, an online tabloid that relentlessly skewers the administration and its every move.

The topic it pursues with tireless zeal, though, is the claim that Obama was born not in Honolulu but in Africa, and is therefore ineligible to be president. Farah has used his widely followed website to launch an electronic petition demanding proof of Obama's birthplace, a national billboard campaign ("WHERE'S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE?") and more than 400 articles suggesting America's first black president might not be a "natural born" citizen.

If Farah believes Obama is bad for the country, the president has been indisputably good for Farah's business.

WorldNetDaily's unique visitors nearly doubled to 2 million a month after Obama took office, according to Nielsen's ratings. Farah says his traffic is at least twice that, citing private data from Google Analytics, a traffic-counting service. By either count, that's higher than the online readership of the conservative mainstay National Review, not to mention many of the nation's regional newspapers.

Revenue is on track to hit $10 million annually, Farah says. (That figure could not be independently verified.) His success comes in no small part from the storehouse of "birther" T-shirts, books, DVDs and postcards for sale in his virtual "superstore."

WorldNetDaily's book division publishes titles from high-profile conservatives such as former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a leader in the anti-illegal-immigration movement, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose role in George W. Bush's disputed 2000 presidential victory made her a conservative heroine. Perhaps one of Farah's greatest assets is the WorldNetDaily mailing list, recently rented by the Republican National Committee for a fundraising appeal.

Some Republicans wish Farah would abandon the birther issue, fearing his work makes the entire conservative movement seem wacky.

"The fever swamps can be a very profitable market," said Jon Henke, a Republican strategist who, through his blog, thenextright.com, has called on GOP groups to boycott Farah's website and mailing list. "There is a business model in that, but it doesn't make it good politics."

Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, a pull-no-punches critic who once lumped Obama and Hitler in the same sentence, called the continuing citizenship crusade "the dumbest thing I've ever heard," predicting earlier this month that it would backfire in a "dream come true" for the president. (Farah, for his part, said Beck often used WorldNetDaily scoops without attribution, something a Beck spokesman denied.)

Farah has won fans in unexpected corners. In a 2008 testimonial, "Why a Liberal Jewish Feminist Likes WND," college journalism instructor Donna Halper praised Farah's "interesting and honest writing" and his reluctance to "blindly follow the 'party line.' " She makes the site required reading for her students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

But Halper was puzzled by Farah's dogged quest for documentation of Obama's birth, which she considers "so documented and so proven."

"I really wonder how much of what's in WorldNetDaily is just 'Let's be provocative,' " she said.

The site has the feel of a scandal sheet ("Companies get even gayer as U.S. economy plummets") and an infomercial ("How to hide your guns from criminals"). Faith and survival are regular themes. There are tips on how to grow a "crisis garden" and tallies of "2009's worst attacks on Christianity."

Farah, 55, is an evangelical Christian whose politics would be called conservative by any measure. But he resents the label -- noting that he is devoted to muckraking journalism no matter which party is in charge -- and likes to think of himself as a lone wolf in a pack of complacent reporters, particularly where Obama is concerned.

"I'm going to go where I feel I've got to go as a newsman to uncover the truth," he said, nursing his iced coffee. The secretive Farah declined to meet at his home or office but agreed to sit down at a Starbucks in northern Virginia as long as the name of the town wasn't given.

"Just because one newsman or one news agency decides to pursue a story that nobody believes doesn't mean we're fringe," he said. "When Woodward and Bernstein started pursuing Watergate, had no one else gotten on the story. . . . Woodward and Bernstein would probably be viewed today as some kind of fringe characters."

Farah was born in Paterson, N.J., and grew up in a middle-class home with parents of Syrian and Lebanese descent. His father was a teacher. Farah studied communications at a local university, then honed his skills as a newsman working from one end of California to the other.

The liberal-leaning Herald Examiner, an irreverent competitor to the Los Angeles Times, was an improbable launch pad for a man who would go on to make his fortune giving voice to conservative fury. Back then, Farah was executive news editor and about the only thing that agitated him was being interrupted while watching "Miami Vice," his colleagues recollect.

"I had no idea when he was working for me that he was so right-wing," said John Lindsay, a former Herald-Examiner editor who later became a top editor at The Times. He recalled Farah complaining occasionally about liberal bias in the media, but never with much zeal.

In 1990, Farah moved upstate to become editor of the Sacramento Union, which was losing money. "We just thought the way to go was to be unabashedly conservative in our approach," Farah said at the time. His political leanings flourished. Rush Limbaugh, a relatively unknown local radio host, caught Farah's ear, and Farah persuaded him to write a daily political column, which he put on Page 1.

A little more than a year later, Farah dived headlong into political advocacy, co-founding the Western Center for Journalism, which promotes and funds conservative causes. Bankrolled by like-minded investors, the center quickly made its mark raising questions about investigations into the death of Vincent Foster, President Clinton's deputy counsel. The reporting fueled conspiracy theories that Foster was murdered and the White House was involved. The police and an independent counsel determined that the clinically depressed Foster committed suicide.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted as first lady that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" had been working to destroy her husband's presidency, many assumed one of the "conspirators" she had in mind was Farah.

He embraced the assertion as an honor and came away with a lucrative business model: Hire reporters to develop explosive headlines that draw a motivated audience, then sell those readers merchandise that capitalizes on their anger and suspicion.

As Farah puts it: "We're about news and marketing the news."

Founded 12 years ago by Farah and his wife, Elizabeth, WorldNetDaily operates with a small but far-reaching crew -- a dozen reporters and editors stationed in Jerusalem, New York and around the U.S.

Some of the most notable contributors cut their teeth in partisan warfare. Jerome Corsi, one of the site's most prolific staffers, helped lead the Swift boat attacks on 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and also wrote "The Obama Nation," a scathing swipe at the 2008 candidate.

The site is papered with advertising (a feat most mainstream newspapers have yet to master) and filled with often sensational content. It was WorldNetDaily writers who suggested that congressional Democrats sought to build disaster-relief centers that could be used as Nazi-style concentration camps for political dissidents, and that Obama aims to build his own personal totalitarian civilian security force.

Its reportage has been known to rattle careers.

Van Jones, a mid-level White House official admired by the president's closest advisors, resigned last year after Farah's team reported that he had once declared himself a communist and a radical.

When Cass Sunstein, now Obama's top regulatory official, came up for a Senate vote,several Republicans who opposed him cited his views on animal rights and hunting gleaned from WorldNetDaily. (Sunstein was confirmed anyway.)

If Farah has a playbook, its first rule is persistence. The rumor of Obama's foreign origins surfaced in summer 2008 and was soon discredited. The Obama campaign released a digitally scanned image of his birth certificate showing he was born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. The Hawaii Department of Health confirmed its authenticity.

Hawaii's records, like those of many states, have gone electronic, and the digital versions are accepted by the state and national governments as proof of citizenship. To insist otherwise is to believe that thousands of Hawaiians who have obtained U.S. passports using similar documents have committed fraud.

Original birth certificates are not public documents, but the Obama campaign allowed FactCheck.org to examine his shortly after the allegation arose. The nonpartisan organization reported that it had "seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate." The Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging Obama's eligibility to hold office.

The mainstream media were satisfied. But Farah pressed on, vowing a month before Obama took office: "It'll plague Obama throughout his presidency. It'll be a nagging issue and a sore on his administration. . . . It's not going to go away."

Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House aide who wrote an exhaustive report on WorldNetDaily's place in a "communication stream of conspiracy commerce," called Farah's operation "a moneymaking scheme."

"You've got a built-in audience, and given that there is a dearth of real reporting, there is probably very little overhead," Lehane said.

Farah insists his editorial staff is insulated from the website's profit side, and sees the investigation of Obama's origins as a legitimate journalistic enterprise only he and his team have the guts to chase.

"To us, it's a no-lose proposition. If he turns in his birth certificate, or releases it, great. That's what we want him to do. And, frankly, if he does that, it's going to be because of our pursuit of the document," Farah said of the president. "If he doesn't, we know he's hiding something. And I'm absolutely persuaded that he's hiding something."

As the new year dawned, WorldNetDaily was populated with birth certificate stories. A routine account of the Hawaii Legislature's plans to honor its native son served as a vehicle to raise the issue anew: "Guess how 'the One' will be honored next: Obama Day, Park, High School, Birthplace -- if only they can figure exactly where that is."

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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