The Boston Phoenix
August 14 - 21, 1997
[Don't Quote Me]

Drudge's sludge

A cybergossip's loose lips lead to an embarrassing retraction -- and raise questions about his status as a darling of the media elite

by Dan Kennedy

Matt Drudge -- the cybergossip now under fire for leveling wild, and apparently inaccurate, charges against Bill Clinton and journalist Sidney Blumenthal -- knows how to play it cute.

There are hundreds of rumor-mongers and conspiracy theorists who use the Internet to act out their various whacko obsessions, whether they be black helicopters and alien dissections or more-mundane matters such as Clinton's alleged coke-snorting and the "murder" of Vincent Foster.

Only Drudge, though, has figured out how to entice more than a handful of fellow obsessives into sharing his virtual reality. His secret: he offers a website consisting of links to the hottest media players in the country. Media and political professionals become hooked because the Drudge Report (http://www.drudgereport.com) is the easiest way to get their daily fix of, say, the New York Post's gossipy Page Six or to search the AP wires. And that puts Drudge's breathless dispatches about the nefarious doings of the Clintons and their cronies before an elite, influential audience.

That singularly smart strategy led to fawning profiles last spring in Time, People, and Newsweek. The new Vanity Fair gives Drudge the full celebrity treatment, asking him -- along with the likes of musician Fiona Apple and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson -- what he's reading these days. The answer, you should not be surprised to learn, is right-wing poster boy Christopher Ruddy's The Strange Death of Vincent Foster (Free Press).

As it turns out, Drudge is too cute for his own good. Now, on the heels of two big scandals that call into question his credibility and ethics, it will be interesting to see whether this 30-year-old former CBS-gift-shop manager can grow up, and what his experience says about the evolving role of new media in defining what's news.

The first scandal began gathering mass earlier this summer, when Drudge wrote that Newsweek's Michael Isikoff would soon report that Clinton had made an improper sexual advance toward a White House employee. Drudge -- egged on by Paula Jones's lawyers, who obviously saw the story as helpful to her sexual-harassment suit against the president -- eventually identified the woman as Kathleen Willey. According to an account by Howard Kurtz in Monday's Washington Post, Drudge's revelations made it nearly impossible for Isikoff to pursue his investigation.

When Isikoff's report finally appeared, in last week's Newsweek, it dealt a severe blow to Drudge's credibility: though there may well have been a sexual advance, Willey seemed to have rather enjoyed it. That didn't stop Drudge from gleefully taking credit for forcing the story into the open, or from accusing Isikoff of initially attempting to save it for a book. "For the record, that's garbage," Isikoff told the Phoenix. "The story hadn't appeared because there was no story to write."

The second scandal is much more serious, and could put an early end to -- or at least a serious crimp in -- Drudge's career. On Monday, he wrote that "top GOP operatives" were furious over a Mother Jones report fingering Republican politico Don Sipple as a wife-beater (Sipple has vigorously denied it) -- and that they were considering returning the favor by going after journalist-turned-presidential-adviser Sidney Blumenthal, a Phoenix alum whose most recent posting was at the New Yorker. Blumenthal's made a career of skewering the Republican right, and, lately, of championing Clinton.

An anonymous "influential Republican" was quoted as saying that "[t]here are court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife," Jacqueline Jordan Blumenthal, who also works at the White House. Drudge included perfunctory denials from the White House (although he claimed he could not reach Blumenthal), and zapped this unsubstantiated piece of trash into the ether, no doubt secure in the knowledge that, even if it wasn't true, at least he'd covered his ass.

Wrong. By the end of Monday he'd yanked the item. Tuesday's Drudge Report led with a statement that read as if it had been dictated by a lawyer: "I am issuing a retraction of my information regarding Mr. Sidney Blumenthal that appeared in the DRUDGE REPORT on August 11, 1997." It was somehow cosmically appropriate that it appeared directly above this banner headline: OWNER OF SNAKE THAT DEVOURED DOG COMES FORWARD.

Attempts to reach Drudge by e-mail at his Hollywood apartment/office were unsuccessful. However, he told Kurtz in Tuesday's Post that he'd fallen victim to "two sources who clearly were operating from a political motivation." Well, duh. Meanwhile, Blumenthal, through his lawyer, vowed to file a libel suit.

It's quite a comedown for Drudge, who claims some 50,000 readers and has been praised by everyone from Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald ("For those of us who don't subscribe to 26 newspapers, it's all there") to Rush Limbaugh ("the Rush Limbaugh of the Internet"). He scratches out a living from voluntary $10 subscriptions, advertising, and fees from America Online, for whom he is a content provider. He claims to have turned down several big-bucks deals because he'd lose his independence. Perhaps the offers weren't big enough. With his notoriety growing, the mega-payday was more a matter of "when" than of "if."

Now, though there's nothing to stop him from continuing, he's at risk of losing the mainstream acceptance he's so assiduously courted. Tim Graham, an analyst with the conservative Media Research Center, thinks Drudge is being dragged through the muck at least in part because of his conservative leanings. Nevertheless, he concedes that Drudge's biggest challenge right now is to keep people from laughing at him. "He could have a credibility problem -- until he breaks the next story that is true," Graham says.

It's not that Drudge never gets it right. Since going online in 1995, he's unearthed his share of juicy stories, especially in entertainment, a subject that engages him as thoroughly as does politics. He broke the news that the Seinfeld cast would re-sign for $600,000 an episode, and he revealed the so-called plot of Lost World, the Jurassic Park follow-up. He's had some big political scoops, too, the biggest of which was Bob Dole's selection of Jack Kemp as his running mate.

On the other hand, his report that Hillary Clinton would be indicted before last summer's Democratic National Convention didn't quite pan out. Still to be proven is Drudge's contention that Clinton has an eagle tattoo in his genital area. But hey, when an anonymous-tip line on your website is one of your chief sources of information, who knows what's right and what's wrong?

Inevitably, Drudge's foibles lead to a discussion of the Internet's role in the changing mediascape. In a era when corporate monopolies dominate established media, the Net gives independent journalists unprecedented freedom to be heard, even if few are listening. But it can be almost impossible for a consumer to distinguish the real from the ridiculous. "It suffers from this unreliability that makes it potentially more toxic than informative," says Richard Parker, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center, a media think tank at Harvard's Kennedy School. (Parker is also a friend of the Blumenthals, and considers the allegations Drudge wrote up to be "crazy.")

Drudge has been quoted on several occasions as saying that he's right 80 percent of the time. By his own admission, that leaves him with an error rate that would be unacceptable for a major-league shortstop, never mind a journalist.

"I applaud independent reporters. Even more than that, I applaud independent, accurate reporters," says Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media-watch group.

In some circles, though, Drudge and his ilk benefit from the romantic-outlaw ethic that pervades the Net. Time's Joshua Quittner, in a favorable (to put it mildly) profile of Drudge two months ago, wrote that Drudge's "fast-and-loose journalism seems to work online, where getting it first often means more than getting it right." Since when? The outlaw role is one Drudge obviously enjoys playing. On CNBC's Equal Time Monday evening, Drudge pompously lectured fellow guest Joe Conason, who had dismissed Drudge's "Clinton-hating conservative dementia" in last week's New York Observer.

"What we're dealing with here, and what makes Joe and the New Yorker [which is thought to be working on a negative Drudge piece] so nervous, is there's a new medium," intoned Drudge's disembodied voice, pumped into the studio while Conason shook his head and frowned. "It goes back to a populist reporting on news, where all of a sudden corporations aren't in charge of what's getting out."

That's not only a poor excuse for sloppy reporting, it's a slur on cyberjournalists who are trying to get it right. Among the best known is Brock Meeks, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC. Meeks is a legend among the digerati for his CyberWire Dispatch, a freewheeling, angry, and scatalogically hilarious electronic newsletter that reports on censorship, government regulation, and other threats to online freedom of speech. The experience of publishing CWD has taught him what he says is the biggest problem with being a one-person operation: not only are there no corporate constraints -- there are no constraints at all.

"One of the dangers of working in new media is that you can get too comfortable being your own authority, without having to be accountable to anybody else," says Meeks. "You have to work even harder than in traditional media. You not only have to play reporter and writer, you have to play editor and you have to play lawyer."

Matt Drudge is apparently too busy playing celebrity. In Quittner's Time tribute, Drudge is described as living in a "homemade geekatorium," working the phones while three TVs and three computers compete for his attention. In such a hermetically sealed parallel universe, it must be easy for him to lose sight of the real people whose real lives he so casually turns upside down. Now, though, he's beginning to learn that there are real consequences.


Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/


Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com


Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here


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