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Clinton’s Crisis: In Defense of Matt Drudge

5 minute read
Michael Kinsley

“Last weekend, there were two extraordinary dramas playing out in Washington.” So begins Newsweek’s story about President Clinton and the 21-year-old intern. But there was a third extraordinary drama playing out: Newsweek’s own agony about whether the story was firm enough to go with. The editors ultimately decided it wasn’t and pulled it from last week’s issue–only to post it on America Online midweek after Internet scoopmeister Matt Drudge had reported both the story and Newsweek’s decision to spike it, and the tale had spread on the Web until it finally surfaced in Wednesday’s Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

Newsweek looks foolish. But was it really so foolish? Even in the pages of a rival, gloating is not called for. TIME was chasing the same story and never had it to throw away, so hats off to the competition. Furthermore, Newsweek’s “mistake” was in being more cautious than Drudge about publishing extremely damaging allegations about the President of the U.S. Even if those allegations are true, was the caution misplaced?

The Internet made this story. And the story made the Internet. Clinterngate, or whatever we are going to call it, is to the Internet what the Kennedy assassination was to TV news: its coming of age as a media force. Or some might say media farce. This story follows several similar episodes of stories pushed into the traditional media after being spread on the Internet–for example, the notion that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by the U.S. Navy–where the stories were nutty and baseless. The Clintern saga certainly is not baseless, although the comic seediness of it, in contrast to the high tragedy of 1963, can be seen as a telling comment on the new medium. After all, the Internet beat TV and print to this story, and ultimately forced it on them, for one simple reason: lower standards.

Let’s not give Drudge too much credit. Though he thumbs his nose at traditional news outlets, they supply most of his information. His sources are inside the media, not (usually) inside the institutions they cover. His scoops–including this one–are generally stuff the grownups either have declined to publish or are about to publish. Having pilfered other folks’ material, Drudge has the considerable gall to emblazon his own E-mail dispatches with the warning, WORLD EXCLUSIVE. MUST CREDIT THE DRUDGE REPORT.

There is a case to be made, however, for lower standards. In this case, the lower standards were vindicated. Almost no one now denies there is a legitimate story here. Taped conversations and suspected subornation of perjury moved the story safely beyond furtive rumors of sexual dalliance. For Drudge, though, furtive rumors of dalliance are enough.

Even for traditional media journalists, furtive rumors of dalliance are enough–at least to gossip about among themselves, if not to share with their readers and viewers. There is something slightly elitist about the attitude that we journalists can be trusted to evaluate such rumors appropriately but that our readers and viewers cannot. Actually, though, almost everybody has the same standards–that is, almost none–in passing along juicy rumors to friends and colleagues.

The case for Drudge–who complacently says his reports are 80% accurate–is that there ought to be a middle ground between the highest standards and none at all. And the Internet, which can be sort of halfway between a private conversation and formal publication, is a good place for that middle ground. The middle ground, of course, should be acknowledged as such, either explicitly or by convention. People should understand that the information they get this way is middling quality–better than what their neighbor heard at the dry cleaner’s but not as good as the New York Times. And Internet sites that aspire to the highest standards of traditional media (like Slate, where I work) should be held to them. But if Drudge claims only 80% accuracy and can make it over that lowered bar, why not?

Well, one reason why not is exactly what seemed to happen last week: journalistic entropy. Everyone sinks to the lowest standard going. It is impossible to maintain a fire wall between the Washington Post and Matt Drudge. But another way to look at last week is that the fire wall held for several days and that the story broke through the fire wall only when it became legitimate by any standards. In any event, these are early days still, and the exact relationship of the Internet with older media is still working itself out.

So maybe Newsweek was right to get it second and Drudge to get it first. Maybe both staked out their proper places in the media food chain. There will be plenty of times when caution will be rewarded and uncritical insta-printing will look foolish. Or maybe they were both wrong: Newsweek to spike a great scoop and Drudge to publish it. The former view is more appealing, and I’m 80% sure it’s right.

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