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What Hath the Web Wrought?

Matt Drudge Has Been Accused of Recklessness and Libel. He Has Also Been Hailed as a Hero. Will He Step Toward the Journalistic Mainstream as He Latches Onto Celebrity?

August 16, 1998|JANET WISCOMBE | Janet Wiscombe's last article for the magazine was a profile of AIDS Ride founder and director Dan Pallotta

The same week that Drudge fielded questions at the National Press Club, he posted a report that he was "monitoring information on what appears to be an 8.4 magnitude seismic event that occurred in the BALTICS-BELARUS region in NW RUSSIA." He cited his source as the International Data Centre, a Virginia-based government contractor, and provided the agency's Internet address. What he neglected to report was that the information was retrieved on the Net from IDC's automatic daily bulletin and that it carried a disclaimer urging that the data not be used.

Robert North, director of the IDC's Center for Monitoring Research, says Drudge's use of the information was irresponsible and could have caused unnecessary alarm. Naturally, North was surprised and infuriated a few days later when columnist James Glassman hailed the episode as a glowing example of Drudge's reportorial contributions. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, Glassman wrote that Drudge "may be the most powerful reporter in America and is certainly the most heroic." Drudge, he said, dispenses information, then "tells his readers they can check it out themselves . . . or swallow it whole. In other words, e-journalism demands judgment not just from writers but from readers."

Manuel Klausner, one of Drudge's attorneys who is best known as a supporter of California's anti-affirmative action initiative, has a similar take. He calls his client, "the prototypical reporter of the 21st century . . . the Thomas Paine of the Internet."

If all this laissez-faire sweet talk sounds similar, it's probably to be expected. Protecting civil rights--free speech or, for that matter, privacy--is easily entangled with ideological motivation. Glassman is a trustee of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which Klausner founded. And Klausner, who took Drudge's case pro bono, also serves as an advisor to the Individual Rights Foundation, a branch of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Santa Monica, which is funded in part by conservative Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Author David Horowitz, founder of the center, began spearheading the Matt Drudge Defense Fund the moment he caught wind of Blumenthal's lawsuit. Years ago, after Horowitz severed his leftist roots and morphed into a conservative, Blumenthal wrote an article attacking him. Now Horowitz has tapped into the conservative-libertarian network to fight the lawsuit against Drudge. He says the case is about "the Internet versus the press; an upstart journalist versus the establishment."

The Internet itself, meanwhile, has buzzed not only with debate about Drudge's perceived conservative bias but whether his protectors' support stems from a desire to defend his right to free speech or to encourage the relentlessly anti-Clinton currents of what Drudge actually says.

One of Drudge's best friends, Andrew Breitbart, who works as a researcher for conservative commentator Arianna Huffington, says the establishment media hates Drudge because "he gets at the heart of what's going on. At what point did the journalism profession become so elitist they can tell people who can and cannot be members of the club?"

That's the kind of glib comment that strikes many journalists as a red herring. They say demanding accuracy is hardly elitist. For all the reflection about the nature of news on the Internet, absolutes do exist: There was no 8.4 quake in Russia. Period. Sidney Blumenthal did not abuse his wife. Period. To say otherwise without evidence is wrong. Period.

Joan Konner, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, says Drudge is "by no reasonable measure working in the public interest." Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press at Harvard, dismisses him as "a conveyor of gossipy information." Veteran Washington reporter Jules Witcover, now of the Baltimore Sun, has called Drudge is "a reckless trader in rumor and gossip." Time magazine crowned him "the king of new junk media."

Yet Drudge does have defenders in the mainstream press and on the political left. In a column in the New York Times in February (well before CNN's apparently bogus story on nerve gas, the New Republic's firing of a journalistic impersonator and other recent media transgressions), Jack Shafer, deputy editor of Microsoft's on-line magazine, Slate, pointed out that the Internet is hardly the only news venue guilty of contributing to the shattering of ethics barriers in the media's "manic pursuit of the story." Instead of bemoaning Web characters such as Drudge, Shafer surmised, "we should welcome them for what they are--new voices that enliven journalism."

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