JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Paul Greenberg Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellClarence PageRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Political Cartoons
Left, Right & Center

Jewish World Review / July 6, 1998 / 12 Tamuz, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Suddenly Drudge doesn't look so bad

WASHINGTON - There was nothing subtle about the headline in the Drudge Report: "Big Media Blows It: CNN/Time Retracts Nerve Gas Story."

Was Matt Drudge, editor and sole proprietor of the Drudge Report, a gossip-oriented Web page, gloating? If so, who can blame him? This and other recent media embarrassments only serve to support what Drudge has been arguing all along, that the big-time media are not much better at journalism than he is --- they only have more money.

Our man, Matt
That essentially was Drudge's defense on June 2 when the 31-year-old came under fire from his peers, if I may call us that. He was given an honor offered to few other journalists, guest speaker at the National Press Club, but not without some reluctance, according to club president Doug Harbrecht, Washington news editor of Business Week. "There aren't many in this hallowed room who consider you a journalist," he said.

But Drudge stood his ground remarkably well in the session, which was broadcast on C-SPAN and National Public Radio, by turning his accusers' barbs back at the mainstream media. He recalled the Weekly Standard, which had recently settled a libel suit; CNN and NBC, which were sued by Richard Jewell, the vindicated Olympic bombing suspect; and The Wall Street Journal, which lost a libel suit in Texas.

Then he drew applause by noting that those events were unusual enough, "for an in-depth piece in the New Republic, but I fear people would think it's made up," an obvious reference to Stephen Glass, a young writer recently fired for making up people and stories.

When Drudge, who has been accused of reporting rumors without checking them out, was asked how he would survive at a news outlet that required 100 percent accuracy, he said, "I don't know what organization that would be." No one else named one, either.

And this, I remind you, happened in early June, before Patricia Smith resigned from her Boston Globe column for making up people and quotes, before The Cincinnati Enquirer apologized and retracted its expose of Chiquita Brands International Inc. (and paid the company $10 million to avoid a lawsuit) and before CNN and Time retracted their story that the U.S. military used nerve gas in a mission to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. "All truths begin as hearsay," Drudge said. "Some of the best news stories start as gossip. At what point does it become news? This is the undefinable thing."

Is it? In Washington, especially during an ongoing sex scandal, the line between gossip and news sometimes evaporates, especially under deadline pressures when the story isn't quite nailed down, yet sounds too good to be sat on for another day.

After The Dallas Morning News and The Wall Street Journal each retracted a Monica Lewinsky-related story last winter, for example, many writers and editors began to reexamine how far we had slipped from the days of Watergate, when, as an industry rule of thumb, two sources became the minimum that separated hearsay from news.

Suddenly, in the wake of such media embarrassments, Matt Drudge was looking less like a weirdo and more like a '90s version of the aggressively subjective "underground" press of the late 1960s. "We opposed the liberal media, too," Abe Peck, who edited the Chicago Seed in the '60s, reminded me when I asked his view of Drudge. "The New York Times was the enemy. I never thought and still don't think you have to be objective to be accurate. You can have a tremendous point of view and still be accurate."

Peck, author of Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, is associate dean of journalism at Northwestern University. He declined to critique Drudge until he learns more about him, but, defended the young gadfly's right to publish. "I'm always in favor of more media," he said. "I don't want media to be a country club that only lets big players in."

But, in reflecting on his own experience, Peck offered some second thoughts the conservative Drudge might take to heart. "The underground press got into trouble when we began to shape our news to fit our beliefs," he said. "I think today I would have been more interested in presenting more of the other side (on the Vietnam War). We went from being empowered by our ideology to being imprisoned by it."

Had Drudge appeared at the press club a year ago, the response might have been a good deal less hospitable. In this, the year of the full Monica, we in the mainstream media have more reasons to question the standards practiced by all of us, not just Drudge.

It is most remarkable that we have had so few embarrassments, despite the tons of information we media pour out every day. It is also admirable that most major media have shown a willingness recently to root out their own mistakes and own up to them with bold retractions. As a result, it looks like we already have good standards. We just have to remember to abide by them.


7/6/98: Suddenly Drudge doesn't look so bad
7/1/98: Get off your, uh, couch, America!
6/29/98: Have conservatives won the media game?

©1998, Tribune Media Services.