In Defense of Matt Drudge
By Michael Kinsley
(TIME February 2) -- "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
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.