Judge Drudge

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 1998

“Maybe somebody now can stop the insanity!” Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson exclaimed on national television just a few short weeks ago, when Internet scandal sheet Drudge Report was still under widespread attack from the mainstream media for posting a rumor about White House advisor Sidney Blumenthal beating his wife.

The mainstream media were anxious to stamp out this threat to their monopoly over news journalism, and savagely pilloried the 30-year-old independent who had the guts to release information to the public that they did not. As Blumenthal, with White House assistance, launched a $30 million defamation lawsuit against Drudge, the news media nearly unanimously cheered. They distanced themselves from Drudge and his Internet rumor-mill, and printed stories about how their young, amateurish nemesis reported sex rumors as fact.

It was the mainstream media that was guilty of inaccurate reporting, not Drudge. His Internet newsletter made a simple statement of fact: that certain Republicans were spreading this rumor about the Democratic advisor. In this initial report, Drudge also included the White House denial of the rumor.

But the mainstream media inaccurately and misleading left out this information, preferring instead to take this opportunity to continue a process that began with Pierre Salinger’s release of an Internet rumor about the US military shooting down TWA flight 800: the squashing of the Internet as a credible source of news.

What a difference a few months make.

When Newsweek editors, for various reasons, decided to “hold” their story about President Clinton’s sexual and legal relationship to Monica Lewinsky, someone from the magazine’s Washington bureau apparently leaked the details to Drudge, who posted them on the Internet without delay.

It’s not that the story would never have been released without Drudge. It would have – at least in a couple of days. But by then the White House would have had time to prepare or even pre-release its own spin on the story. Unencumbered with the mainstream media’s need to maintain good relationship with the White House and the special access such a relationship affords, Drudge was free to bring the story to light as soon as he received it.

And thus the Internet scooped the mainstream press and, in the process, re-asserted itself as the less compromised medium. The Drudge Report caught the White House, the special prosecutor attacking him, and Newsweek, by surprise. Its press deadline past, Newsweek was forced to release what news it had over the Internet, pretending that its “Diary of a Scandal” demonstrated its own ability to use the Web as a channel for late-breaking news.

At nearly every juncture in this saga, the Internet has proven itself the reliable first source of information, while the mainstream media have revealed themselves to be pandering, inaccurate, or in collusion with its subjects.

Drudge was the first to release the story, then the first to report on the possibility of a Presidential-semen-stained dress. The Internet served up printed excerpts from the actual transcripts of Lewinsky’s (secretly) recorded phone conversations. The text-only transcripts plainly show Lewinsky’s friend-turned-informant painstakingly attempting to draw out a confession.

While the Internet released facts and transcripts, the mainstream media presented spin. The television media reported that the telephone tapes exposed Lewinsky as a distressed young sex slave, confiding her trauma to a friend.

Television news shows dug up a videotape shot moments after Clinton’s re-election, where a beret-wearing Lewinsky hugged her victorious boss. They repeatedly played the clip in extreme slow-motion, while anchormen cavalierly suggested that the nature of this embrace and glimmer in the young girl’s eyes revealed a lot more than a simple internship. They also played old tapes from the Jennifer Flowers’ affair, suggesting that Clinton denied a sexual relationship with her, too, until last week. Anyone who was around in 1992 knows that Clinton effectively admitted his involvement with the woman, and his culpability.

The American mainstream media still doesn’t get the idea of what journalism is about. They thought that being “reputable” meant holding off on releasing stories until they got permission from the White House. This is how they secure seats on the President’s plane, and the privilege to ask questions at White House press conferences. What other signs of reputability could they have hoped for?

But after being repeatedly scooped by the Internet they’re at pains to discredit, these same media organizations have reconsidered. Now they seem to think gossip, innuendo, and speculation represent hard news.

What’s really going on here is that mainstream media are angry with themselves for having held their own tongues for so long. Deep down, they know they’ve enjoyed the fruits of their collusion with the White House and other political institutions for many years, and that they’ve finally been exposed – at least to themselves. So now they’re taking it out on Clinton. Where they once attacked the Internet for not adhering to journalistic principles, they are now attempting to emulate what they see as the driving force behind the Internet’s success.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media still don’t have a clue about what makes Internet reporting so commanding. It’s not a penchant for rumors and sleaze. It’s called facts. And when they’re released in a timely fashion, without regard to the consequences and without an obligation to make decisive commentary, these facts can serve a public eager to make sense of the legal and political landscapes.

If the mainstream media want to learn from their less credentialed and still less respected younger sibling, they must surrender their stranglehold over information and, with it, their inflated sense of responsibility for what the public should and shouldn’t hear.

Then and only then, journalism online and off might have more to do reporting news than making it.