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Pandora's Web?

Clinton-Lewinsky allegations fuel debate about journalism and the Internet

By Gregg Russell/CNN Interactive

NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN:
23-YEAR OLD, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT

**World Exclusive**
**Must Credit the DRUDGE REPORT**

At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!

These words, posted early Sunday morning, Jan. 18, on the personal Web site of a man named Matt Drudge, began the lurid multimedia frenzy engulfing the United States today.

web

Welcome to journalism in the Internet Age: an age when a 30- year-old former CBS gift-shop clerk like Drudge, armed with a computer and a modem, can wield nearly as much power as a network executive producer or the editor of The New York Times.

The Drudge Report, a mix of gossip, politics, rumor and news, has been attracting attention in cyberspace for a couple of years now. Some 60,000 subscribers receive Drudge's daily bulletins and "flash" reports; tens of thousands more read them on his Web site. Using a network of tipsters and "borrowed" passwords to the internal computer systems of media powerhouses, Drudge has managed to scoop the media establishment on a number of stories, including the selection of Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate and Connie Chung's dismissal by CBS.

But it was Drudge's White House sex scandal scoop that caused the mainstream media to take notice. And even as these "respectable" news outlets pursue the scandal with almost tabloid intensity, many professional journalists are expressing concern about Drudge's role in breaking the Lewinsky story and the effect the Internet is having on their profession.

"The technology of nonstop news and the Internet means that allegations that would have been carefully checked out a generation ago no longer are," said James Fallows, editor of U.S. News and World Report. "We now have a 24-hour-a-day news cycle. News gets used up very quickly and there's a constant hunger for new tidbits."

Even some online journalists fear their new medium is upping the ante. "Every part of the media now feels the pressure of the Internet," said Jodie Allen, Washington editor of Slate online magazine. "If Matt Drudge is going to get it up there, maybe we better put (it) out there first."

Lower standards?

The problem, as some see it, is that The Drudge Report and other gadfly Internet sites are not subject to the editorial and legal rigors to which professional journalism is traditionally subject. Anyone with a Web site can publish a report, however baseless or unconfirmed, and call it news. Drudge himself has said he "takes some chances" and admits his stories are only about "80 percent accurate."

drudge

As pundit Michael Kinsley stated flatly in TIME magazine: "The Internet beat TV and print to this story, and ultimately forced it on them, for one simple reason: lower standards."

Newsweek's editors agree. Their higher standards, they claim, are precisely what prevented them from publishing the story in the first place. They wanted more information, more confirmation, and so they lost the scoop. Drudge's report spurred other journalists to pursue the story, and two days later it was on the front page of The Washington Post.

"It hurt like hell," said Richard M. Smith, editor-in-chief of Newsweek. "But given the magnitude of the allegations and the information we had at the time, I'm convinced we acted responsibly."

That sort of responsibility is exactly what some journalists fear will be subverted by competition from the Internet.

"We are so caught up in trying to beat one another with some little scooplet," said the Chicago Tribune's James Warren, "that we're not taking the care and attention that we usually do."

Power to the people?

So is the Web to blame for declining standards in mainstream journalism? Is this new medium a high-tech Pandora's box, unleashing the ills of gossip and rumor among an utterly scrupulous news media?

Certainly gossip and rumor didn't begin with the Internet. Walter Winchell, to whom Drudge has with some accuracy been compared, used less-than-pristine standards of reporting to become the most powerful journalist -- and arguably one of the most powerful people -- in mid-century America.

Drudge likes the idea of turning this kind of power over to the masses.

"You don't get a license to report in America," he said. "We have a First Amendment freedom. In the future, there will be 300 million reporters with Web sites and e-mail accounts. I'm looking forward to it. I think the monopolization of news really screwed up a lot of things."

Kinsley, who has worked for both print and cyber news mediums, suggests the Internet offers a new kind of communication, which, while falling short of journalism, still has value.

"The case for Drudge," he writes in TIME, "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 ... 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."

Where there's smoke, there's lawyers

As it happens, the concerns of professional journalists may be resolved the traditional American way: in the courtroom. Drudge currently faces a $30 million defamation lawsuit for posting a report he later acknowledged was untrue. His subsequent retraction and apology failed to keep the legal wolves at bay.

But there's a chance even lawyers can't stop Drudge and his new media ilk. Electronic Frontier Foundation counsel Mike Godwin argues that the Internet is exempt from slander and libel suits because it affords equal access to everyone. "People can say bad things on the 'Net and circulate them to a million of their closest friends," he says. "So what? The 'Net's a level playing field."

Drudge agrees. "All my readers come to me," he said. "I'm not forcing anyone to read me."

In Other News

Friday Jan. 30, 1998

Tripp Says She Heard Lewinsky On Phone With Clinton
Indictment Looms For Buddhist Temple
Pandora's Web?
Judge: Secret Service Agents Do Not Have To Testify
Text of Linda Tripp's Statement
Another Odd Episode From Lewinsky's Love Life
Republicans Speak Out On Clinton Controversy
Second 'Near-Miss' Involving Air Force One

Poll:
Stop Probing Clinton-Lewinsky Allegations





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