Clinton-Lewinsky allegations fuel debate about journalism and
By Gregg Russell/CNN Interactive
NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN:
23-YEAR OLD, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT
**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
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.
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
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
"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."
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."
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
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
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
"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."