As much as the establishment media hates to admit it, freelance journalists using the internet are beating them on cracking some of the biggest news scoops of our time.
Accusations that President Bill Clinton covered up an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky made a brief appearance in the major media on Sunday, Jaunary 18. On ABC's "This Week" news program, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol was not even able to get out a full sentence on the topic before fellow commentator and former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos countered, "Where did it come from? The Drudge Report. We've all seen how discredited that's been."
That was the first and last mention of the alleged affair carried by the establishment media for days. On Wednesday, January 21, however, the story covered the front page of The Washington Post. It soon dominated the network news. A less dismissive Stephanopoulos was once again on television commenting on the potential impeachable implications of the president's problems.
Matt Drudge scooped the establishment media yet again.
Drudge, the enfant terrible of the internet-based "New Media," personifies the debate over the coverage of news stories on the internet. Not a member of the regular press corps, he earned his notoriety by giving legs to stories that do not initially generate interest among the establishment media. Through his website and "Drudge Report" e-mails, his in-depth updates on Paula Jones's sexual harassment case against the president and attention to serial liar Larry Lawrence's undeserved burial in a prime Arlington National Cemetery plot (from which he was eventually moved) make him a must-read among political junkies and journalists. He's also broken some of the hottest Hollywood scoops.
Drudge found himself embroiled in controversy when he reported unsubstantiated allegations from an unnamed political operative that White House spin doctor Sidney Blumenthal beat his wife. Despite retracting and apologizing for being duped within hours of discovering his error, Drudge has been named in a multi-million-dollar defamation suit by the Blumenthals, and became the establishment media's poster boy for the criticism of freelance internet journalism. Supporters of the president also used this one misstep as a judgment of all of Drudge's work.
These critics never seemed so indignant toward past instances of misreporting by establishment journalists. They never showed such disdain when the San Jose Mercury News reported at length on the bogus allegation that the CIA was flooding minority communities with crack cocaine. Nor were reporters brought to task for actively promoting speculation of the "October Surprise," an absurd deal alleged between the 1980 Reagan campaign and the Ayatollah to hold the American hostages in Iran until after the elections (a theory so far-fetched that it included then vice presidential candidate George Bush flying to Paris negotiations in a two-seat supersonic spy plane).
Even though Drudge lacks a journalism degree and establishment credentials, he still uncovers some amazing stories the major media ignores or fails to report. Just before he broke the intern scandal, he reported that a website promoting and fundraising for the anticipated 2000 presidential candidacy of Vice President Al Gore was operated from within the White House. This violates federal laws prohibiting partisan activity in the federal workplace and fundraising on government property.
When reporters pressed for more information, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry tried to dismiss Drudge by curtly replying, "I'm not going to answer that question, and I'm not going to answer any question based on that particular source." Gore's office, however, later admitted that Drudge's report was correct (but that the former staffer was acting "in his personal capacity").
Drudge actually found the Gore website story in a larger Knoxville News-Sentinel article on campaign websites that ran last November, but no one else considered the fact that the Gore staffer broke the law. He seized on it, and made it a national issue. He broke the intern scandal when a Newsweek magazine staffer alerted him that the magazine's editors had decided not to run a blockbuster article on it. Now, the Clinton administration is hanging in the balance over it.
Not bad for a 30-year-old operating out of his cluttered apartment.
With the growth of the internet, freedom of the press is no longer limited to those who can afford a printing press or a broadcast studio. The establishment media will have to deal with this fact of emerging technology. Budding journalists -- establishment or otherwise -- will always be susceptible to mistakes, and hard lessons will be learned over time. One thing that cannot be denied, however, is that the work of new media pioneers like Matt Drudge have done an tremendous job in uncovering and publicizing information that had normally been ignored by the establishment media.
David W. Almasi is the Director of Publications and Media Relations for the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to him at [email protected].
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