Media Arrogance, Public Contempt

It seems a week doesn't go by that doesn't find some media scribe breast-beating about the public's lost love for his profession. Why, oh why do they disdain us so? Well, perhaps I can help answer this question. Simply get hold of a copy of the January 8 broadcast of ABC's Nightline. If this doesn't clarify the problem, nothing will.

The program topic: To what standards of accountability should society hold those who publish material on the Internet, and should on-line services like AOL be held liable for the irresponsible actions of its users?

The case study: Matt Drudge is a so-called cyberjournalist who fancies himself as a conservative modern day Walter Winchell. On his web site he publishes the Drudge Report, a collection of news and gossip culled from newspaper stories and occasional tips from insiders in Hollywood, Washington, DC and New York. Based on a tip he received last August, Drudge reported that newly-hired White House staffer (and former New York Times reporter) Sidney Blumenthal had an police record for spousal abuse. After a furious Blumenthal denounced the report, Drudge retracted the story a day later, and publicly apologized. Unfazed, Blumenthal has sued both Drudge and AOL, seeking $30 million in damages. Fair?

To answer that question, Ted Koppel turned the controls over to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and what followed was twenty minutes of sanctimonious clap-trap denouncing those using the Internet to circumvent the mainstream media.

From the outset Kurtz wanted it understood just how responsible, fair, balanced and just plain extraordinary real journalists are. "This is how a newspaper story begins. A reporter, say me, sends the story to an editor. Then higher ranking editors get involved, sometimes even company lawyer worried about liable. There are plenty of ink-stained cooks in this particular soup. The story is massaged, rewritten, often even improved before it is fit for public consumption. About 10 hours later the story finally gets to you, not real speedy, but most of the time at least, we manage to get it right." Golly.

And Drudge? "Here's what happens when [he] wants to make some news. He presses a button and boom, you read it... No editors, no lawyers, no annoying bosses... He makes his living from gossip, delicious, tantalizing and often not quite confirmed."

Kurtz turned to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff to denounce Drudge, who had "not only poisoned the atmosphere for real reporting, he was reckless and irresponsible and he did a real disservice to everybody involved."

So what's the big deal about one cyberspace gossip columnist? Because - this is The Big Picture time - the Internet is infested with a veritable army of dangerous and malicious right-wingers. "There are thousands of Drudges out there, political opinion mongers, college professors, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists dissecting the death of Vince Foster or more recently, the death of Ron Brown ... There is a down side to this vast place called cyberspace, where the normal rules often don't seem to apply. There are lots of words floating around out there and words can wound."

In the discussion segment, Koppel was more circumspect about Kurtz's lecturing. "We must sound to an awful lot of people out there, maybe with some justification, like a bunch of whiners because it's not that we as a class of reporters are necessarily all that much better." But Kurtz would have none of it. "The difference between Drudge and a mainstream journalist," said our intrepid mainstream journalist, "is that any newspaper or TV reporter in the country who makes this kind of blunder, without checking the facts, without calling for comment, he's out of there. He's out of work."

It's at this point that you don't know whether to laugh or throw up. You think back to the merciless, vicious, irresponsible, and unfounded accusations hurled by mainstream reporters from outlets like the Washington Post at men like Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan and countless other conservatives and ask what penalty they paid for the harm they caused. There was no penalty, no apology, no nothing.

Matt Drudge made a mistake, no question about it. But Drudge immediately acknowledged that mistake, immediately corrected his report. And immediately apologized. When was the last time a reporter - say, Howard Kurtz - publicly acknowledged a mistake in a report and corrected his story? Better yet, when has a reporter - say, Howard Kurtz - ever voluntarily and publicly apologized for an inaccurate report that damaged someone's reputation?

Those rules just don't apply to this very elite, and oftentimes very arrogant community. Being a member of the mainstream press means never having to say you're sorry. And it's those very same journalists who then wonder why they're held in such contempt these days.