Drudge in the Media Bullseye

Drudge in the Media Bullseye
by L. Brent Bozell III
August 21, 1997

That straw-hatted head you see in the center of the media bullseye belongs to Internet troublemaker Matt Drudge. His electronically-mailed "Drudge Report" and Web site has drawn cannon fire for having reported that liberal journalist-turned-White House aide Sidney Blumenthal had abused his wife, citing nothing but anonymous sources and supposed court documents.

That Drudge report should be condemned. A personal accusation based on anonymous sources is nothing short of a reprehensible smear: the accused simply cannot defend himself against accusers who won't reveal themselves. This is true of investigative reporters on the Internet, and Jack Anderson columns in The Washington Post, too. Sadly for conservatives, it also awards the Clinton Spin Control Team a big fat whopper of an opportunity to tag all conservative critics in the media as unfair and irresponsible.

(In the richest of ironies, Washington Postie Howard Kurtz notes Drudge was the honoree at a recent Washington dinner party thrown by - David Brock, who recently broadsided his former allies in the conservative movement for their lack of interest in journalistic truth, and pompously declared "the age of reporting is dead." )

But why the mainstream media fit over the Drudge Report when so often they play by the very same rules? Call it competitition. With declining circulation for the print media, as well as tumbling ratings for the TV news titans, the mainstream press is now regularly lobbing grenades at the predominantly conservative media that's stealing away their audiences. We've seen their vicious attacks on talk radio hosts, on rogue (read: conservative) reporters like Christopher Ruddy; and on editorial-page dissidents like John Fund who constantly humiliate them with the truth.

But the high dudgeon over Drudge marks a new zenith in their attacks on the Internet, which promises to be the most serious challenge of all. The new issue of Wired magazine has nailed The New York Times in particular for a campaign of attack news stories and editorials raging against the World Wide Web, which the Times derides as a festering habitat of gossip-mongers, drug dealers, hate groups, and cyberthieves.

The latest examples began on August 15, in an editorial titled "www.internet.anarchy." The Times editorialist insisted: "The span and speed of cyberspace make it the perfect vehicle for sloppy reporting and unsubstantiated theories...As the Internet grows up, cyberwriters like Mr. Drudge would be well advised to exercise a bit of self-restraint." Two days later, Todd Purdum (otherwise known as Mr. Dee Dee Myers) wrote in the Week in Review section on "The Dangers of Dishing Dirt in Cyberspace." Purdum projected Blumenthal as an avatar of media ethics ("I also think there's such a thing as integrity in journalism"), and then followed up: "Mr. Drudge, a self-avowed 'Clinton crazy'...is tethered to no such notions about integrity in journalism."

It's dangerous business for a newspaper to pass judgment on other journalists' integrity when its own closet has more skeletons than Pol Pot. Let us not focus on the Times' many front-page embarrassments, like Maureen Dowd's straightforward news report of Kitty Kelley rumors regarding Nancy Reagan and those White House affairs with Frank Sinatra. Or Fox Butterfield demeaning the "wild streak" of the woman accusing William Kennedy Smith of rape. Look no further than the August 17 paper, in which reporter Alison Mitchell presented a supposed Blumenthal quote from The New Republic quote which was actually a line from Blumenthal's press-bashing play.The character discusses a reporter's "slot" (the Times used the word "slut" instead).

Then there's Blumenthal himself. Why, it was New York Times bigwig Howell Raines, among others, who complained about Blumenthal (then a Senior Editor at The New Republic) telling reporters on campaign planes in 1992 to kill any truth that reflected badly on Bill Clinton , because he was "too important." Integrity in journalism simply is not defined by the man who recently claimed Whittaker Chambers' charges against Alger Hiss were based on unrequited homosexual love.

These fulminations are not simply a hypocritical stand for journalistic standards. They represent the mainstream media's fear that someone might upset their control over the political process. Wired magazine notes the Times won't separate the message from the messenger: "To the extent that any wacko uses the Net, it nurtures the anxieties of those who fear an open and frictionless marketplace of ideas. But in the end, articles that link the Internet to social pathology inevitably say more about the anti-democratic impulses of the people who write them than they do about the Internet itself."

Well, not quite. The Net can be a tool for democratic accountability or merciless gossip, a source of uplifting culture or of pathological porn. But for "mainstream" media types to demean an entire medium for ethical lapses, real or imagined, only inspires a hard look at their own practices. These journalists' own records leave a large bullseye for critical counter-attack.