Truth and fiction

October 29, 1997|By Neal Gabler

IMAGINE Sidney Blumenthal's surprise when he sat down at his computer in August, logged on to the Drudge Report, a popular Internet gossip column, and discovered he ''has a spousal-abuse past that has been effectively covered up.'' As Mr. Blumenthal, political journalist and newly appointed presidential assistant, told it through his attorney, this was news to him and to his wife, who directs the White House fellows program. They responded by slapping a $30-million libel suit on Matt Drudge, who writes the Drudge Report, and on America Online, the Internet service that carries it. Meanwhile, Mr. Drudge, admitting he had been snookered by his source, pulled the item and issued a retraction.

In the traditional media, Mr. Drudge's transgression has occasioned yet another examination of the murky world of journalistic ethics, this time with the added wrinkle of trying to assess whether an Internet provider is a publisher in the legal sense and whether libel laws apply to the web. But the real story here has little to do with ethics or libel law. The real story is about the diminishing value of truth in contemporary America.

Tasty tidbits

Mr. Drudge, a cocksure, 30-year-old former gift-shop employee, who began his Internet career by rummaging through CBS's garbage and posting the choicest tidbits on the web, rejects the title journalist. Rather he fancies himself a modern Walter Winchell, the great gossip-mongering newspaper columnist and broadcaster.

In a sense, what Winchell created and now Mr. Drudge has picked up is a journalistic version of E.L. Doctorow's novel ''Ragtime.'' Just as Mr. Doctorow deployed real historical figures in fictional encounters, the gossips can deploy real celebrities and agencies in their fictions, or, rather, in their ''unconfirmed'' reports. You want to imagine President Clinton in some sexually compromising position? Go right ahead.

In a way, this is what semiologists have been saying all along. These people, linguistic anthropologists who study our culture as if it were a set of agreed-upon signs, speak of everything in our lives as a collaboration. We all have come to agree what a word means, what a red light means when we are driving, what a certain facial expression means. That much is obvious. But when everything we do or see is a construction of our own devising, there is no such thing as a truth or an objectivity that lies outside our collaboration. If we essentially make everything up, there is only subjectivity.

This sort of thinking can get you into trouble, as a scientist proved last year when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek article denying all scientific principles as shared fabrications and wound up getting it published in some semiological journal. But if their theory seems ludicrous in terms of physical reality, the semiologists nonetheless seem to have a pretty good description of how things seem to operate in our cultural reality.

In a world where the purpose of news is no longer to provide knowledge but to offer excitement, facts don't seem to mean as much as they once did. Did Mr. Blumenthal beat his wife? Mr. Drudge had said yes, the Blumenthals no, but even though it didn't happen in physical reality, all that mattered for many readers is whether it happened in their collective imagination.

Author Neal Gabler wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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