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 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, Drudge, saying he had been snookered by his source, pulled the item and issued a retraction.
In the traditional media, 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.
Drudge, 30, a cocksure former gift-shop employee who began his Internet career by rummaging through CBS 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, right down to the Winchellian snap-brim fedora Drudge often sports.
Winchell did call himself a journalist and prided himself on his reportorial sense, but in comparing himself to Winchell, Drudge means he is an iconoclast and a guerrilla just as Winchell was. If the mainstream media hates him because he won't play by their rules, so much the better. They hated Winchell, too.
Of course, one of those rules is accuracy. Winchell seldom checked the accuracy of what he wrote, and neither, apparently, does Drudge, although in Win-
chell's case, it wasn't entirely a matter of carelessness or shoddy ethics. Winchell knew a source who gave him what he called a "wrongo" would wind up on his "Drop Dead List," meaning the poor fellow, usually a publicity agent, wouldn't get anything in the column for months. For someone who made his living getting clients' names in columns, this amounted to professional suicide.
Still, in insisting on the accuracy of his column, Winchell was a bit disingenuous. He understood that the truthfulness of his items was beside the point, except to the journalistic police who loved to nail him for an error. For most readers, the value of the information -- who was romancing whom, who was getting divorced, who was pregnant, who was in financial hot water -- lay not in its truthfulness but in its salaciousness and in the sense of privilege it gave readers in being in the know.
In a sense, what Winchell created and now Drudge has picked up is a journalistic version of E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime." Just as 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. You think Clinton literally pulled the trigger on Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.? Be my guest. No one is stopping you. If it makes a good story, which is to say an entertaining story, just do it.
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-on signs, speak of everything as a collaboration. We have come to agree what a word means, what a red light means when we are driving, what a certain facial expression means. But when everything we do or see is a construction of our devising, no such thing as a truth or an objectivity lies outside our collaboration. If we 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 provide excitement, verifiable facts don't seem to mean as much as they once did. Did Blumenthal beat his wife? 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.