Tail wags dog in Web journalism Clinton intern story shows how industry norms are being severely taxed

January 25, 1998|By RONALD K.L. COLLINS

Nothing sets standards - ethical, professional and practical - like success. This old Machiavellian maxim is proving espially true in modern journalism as evidenced by how the latest Clinton story is unfolding. Traditional journalistic norms are being taxed to the maximum as the frenzy to "stay on top" or "ahead of" this monumental sex-and-power story increases. Thanks to the Internet, it's a new day for tabloid journalism, for better or worse.

He is the guy they love to quote but hate to credit - Matt Drudge of the infamous Drudge Report, the Internet gossip conveyor. From what is formally credited in the mainstream newspapers and most of the radio and TV news programs, one would hardly know that this 30-year-old political conservative webcasting from his Hollywood apartment is shaping several of the major news events of this century. For it was Drudge who first "reported," a week ago, the Clinton intern fiasco. Admittedly, it was half-baked news, undeveloped, unsubstantiated and reportedly taken from a Newsweek story that did not make it into print. But it set the madness in motion. Once Matt Drudge posted his Internet story, the entire timetable for reporting any Clinton sex story was advanced considerably. Result: A few days later the Washington Post ran with the story, documented facts and all.

"I broke" the story, "the biggest story in Washington," says Drudge in The Hotline. Apart from Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, no newspaper, radio or television station was willing to grant that, at least not before Drudge appeared on television recently. Meanwhile, the "hits" to the Drudge Report continued to multiply, reportedly totaling as many as 252,452 on Jan. 22.

So also the renegade gossip reporter (with tipsters galore) continues with his renegade Washington stories, which generate yet more heat in the journalism news world.

"There are all sorts of things on the Internet. But let's not dignify them," said ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson on Thursday. Then, like the unabashed Captain Renault pocketing his gambling gains in "Casablanca," Donaldson went on to mention unconfirmed reports about a dress Mr. Clinton reportedly gave to Monica Lewinsky, the ex-White House intern. Of course, Donaldson might have intended to be more satirical ** than disingenuous. Either way, it was a case of gossip becoming news.

A few days ago, during a White House press briefing, Donaldson asked press secretary Mike McCurry about allegations in the Drudge Report. McCurry replied, "Calling it a report is too generous." McCurry then refused to answer any question based on anything Drudge published. Of course, it didn't matter because, as every mainstream journalist knows, the way to ask the question is to do without any prefatory mention of the demon Drudge. For example, "There are reports" or "Some are saying" or "Is it true that?"

That is how the tail wags the journalistic dog. Actually, it is an old story with a new digital twist. Tabloids have long set the stage for what would follow in respectable publications, print and electronic. Just consider the O. J. Simpson, Dick Morris, Marv Albert and Princess Diana stories. What the Internet has done in general, and the Drudge Report in particular, is to accelerate the publication pace and to multiply the tabloid input.

Whereas publications such as the National Enquirer and the New York Post are constrained by the time limits of print publication (i.e., one main printing per day), on the Internet a new story can be posted anytime. Similarly, unlike print tabloids with a limited number of publications, Internet publishing allows millions of people to launch their own Web sites for a pittance and thereafter try their hands at journalism.

This means that the potential impact of tabloid journalism on mainstream journalism might increase dramatically. As more and more tantalizing political, economic and sex-related gossip finds its way onto the Internet, the traditional media will have to do more catch-up work, as they have been doing with Drudge.

Of course, Net journalism has real downsides, such as libel and the corruption of journalistic standards.

On the first count, Drudge faces a defamation lawsuit brought by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline. Whatever the outcome of the suit, the point remains that tabloid journalism of whatever kind is always risky business.

As for journalistic standards, they will be further compromised in an ever-increasing, profit-consciousness media market where time is of the essence. What this means, for now anyway, is not that mainstream journalists will ignore the Drudge Report but that they will rely on it without crediting it.

Niccolo Machiavelli once offered counsel to this effect: Others will tell you what the world should be, but I will tell you what it is.

By that measure, Drudge and his like are changing the journalistic mold. Now that's news.

Ronald K.L. Collins is a Takoma Park writer and the co-author (with David Skover) of "The Death of Discourse" (Westview, 1996).

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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