CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright 1998 // February 1998

Jacking in from the "Pigmy" port:

Once There Were Giants; No More

by Lewis Koch
CWD Special Correspondent

Matt Drudge is a new variety of vampire: a nasty little mammal who bites and laps the blood of its journalist-victims.

Drudge's Warholian fame, what there is of it, is due to living off the journalistic blood of other reporters. "In addition to simply stealing stories that disgruntled journalists pass on to him, he also is legitimizing the notion of taking the media/cultural buzz and simply putting it into print without any checking," is how Dan Kennedy, the media critic for the Boston Phoenix, characterized Drudge's brand of journalism.

Kennedy goes on to note, "Susan Estrich, in her ongoing defense of Drudge on Slate, has actually supported this stunt, saying that if Cokie and Sam et al. can talk about and know about this stuff, why can't the rest of us? Well, buzz is useful if it inspires reporters to get off their asses and try to write true stories. It's useless", Kennedy concludes," if, as it is all too often, it's simply inside gossip for insiders. And it's worse than useless if, like Drudge, you simply shovel it out there."

What is surprising is how many and the extent to which people in the news business have forgotten or never discovered that reporters, once upon a time, used to work for their stories. That Tim Russert of NBC News put Drudge on "Meet The Press," was not all that astonishing since William Safire, was also there, musing on Clinton's morals while still in denial about the morality of his own speech writing days with Richard Nixon.

Yep, there was Drudge alongside of Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, the guy from whom he stole the "story," claiming the Washington press is, you should pardon the expression, laying down for Clinton. In less than a year, Drudge, all by himself, has managed to set the journalism bar (oral sex, semen stains, how-many-how-often) even lower than did Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" anti-heroine Diane Christensen with her Sybil the Soothsayer and resident gossip columnist "It's-the-Emmes-Truth Department."

Welcome to journalism in the 21st Century.

Muckraking Trail

Some, without the slightest clue, have used the term "muckraker" in reference to Drudge and the others chasing Zippergate.

It was Theodore Roosevelt who coined the term, "muckraker." Journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote a series of articles in McClure's Magazine in the first decade of the 20th Century ripping politicians and businessmen who had become obscenely wealthy using sophisticated legal and illegal means. For Steffens, Horatio Alger was the attractive neighborhood kid who sold out to the highest bidder, and then screwed over his neighbors.

Muckraker should refer to Ida Tarbell who wrote in 1925 "blackmail and every other business vice is the natural result of the peculiar business practices of the Standard [Oil Company and John.D. Rockefeller]." Muckraker refers to Frank Norris in 1902 writing about conditions in the coal mines or Upton Sinclair and the meat packing industry in 1906 or Louis D. Brandeis ripping the insurance industry the same year.

Where are they all when we really need them? Chasing Ken Starr for smirky mumbles or his leaking legal staff for nasty non-attributable quotes. Or catching equally vapid non-attributable White House spins against Starr. Is that what passes for enterprising journalism today?

Matt Drudge's supporters liken him to Walter Winchell. Has anyone, including Drudge, bothered to read Neal Gabler's incredibly powerful biography, "Winchell - Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity"? Recall, please, that Winchell was J. Edgar Hoover's pump boy for all of Hoover's most paranoid vendettas and fictional fantasies gleaned from the sewers by FBI agent-lackeys.

Where have all the critics gone?

Much is made that Drudge is a one-man band. Drudge's enterprising is limited to stealing other reporter's stories or publishing leaks, accurate or inaccurate. You want old-time one man journalism-bands? George Seldes and his self-published sheet "In These Times" carried hundreds of stories that never made the paper and whose book "Lords of the Press" made publishers and editors squirm by naming names and stories the press deliberately refused to publish for seven, count 'em, seven decades!. Other one man gotchas include the great I. F. Stone, A.J. Liebling and Nat Hentoff.

Howard Kurtz, the Media critic for the Washington Post also got it wrong. Kurtz holds that editors prevent reporters from letting egregious or other types of defamatory information make its way to the breakfast table. Mike Godwin has got part of the story right. (We will deal with the part he got wrong later on.) Give the devil his due: Drudge was careful enough to include a White House denial in his erroneous report that Clinton aide and former reporter Sidney Blumenthal was a wife beater. And, in less than 24 hours, Drudge retracted the story. No serious lawyer believes Drudge or his deep pockets co-defendant America Online will pay a nickel.

Godwin, writing for Salon, says no editor prevented the defaming of Richard Jewell. He's absolutely right. I would add that editor Bob Woodward helped push the career of Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke. In return, she gave the Post a front page, tear-jerking story about an 8-year-old heroin addict titled "Jimmy's World." She won a Pulitzer Prize-which was returned when it turned out Jimmy was made up out of whole cloth-total bullshit. So much for editors as firewalls.

Where are the really critical articles about journalism and journalists? In 1968, following the Democratic National Convention, when a bunch of reporters were gassed and beaten by the Chicago Police, too many editors and publishers refused to believe their on-the-scene bloodied reporters and cameramen. We didn't just piss and moan and drink scotch or vodka about the unfairness of it all (well, yes we did.) But we also realized Ron Dorfman's vision -- the Chicago Journalism Review (CJR), the first monthly magazine written and published by working reporters to criticize the media. No academic thumbsuckers. We named names; which editor killed what story; which reporter cut back or distorted and how.

Where have all the reporters gone?

There are still traces of the Golden Age of Journalism. You want one-man bands - how about Seymour H. Hersh. He was writing about chemical and biological warfare back in 1969 - when Saddam couldn't differentiate between a terrorist's grenade and a teat. You wanna know about hard work reporting? Read what heroic efforts Hersh took to uncover the My Lai massacre. He worked that story, just as he's done in naming names in the new Kennedy book, "The Dark Side of Camelot" - which has a whole hell of a lot more to it than just who was JFK sleeping with in the morning and the afternoons.

And I'll never forget the day Hersh appeared on the Today show to promote his book "The Price of Power-Kissinger in the Nixon White House." One of those ubiquitous pretty faces asked Hersh how he could summarize Kissinger. Hersh responded, "Henry Kissinger is a war criminal."

Look at the other reporters who wound up becoming one-man bands: Neil Sheehan and the Pentagon Papers, David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas - all of them wound up chucking the New York Times. Tom Wolfe skewered every icon imaginable from his one-man reporter's chair. Norman Mailer's Village Voice pieces, his journalism for Esquire and Harper's were awesome.

Some reporters stayed with their papers like Bob Woodward, while others like Carl Bernstein left; they both deserve spades for hard goddam work. Perhaps the most accurate visualization of what an investigative reporter does came in the Library of Congress scene in the movie "All The President's Men" when Woodward and Bernstein arduously sift through thousands of library check-out slips, looking for the records of what books the Nixon White House staff checked out. Slip after slip after slip.

Getting it wrong

Time Magazine carried Slate's Michael Kinsley's "In Defense of Matt Drudge" in which Kinsley tortuously argues that since Drudge's admits his reports are "80% accurate", sort of a "middle ground for accuracy," and the Internet is a middle ground, i.e. "better than what their neighbors heard at the dry cleaner's but not as good as the New York Times [and] Internet sites that aspire to the highest standards of traditional media (like Slate, where I work)" then why not settle for a "lowered bar" of journalism for the Internet, or at least parts of the Internet?

It's a good argument as far as it goes, a sort of Maoist let a thousand genetically flawed flowers bloom. But Kinsley can't have it both ways. Joan Connell of MSNBC says Kinsley offered Drudge a position at Slate. I wrote Kinsley and asked him if that rumor was true 'cause I want to know which 20% of Slate's writers I can dismiss as bullshit. I'm still waiting for a response.

Where Godwin's Salon article got it wrong is when he writes that "Drudge has spotlighted a new niche in the mass-media ecology: the one-man operation that can break a national story whenever it wants to." However, Brock Meeks proved that two-and-a-half years ago in his July 4, 1995 CyberWire Dispatch that completely and totally discredited Time Magazine's July 3, 1995 Cyberporn cover story.

[Editor's Note: That CWD article on Time's cover story leveraged heavily the great work done by Godwin, Donna Hoffman and others who dug into the shoddy details of the "report" by Marty Rimm on which the story was written.-- Brock]

Had Meeks printed his pieces in a newspaper it would have won a Pulitzer. One man, Meeks, broke a national story; one man, Drudge, broke national wind.

Godwin (who I personally admire) believes it is Drudge's "journalistic [uneven] acumen ....that has made him so much of a player that he had to be included on that 'Meet the Press' panel."

First of all, Drudge has no "journalistic acumen"; this implies that Drudge is accurate. You want accuracy in news story and in a pregnancy test- you are or you're not. One is not "unevenly" pregnant. Acumen also implies keenness of insight. If you're talking about the issue of whether or not the public can be temporarily mesmerized by high stakes sex - it doesn't take a close reading of Alexis De Toqueville to understand that the United States of America has always had a jones for sex.

Second, ya gotta get a couple of giggles out of a close reading of Drudge's "Meet the Press" observations and criticism of the press.

In response to Russert's comment that Drudge has been "covering this [Zippergate] rather aggressively on the Internet," Drudge responded like Claude Raines as Inspector Renault.

"Shock and very much concern (sic) that there's been deception for years coming out of the White House," Drudge opined. Drudge is shocked, shocked to find there's gambling going on in the back, Rick. Drudge would feel more at home as a passenger on "Airplane" than a savvy character in "Casablanca." Can Drudge spell N-i-x-o-n?

More women to come forth Russert asks? Remember, this show aired live on Sunday January 25th and I am not making Drudge's answer up: "There is talk all over this town. Another White House staffer is going to come out from behind the curtains this week. If this is the case - and you couple this with the headline that the New York Post has - there are hundreds - hundreds, according to Miss Lewinsky, quoting Clinton -we're in for a huge shock that goes beyond the specific episode. It's a whole psychosis taking place in the White House."

And a little later in the show, Drudge put on his seer's cap with this prediction, "You thought last week was bad? This upcoming week is going to be one of the worst weeks in the history of this country if they're going to take a tact that this is all made up and this is all Ken Starr."

Not only were there no bimboshells exploding the next week but Clinton's approval ratings are at all time highs.

Finally, this piece of verbatim from the lips of Matt Drudge in response to a question:

MR. RUSSERT: What do you make of Mr. Carville's argument that these are charges being made by political enemies of the president?

MR. DRUDGE: Mm-hmm. Well, this would - again, if this is their tact to go after the accuser, to accuse the accuser, and to try to get in front of what's actually happening by lying on top of lies, I think we're going to have such serious trouble, and his legacy is going to be just that. Cover-up does work only to a certain degree, and I think it has worked for years and years because of a press corps who has been sleeping, but I think the clock is stuck at midnight.


Ya gotta love Drudge for his reference to "the clock is stuck at midnight"? What is "stuck at midnight?" Hands? Fingers? Other parts of his anatomy? Clinton's anatomy?

Now I'm just guessing here but somehow I don't think Drudge is making an obscure, subtextual allusion to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists magazine covers which used to reference how close we were to nuclear war by how many "minutes" the clock was away from midnight. Maybe Drudge is thinking about the film, "The Horn Blows at Midnight" starring Jack Benny. Naw, couldn't be. Who knows what films he was watching two years ago when he was folding T shirts at the CBS souvenir shop in Los Angeles.

It certainly wasn't the movie "All The President's Men" or "Deadline - USA" or "Call Northside 777" or even "The Front Page."

Somehow I get the feeling that Drudge's favorite movies back then were "Sweet Smell of Success" and "Pinocchio."

Joseph Farah is editor of the Internet newspaper and Executive Director of the Western Journalism Center, an independent (sic) group of investigative reporters supporting a defense fund for Drudge. "Now, I don't condone irresponsible reporting," Farah graciously notes, separating himself, I guess, from the vast majority of us who do. "But it should be pointed out," Farah notes, "that Drudge is not a journalist-never claimed to be. Drudge is an Information Age pioneer. He doesn't live by the same standards as the press."

Information Age Pioneer? Ah, now I get it!

Drudge is a cyberputz.

Lewis Koch is a New York-based journalist.