What’s a respectable media outlet to do when a story too juicy to ignore — but sleazy and unverified, and from a discredited, though occasionally accurate, source — starts making the rounds? Ignore it and miss the story? Pile on and look like scumbags when it turns out to be bogus?
That is the question that editors pondered last week when the Drudge Report, which of course dropped the Monica Lewinsky bomb in 1998, brought word that Senator Kerry had an intern story of his own.
The respectable media got around the problem largely by covering the intern story as a media story, matter-of-factly reporting that other (less respectable) media were trafficking in as yet unsubstantiated charges.
It turned out there was no story. On Monday, the supposed intern released a statement to the AP in which she denied ever having interned for Kerry, much less having had an affair with him. The respectable media outlets dutifully reported on the statement and seem ready to leave it at that.
Drudge, of course, likes to style himself as an investigative journalist who has used the Internet to subvert the media hierarchy. As he said in an interview with Scotland’s Sunday Herald:
“Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be … The difference between the Internet, television and radio, magazines, newspapers is the two-way communication… The net gives as much voice to a 13-year-old or a computer geek like me as to a CEO or speaker of the House. We all become equal.”
Drudge’s critics see him as huckster and a shill for conservative groups. The Guardian credits Drudge’s rise to unsuccessful Republican attempts to get the mainstream media to circulate dirt on the Clinton White House:
“When they found no takers they established their own “journalists”, investing in web sites, radio shows and magazines that would peddle the gossip others avoided. Drudge was among those ready to collect and process every crumb.
Drudge had plenty of assistance in gaining a wider audience in those days. The Times and the Telegraph in London both served as his chambermaids during the later Clinton years, emptying the pot on the British side of the ocean when no American news outlet would pick up the job from him and deliver it to a wider audience.
That gave news organisations in the US that were part of the same stable (News Corporation’s New York Post and Fox TV News in the case of the Times [of London]; Hollinger’s Chicago Sun Times for the [London] Telegraph) cover to process the same muck, but attributing it to London newspapers. Competing newspapers and broadcasters were unable to avoid repeating the stories.”
The Guardian goes on to point out that both the Times and the Telegraph were once again stoking the story . The British tabloid the Sun, owned by the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch picked up Drudge’s rumor, releasing the name and the photo of the alleged intern, neither of which was included in the Drudge Report. The Sun reported that “the former Washington intern, 27, told all about an alleged fling with the 60-year-old super-rich senator in spring 2001″ in a television interview with a U.S. network.
Conservative radio-host an Rush Limbaugh was troubled by the fact that while Mr. Murdoch’s overseas media acquisitions spread the dirt, his U.S. acquisitions were content to wait and see. Opening his show to the song “Gigolo” (the website entitled this particular show as “Press Plays Up Bush AWOL Nonsense Won’t Touch F-ing Kerry Story”), Limbaugh condemned the U.S. media for their incessant questioning of President Bush over his war-time record. Limbaugh was fuming that journalists have continued to demand more evidence from the White House to corroborate Mr. Bush’s story, while they turned a blind eye to reports of infidelity involving Mr. Kerry. Limbaugh was quoted in the Washington Times as telling his listeners in an earlier show that:
“If Kerry denies this, that’s not going to be good enough … We’re going to demand pay stubs, and we’re going to demand dental records from Kerry and the alleged woman to prove that the affair never happened, and we’re not going to stop there…”
With the release of the woman’s statement, the satirical Chortler didn’t pass up the opportunity to taunt Drudge:
“The news that Kerry might be a boring, happily married man sent shockwaves throughout the sensationalist press. ‘It can’t be! It can’t be!” exclaimed Internet gossip Matt Drudge. ‘My sources at the Miami Beach Home For The Seriously Delusional couldn’t let me down like that.’ ”
And the respectable media? A good guide to the way they played the story was provided by Slate’s Timothy Noah, in his
“Selling Sleaze: A User’s Guide,”, which lists “ten ways to rationalize the publication of infidelity rumors.” Among the ways:
“It’s a press story… It’s an Internet phenomenon…It’s a story about bare-knuckled negative campaigning… It’s a story about character…It’s a story about electability… It’s a story about a Democrat, and all Democrats are scum…”