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Taking It to the Matt

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/18/2004

Isn't it time the mainstream media began to accept the Drudge Report as a legitimate entity?

The Story That Dare Not Speak Its Name, at least on TV networks or in respectable U.S. dailies like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, is of course the rumor, first posted by Matt Drudge on Feb. 12, that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry has been unfaithful to his wife. This potentially damaging information--although Bill Clinton has partially inoculated Democrats from such revelations--spread across the Internet last Thursday, and then surfaced in British papers, both tabloids and broadsheets, the next day. Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Michael Sneed also mentioned the flap on Feb. 13, writing, "Dem presidential contender John Kerry's campaign may have been hit broadside. Please, pardon the pun."

On Saturday New York's Post and Daily News ran stories about the possible scandal, after Kerry himself went into spin control by denying the allegations on Don Imus' radio show last Friday.

It's no skin off my nose if Kerry has an eye for the ankle, although Democrats who rushed to anoint Kerry after Howard Dean's implosion might be a little nervous that their candidate hasn't been fully vetted to wage war with the Bush political machine. What's maddening is that Drudge is still dismissed as a "cybergossip," a tool for the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, or the online equivalent of Rush Limbaugh.

The United Kingdom's liberal Guardian (which at least is upfront about its bias) was typical in its denunciation of Drudge, although the paper's equal animus toward the president didn't let its editors ignore a juicy story. Last Saturday, the Guardian's D.C. correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, reported: "The Democratic frontrunner, John Kerry, was yesterday forced into denying an unsourced internet report that he had an affair with an intern amid signs that the race for the White House is turning into one of the most vicious in modern history.

"Mr. Kerry's denial, delivered on a radio talk show, marked the first widespread public airing within the U.S. of the allegation, which appeared on a rightwing web site, the Drudge Report."

A few facts are in order. First, Drudge is an equal-opportunity purveyor of political, entertainment, and business scoops. He's largely apolitical, unlike most journalists, and if reliable information was relayed to him that Bush was, say, a closet transvestite, it's 100 percent certain that his Web site would banner the news two minutes after he found out. Drudge dutifully reports the latest results of various polls, whether it's CNN/Gallup, Zogby, or Fox, and regardless of what candidate or cause they favor. He also has a standing link called "The List," which names every U.S. soldier who's been killed in Iraq.

Drudge is a crafty entrepreneur, an Internet pioneer. He wants to be first with fast-breaking news, which is why so many people in the media click on to his Web site first thing in the morning and then several more times during the day. Drudge has an uncanny knack for finding moles inside newsrooms and TV stations; that's why he can headline what major story is going to appear in The New York Times the following day before even most reporters there know about it.

More significantly, the reason the Drudge Report is so successful is because it's a gateway to the entire communications industry. If the site were "right-wing," why would Drudge provide links not only to the world's most liberal daily newspapers, but also The Nation, The Village Voice, Newsweek, Time, Slate.com, and The New Republic? In addition, while he includes conservative columnists like Ann Coulter, George Will, and William Safire, they're balanced by the likes of Joe Conason, Anna Quindlen, Sidney Blumenthal, Jimmy Breslin, and Paul Krugman.

Last Sunday, the Boston Globe's longtime Washington pundit Thomas Oliphant, a quintessential bleeding-heart hack, broke the taboo on mentioning Drudge's story. Oliphant, to his credit, didn't blame Bush's strategists and tried to explain how it all got started. As Drudge initially reported, Gen. Wesley Clark committed, in Oliphant's words, a "sin of commission" by gabbing too much with reporters. He writes: "Clark actually said he was still in the race because he thought Kerry's campaign was going to implode over what he inelegantly called an 'intern' scandal." (Clark, who made an amateurish bid for the nomination, then dropped out and endorsed Kerry.) Oliphant then went on to blame Drudge, Rupert Murdoch, and radio shows for "getting trash into the standards-challenged mainstream press."

Kerry went a step further, implying to Imus (who supports the senator's candidacy) that Bush's re-election team instigated the story, saying, "I think they're in for a surprise. . . . I am a fighter and I am ready to fight back. . . . These guys will want to do everything to change the subject." He forgot, at least in this snarl, to stress that he was a Vietnam vet.

Kerry's either naive or too intoxicated by his meteoric rise to believe that Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, would feed this kind of story to Drudge or anyone else. First of all, it's too early in what promises to be a very close campaign; second, the White House views Sen. John Edwards, with his "two Americas" baloney as a more formidable candidate and wouldn't want to stop Kerry's momentum.

Just for the hell of it, I blame Al Gore.

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