Memo To: To Website Fans, Browsers, Ordinary Journalists
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Citizen Journalist
If you only heard the audience response when Matt Drudge spoke at the National Press Club last June, you may have thought it was Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot they were kind of applauding as they held their noses. There are individual journalists who like the guy and some who admire him, but as an institution, the national press corps absolutely hates Matt Drudge. Here is a fellow who was never trained by a J-school, never worked for a newspaper or electronic media, got his first bits of news out of trash baskets, and now dominates journalism on the Internet with his awesome Drudge Report. Fringe reporters are supposed to stay in the corner and emote via low-circulation, no-advertising magazines printed on cheap paper. They are not supposed to rival Playboy.com in the number of people who tune in each day to get a look at what they are saying.
Whatever the disposition of the impeachment trial of President Clinton, history will record that its earliest developments were driven by Citizen Drudge. What he had to say about Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg was so outrageous that it had to be no less than 90% bunk. And when he reported that Sid Blumenthal was a wife-beater, and had to retract the blatant falsehood in 24 hours and apologize, we were sure his reports probably were uniform in their irresponsibility. Now, a year later, Citizen Drudge has been vindicated to a point where it is fair to ask why the Responsible, Mainstream Press -- the trained professionals, the Pulitzer Prizewinners, the Best and Brightest of the Fourth Estate were caught with their pants down, so to speak.
Drudge knows the answer and he talked about it in an oblique sort of way at the press club. The Establishment Press — the mainstream press --- serves the status quo. If it leaves the prescribed limits of the mainstream, it upsets the set relationships of all those who share the core of political power. It shies from that which destabilizes because divergence carries risks that are ruinous to relationships and career paths. As a young journalist in Washington in the 1960s, I remember learning this lesson from a veteran Newsweek correspondent, Sam Schaffer, who told me that there were things he could write and things he could not. If a controversial story appeared on the front page of the NYTimes, he could write it for his magazine with some narrow embellishments. Otherwise, it would be spiked. He told me that he attended a House subcommittee meeting a few months earlier at which a vote was taken that could be interpreted as favoring abortion. He wrote the story up and sent it to New York where the editors said it looked suspicious and that it could not run. He mulled it over and took it to a reporter for the NYTimes, Bill Blair if memory serves. Blair checked it out and it appeared the next day in column one of the Times, at which point Sam's editor called and asked for a new take on the story.
It is not clear that the Lewinsky story would have been pushed into the mainstream if it were not for Drudge and the leverage he got at the Internet. The fact that his information was free, timely and not ; constrained by hard-copy publishing schedules was only one element in the importance of the Drudge Report. The man is clearly responsible, as he first demonstrated to me in the matter of Sidney Blumenthal. I'd seen his first report about Blumenthal being a wife beater and although I've known Sidney since 1980, when he came to interview me for the Boston Globe magazine in connection with the Reagan presidential campaign, it puzzled me to learn he was a wife beater. It didn't fit, but who knows what goes on in a man's private life? But I was pleased to see the following day when the Drudge Report came in that Drudge had apologized and did so with obvious remorse at the boo-boo he had made by relying upon on unreliable source and perhaps getting his husbands mixed up. Certainly no harm was done to Blumenthal because of the immediate retraction and apology, which not many established newspapers would be so quick to own up to. In fact, it was dismaying to me to see Sidney go after Drudge with a lawsuit, supposedly acting on the principle that irresponsible journalists like Drudge who would report the lies Monica was telling about her boss should be taught a lesson. Of course, we later learned that it was Sidney's boss who lied to him, going as far as to tell him Monica was the culprit, that she had come on to him, threatened him, stalked him. It was upon learning of Sid's testimony before the federal grand jury that I suspended my support of the President and decided he had to be impeached and have his arguments adjudicated by the Senate.
If there had to a Citizen Journalist break the ice on the Internet, I'm glad it was Matt Drudge, because it turns out he is a principled man. I've come to trust his reports more than I have trusted the reports of the major media in many areas. The officers of the press club tried every which way to find out what evil mechanism exists to motivate him. It drives them nuts that he doesn't seem interested in making money, but gives away his awesome Drudge Report for free. He still lives in his same little apartment in Hollywood, drives an old car, and wears the same battered fedora and scuffed shoes he had a year ago. Several times he had to assure the newsies that he is not financed by Richard Mellon Scaife, the amiable right-wing moneybags who is interviewed by John Kennedy in the current issue of George. I suppose he does make some money now with his occasional radio and television work, and I hope in the end he and the Internet find a way that he can make enough money so that he doesn't have to worry about it, at the level, say, of a Walter Winchell.
He will be good for the print media and for the electronic media if he maintains his own sense of humility and proportion, which he displayed at the press club event. In predicting that when the dust settles, there will be 300 million reporters coming at us from Cyberspace, he meant that everyone who has a bit of news can find an outlet for it, that it can't be bottled up by an Establishment press that serves the forces of the status quo. When the NYTimes editors first apologized for having to report the Clinton scandals because they could not longer wish them away, they had to admit that it was the depth of the fringe media, especially on the net, that made the news impossible to ignore. Drudge knows about John Peter Zenger and seems to have studied the wild-and-woolly press of early America, when our society was definitely at its most fluid. The establishment then sat in London, with its royalist supporters in the colonies, and it was the Matt Drudge's of that era who cooked the soup of Revolution. The Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution to protect the freedoms of the Drudges of the new nation and thank God they live on today. Who else but Matt Drudge for Man of the Year.
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