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The Going Gets Tough, and Matt Drudge Gets Going

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 1999; Page C01

Matt Drudge walked off his Fox News Channel show Saturday, charging that network executives were censoring him because they refused to let him show a picture of a fetus.

"I can't sit there and edit what I'm going to say," the Internet columnist said. "I got really upset. . . . I have to wonder whether their motto of 'we report, you decide' isn't just some Madison Avenue slogan."

The showdown came hours before air time when John Moody, Fox's vice president for news, told Drudge he could not show a National Enquirer photo of a 21-week-old fetus. Drudge, an ardent opponent of abortion, wanted to brandish the picture of a tiny hand reaching out from the womb to dramatize a baby's development at that stage. But Moody decided that would be misleading because the tabloid photo dealt not with abortion but with an emergency operation on the fetus for spina bifida.

"It was a picture of one surgical procedure and Drudge was talking about another, and we thought that was a misrepresentation," Fox spokesman Brian Lewis said yesterday. "Matt's entitled to his opinion. It was an editorial decision. We weren't going to force him to do the show." Fox News President Roger Ailes supported the decision, Lewis said.

In some ways the clash may have been inevitable, pitting a 31-year-old iconoclast who plies his trade on the freewheeling Net against a network that, while it takes more chances than its rivals, tries to uphold a set of news standards. Drudge, who is being sued for libel by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, has made his share of mistakes. Still, he said of the dispute, "I'm trying to stand on principle."

By contrast, Drudge says, ABC, which syndicates his radio program, has not tried to interfere with his opinions. He would not say whether he intends to fulfill the remaining year on his Fox contract. "There are deep creative differences," he said from Los Angeles. Drudge says he has gotten more than 500 e-mails when Fox reran another show in his time slot.

Perhaps most remarkable, given Drudge's conservative ideology, is his charge that Rupert Murdoch's network appears to have looser standards for material critical of President Clinton. He noted that Fox raised no objection during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when he broke the story about the president's use of a cigar, and that Gennifer Flowers spoke on the network about a supposed list of people associated with Clinton who had died or been killed.

"I guess I can go on and talk about Lewinsky's dirty dress," Drudge said.

In recent weeks Drudge asked Ailes to let him out of his contract, citing both past friction and fatigue with taping the weekly program, but decided against quitting. In an incident several months ago, Drudge said, he was blocked from showing a picture of a New York Times reporter shaking Clinton's hand at a state dinner after a story by another Times reporter had criticized the White House over alleged Chinese espionage. Drudge says the network told him that would be in bad taste.

"I'm not going to be swayed if I can't stand for what I feel is right," he said. "I'll just go to a medium where I can."

Too Late

News keeps surfacing that would have been a huge, screaming-headline deal had reporters only discovered it while the story was hot.

* Newt Gingrich was carrying on an affair with House aide Callista Bisek for his entire term as speaker, even as he gave speeches about morality and hammered President Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, according to Bisek's deposition.

* Clinton fund-raiser John Huang admits large-scale election fraud to the FBI, saying that Indonesia's Lippo Group wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover contributions to Democratic candidates, the Wall Street Journal reports.

* Richard Nixon railed to an aide that Washington is "full of Jews," that most are "disloyal" and "you can't trust the bastards," according to White House tapes.

* Lyndon Johnson tried to leak derogatory information from Barry Goldwater's FBI report to New York Times columnist James Reston during the 1964 campaign, Newsweek reports.

But timing is everything. The media treated these episodes with a stifled yawn.

Have You Ever . . .

Shortly before election day, the Deseret News asked Salt Lake City's two mayoral candidates to answer a few questions: Have you ever committed adultery? Been accused of sexual harassment? Used illegal drugs? Gotten in legal trouble as a juvenile? Had a serious mental illness? Asked friends or relatives for a loan?

The losing candidate, Stuart Reid, refused to answer the "wholly inappropriate" questions. The winner, Rocky Anderson, limited his answers to the past 17 years, saying even candidates "should be allowed the experience of personal growth that comes from making mistakes earlier in life."

Editor John Hughes says that asking such questions "just to titillate your readers" would be "an unreasonable invasion of anyone's private life." Indeed, Hughes says he "didn't particularly enjoy" going through an FBI background check before becoming State Department spokesman in the Reagan administration.

But Hughes says the questions are "related to problems that elected officials, mainly in Utah, had encountered in past years." Another factor, he says, is that the mayoral contenders were not well known. The Deseret News had not planned to publish the questions, but word of the exercise leaked out.

Pen Pal, Part 2

The Houston television reporter who wrote warm, friendly letters to an accused serial killer says she was acting in part on the advice of an FBI official who said she should proceed slowly.

Cynthia Hunt of KTRK-TV, described in this space recently as having gushed to Angel Maturino-Resendiz about his dogs and religious views, says she was trying to press his "hot buttons" and get him to open up. "I can understand everyone's distaste for how a reporter builds rapport with a killer," Hunt says.

"I do want to interview this man, and I do want to ask him the hard questions: Why did you do this? How could you do this? But as a reporter, as with anyone in life, when you're trying to find out something from someone, you don't come at them like a bulldozer. You have to find common ground." She notes that Resendiz later wrote her about his motives in the case.

Rosenthal Revisited

A.M. Rosenthal called last week to say that the decision that he would be leaving the New York Times was made several weeks ago after discussions with management. He wanted it made clear that there was no possible connection to a Vanity Fair article, published last week, in which he had harsh words for Max Frankel, his successor as executive editor, who had criticized him in a book. This reporter may have inadvertently suggested that the two events were linked.

Shake-Up

KVCB-TV in Las Vegas aired footage of a news van rocking during an earthquake there last month. Turns out the videotape was staged by a cameraman and producer, who have since been canned.

"I looked at the tape after it was brought to my attention there might be something wrong with it," says News Director Mike George. "I didn't think the tape was right. I sought out the people responsible for the tape, and after questioning them, those two people are no longer employed here."

The cameraman, Colby Knight, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the van really had been shaking but that he and the producer simulated the event afterward. He also says he warned station management that the footage was "unethical." George wouldn't comment on that account.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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