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Michael Kinsley and the Rumor Mill

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 1998; Page B01

Michael Kinsley, the esteemed cyberspace editor, has come down strongly in favor of rumors.

Kinsley says there is something "elitist" about the willingness of journalists to share "furtive rumors of dalliances" with their friends and colleagues, but not with readers and viewers. How dare we withhold the dirtiest gossip from our audience, just because we don't have the facts?

Actually, since the editor of the Microsoft magazine Slate is a smart guy, his argument is a little more nuanced than that. He recognizes the need for traditional news organizations, including Slate, to have high standards. But he says it's perfectly all right for other folks on the Internet, such as gossip columnist Matt Drudge, to have low standards -- that is, to let everyone else in on what the high-minded journalists themselves are gossiping about.

"People should understand that the information they get is middling quality -- better than what their neighbor heard at the dry cleaner's but not as good as the New York Times," Kinsley writes in Time.

Drudge, of course, was the first to tell the world that Newsweek was holding a story on allegations that President Clinton had an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern. Newsweek felt it needed more reporting; Drudge has no such concerns.

Think of it this way: For a major news outlet like Newsweek to make major-league charges against a big-time politician is like dropping a bomb. It's not "elitist" to withhold unproven gossip because reputations can get blown away without the proper checking.

(The Washington Post, incidentally, faced the same dilemma in weighing sexual harassment allegations against then-Sen. Bob Packwood days before the 1992 election. The mere act of publication probably would have destroyed Packwood's reelection chances; The Post decided it needed to do more reporting, and the Republican senator from Oregon hung on for three more years before resigning.)

If Newsweek is armed with a bomb, Drudge might be described as carrying a popgun. The Drudge Report gets great buzz, but it's not likely to force a politician to resign or otherwise commit hara-kiri. So it's harmless, right?

Therein lies the catch. For Drudge to hurl a secondhand charge is like lighting a fuse that ignites the Newsweek bomb (and lots of other media missiles, in this case). Since Drudge can access that kind of ammunition, it matters what kind of standards he has; no one can wiggle off the hook by saying it's "just" gossip. The media food chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

This debate doesn't change much, of course, because Drudge, and all the future Drudges of the Net, will continue to do their thing regardless of what mainstream media types think. It's up to the journalists to decide whether they can cling to some old-fashioned notion of standards.

Meet the Drudge

White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has taken a whack at NBC's Tim Russert for giving a platform to Matt Drudge, Blumenthal's nemesis. (Blumenthal, you may recall, is suing Drudge over a false report -- retracted the next day -- that he had a history of spousal abuse.) Last weekend, when Russert put Drudge on his "Meet the Press" round table, along with the likes of New York Times columnist William Safire, Blumenthal was steamed.

"You introduced Mr. Drudge as offering 'expert insight and analysis' . . . as though you believed him to be a reputable journalist," wrote Blumenthal's lawyer, William McDaniel. He asked whether Russert planned to "vouch for his credentials" as a journalist: "If you do, we wish to take your deposition."

Russert, who of course has no plans to testify, said he wasn't backing Drudge. The program's round table "is an Op-Ed page," he said. "We've had Christopher Hitchens, Rush Limbaugh, Mary Matalin and James Carville, and we don't endorse any opinions. We're here to offer opinions."

Maybe Next Week

Sam Donaldson: "Mr. Clinton, if he's not telling the truth and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week."

Bill Kristol: "I don't think he can survive."

Cokie Roberts: "Okay, so he is out. So then what happens next?"

Donaldson: "What will President Al Gore do then?"

Kristol: "He'll select a very respected figure as vice president, and he will have a big honeymoon."

-- "This Week With Sam & Cokie," Jan. 25

Blowing Her Cover

CNN's Judy Woodruff was offering some analysis before President Clinton's State of the Union address. "There is this senior administration official, because he didn't want his name used, who talked to some reporters today, who said when the dust settles, when the smoke clears, this president is still going to be standing and he's going to keep going on."

Moments later, co-anchor Bernard Shaw mentioned Al Gore and noted that "you had lunch" with the vice president that afternoon. After a pause, Woodruff said: "Well, so to speak, yes, we did." So much for the anonymity of the senior administration official.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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