Matt Drudge, the Hollywood loner who has blazed a controversial path across the Internet, cable television and radio, is invading another establishment arena.

Drudge has just signed a deal, in the neighborhood of a half-million bucks, with Penguin Putnam to write a book about his brief career as journalism's digital-age troublemaker.

The 31-year-old who rode the Lewinsky scandal to worldwide fame offered this elegant summary of his literary aspirations: "I see the book as a middle finger to the establishment."

Of course, "Let the Future Begin" may go a bit easy on ABC, which has given Drudge a radio platform, and Fox, which created his Saturday talk show. And the self-proclaimed "outsider" will have more in common with high-end media elitists when his income tops $1 million this year. Still, Louise Burke, publisher of New American Library, Penguin's parent firm, says Drudge's fans will snap up the book, planned for the fall of 2000.

"I consider him a maverick," says Burke. "He wants to take on the media establishment. He's gotten some bad press he didn't deserve. . . . This book is really going to validate him."

Critics may beg to differ. Drudge, who's notorious for writing about people without calling for comment--and is still battling a libel suit by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal--doesn't plan to use the book to own up to his mistakes. He says he'll print e-mails and voice-mail messages to show how he gets his tips, and hit back at critics, from Columbia Journalism Review to the New York Times, who Drudge says "have gone out of their way to smear my good name. I'm going to document my work. I'm going to name names about my experiences with these clowns."

Time has prompted Drudge to adjust his vision of a wired future. After long touting the Web as revolutionary, he says he's writing the book because "so much vanishes on the Internet, sort of like a vapor. You delete and you move on."

Drudge once trumpeted himself as the vanguard of a new era of citizen journalists on the Net. Now he's worried that media titans such as CBS chief Mel Karmazin will end up owning everything in sight.

"I don't know where the rebels are," Drudge admits. "Where the hell are all the individuals with this great new medium?"

Fallen Star

Frank Caperton, editor of the Indianapolis Star and News, says TV columnist Steve Hall was more than just a colleague, he was a friend. But, says Caperton, he had no choice but to fire Hall for plagiarism.

"I hope he can rebuild his life, but it won't be on this newspaper," Caperton says.

Hall was suspended in late August for three weeks after plagiarizing part of a column about an upcoming TV show from another newspaper. The theft was discovered accidentally when another Star and News editor passed along the piece to Hall's editor for possible publication, and the editor realized he had just read the same thing under Hall's byline.

Caperton says he decided to dismiss Hall after a database search revealed a half-dozen other instances over several months in which the columnist lifted parts of other articles, ranging from quotes to entire paragraphs. Hall, who did not return calls, told WRTV in Indianapolis that his firing over "a handful of stories" was "unfortunate . . . considering that I wrote more than 5,200 stories during the 12 years I worked for the Star."

Some readers have complained that the Star and News dealt too harshly with Hall, Caperton reports, while others, including a number of teachers, have thanked the paper for taking a stand against plagiarism.

Should these linguistic thefts have been detected earlier? "We have two rules: You don't make it up, and you don't steal other people's work," Caperton says. "I didn't get in this business to be a cop, and we don't have 400 fact-checkers. We work on the presumption that our people are honest, and 99.99 percent are."

Bagging Bush

Paula Zahn, who recently joined Fox News from CBS, has landed the first extended TV interview with former president George Bush since his son launched a White House bid of his own.

"I started inundating President Bush's office with faxes and letters," Zahn says. "I think it was just sheer persistence. They probably got so annoyed that they said, 'Just give it to her!' "

Zahn, who had interviewed Bush as president while at CBS, is airing the first of two parts tonight on the debut of her Fox News Channel show, "The Edge." She says she was struck by how emotional the ex-prez became in talking about George W.

"I don't like the intrusiveness of some journalists and the unaccountability and the rumor-digging dirt," Bush said. When Zahn asked about the reporting on rumors that his son once used cocaine, Bush denounced "gotcha politics" and said he'd heard that one newspaper made 150 calls on the subject. "With each call, the rumor is spread. . . . So I don't like it, and I don't think the American people like it."

Howzat?

ABC News President David Westin said in a recent interview that there were limits on the reporting that White House aide-turned-commentator George Stephanopoulos could do. "We wouldn't have him be the beat reporter on the Gore campaign," Westin said of the man who worked alongside the vice president for four years.

What, then, was Stephanopoulos doing last week interviewing Gore's rival, Bill Bradley, on "Good Morning America," and pressing Bradley on his differences with Gore?

Arousing IRE

Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, is a group dedicated to fair and aggressive journalism. In its IRE Journal newsletter late last year, the organization ran a piece called "Food Lyin' and Other Buttafuocos."

The piece, by an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, harshly criticized ABC News for its undercover probe of Food Lion supermarkets that sparked a lawsuit against the network.

Now, in a three-page, nine-point apology to ABC, IRE Journal says it relied on public relations handouts from Food Lion and never called anyone at ABC for comment. The original piece, for example, accused ABC of "a little 'artful' editing" and "a little cut and splice" in preparing the segment. IRE now says there is "no indication" of unfair editing.

IRE Journal Editor Steve Weinberg says he decided on the retraction after reviewing the evidence with ABC staffers. The journal apologized "for the tone and approach of the article."

A Bit Too Wired

PC Magazine recently carried an upbeat review on a new free Internet service called onebox.com. The service provides voice mail and fax service over the Net, and "almost everything worked as claimed," the magazine said on its Web site.

Left unmentioned was that the magazine's parent company, ZDNet, announced in June that it was investing $1 million in onebox.com--and making it the exclusive provider of messaging services for the ZDNet site.

PC Magazine Editor Michael Miller says the magazine's policy is to disclose such ties and that ZDNet's role should have been mentioned. "Somehow I either missed the announcement of the investment or forgot about it," he says.

CAPTION: Author-to-be Matt Drudge: "So much vanishes on the Internet."