White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has set the record for serving the shortest amount of time in the Clinton administration before retaining a lawyer. He began work as the president's advisor Monday morning; by the same afternoon, he had retained counsel, preparing to do battle in court.
But unlike some other White House alums, Blumenthal is not a defendant. He and his wife, Jacqueline, also a White House aide, are suing an Internet gossip columnist who alleged that Blumenthal "has a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up."
The columnist, Matt Drudge, writes the "Drudge Report," a melange of wire service rewrites, hypertext-linked features and anonymously sourced stories that appear on Drudge's own Web site. Drudge's own stories are also carried by America Online.
In an "exclusive" posted last Sunday night, Drudge claimed that unnamed "GOP operatives" possessed "explosive accusations" based on "court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife."
On Monday, Blumenthal's lawyer, William McDaniel, sent Drudge a blistering letter threatening legal action unless Drudge revealed his sources and removed his "contemptible drivel" from the Internet. Later that day, Drudge posted a brief notice on his site that read in full: "I am issuing a retraction of my information regarding Sidney Blumenthal that appeared in the DRUDGE REPORT on August 11, 1997."
Blumenthal, who would not comment for the record, still intends to proceed legally against Drudge. "His retraction won't help him," McDaniel told Salon in a telephone interview. McDaniel said a suit would be filed in federal district court in Washington next Tuesday. "The original story is already out there on the Internet. A retraction doesn't do much to reduce the terrible initial damage caused by the story."
Repeated phone calls and e-mails from Salon to Drudge at his Hollywood home and office requesting a response have gone unanswered. Earlier this week, he told the Washington Post, "I apologize if any harm has been done. The story was issued in good faith. It was based on two sources who clearly were operating from a political motivation."
A spokeswoman for America Online said the company is satisfied with Drudge's retraction and will continue to distribute his column. "We're aware that Mr. Drudge retracted the information in his column, and we think that was the responsible thing to do," Wendy Goldberg, AOL's vice president for communications, told Salon. Asked whether AOL now harbored doubts about Drudge's credibility, Goldberg declined to go beyond her original remarks.
McDaniel said he was currently preparing a libel suit against Drudge and planned to file it "shortly" in Washington, D.C. He declined to specify how much the Blumenthals would seek in damages. It is common practice in such civil suits to use the discovery phase of a trial to determine the defendant's assets.
Because Blumenthal, as a senior presidential aide, would be considered a public figure, a libel action against Drudge would have to be brought on the grounds that Drudge knew that the allegations concerning Blumenthal were false or that he acted with "a reckless disregard for the truth." The Supreme Court established the malice standard for such libel cases in the landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan case in 1964.
Drudge has become something of a celebrity himself. Recently, he was the subject of a generally approving profile in Time. In a Wall Street Journal column that recommends Web sites, the Drudge Report was described on Thursday as a place "you can always find some juicy tidbits," and Drudge was referred to as "an indisputable lightning rod for controversy." No mention was made of the potential libel action against him.
In the past, Drudge has taken pride in his freewheeling journalistic style. "I have no editor," he boasted in the latest issue of Newsweek. "I can say whatever I want." Drudge has been credited with scoops, including the choice of Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's running mate in 1996 and the firing of Connie Chung from CBS. He has also been referred to as a "loose cannon" by other journalists, especially when it comes to the Clinton administration, Whitewater and other scandal-related stories.
Last month, Drudge posted details of a story that Newsweek's Michael Isikoff had been working on about whether former White House aide Kathleen Willey had ever accused President Clinton of making a pass at her. Drudge, who said he was getting his information from one of Isikoff's Newsweek colleagues, crowed to the Washington Post: "I outed the story. I was totally driving (Isikoff) crazy. There was nothing he could do."
In fact, there seems to be much less to the Willey story than first met Drudge's eye, as was evident in Isikoff's story in this week's Newsweek. Drudge's main achievement, it seems, was to make another enemy. "He's rifling through raw reporting, like raw FBI files, and disseminating it," Isikoff told Howard Kurtz of the Post. "This is not harmless fun; it's reckless and ought to be condemned. He ought not be treated as an impish character. It's hard to do real reporting in an atmosphere that's been polluted like this."
Responding, Drudge told the Post that Isikoff "has a right to be furious, but life is not fair. The new technology lets someone interrupt the flow." In any case, Drudge added, "I seemed to have about 80 percent of the facts."
It's that other 20 percent that could spell curtains for the Drudge Report. "He seems to think that the normal rules don't apply to him, and I don't know if it's because he's on the Internet or what," McDaniel said, reiterating his client's determination to sue. "The Constitution doesn't treat journalists any differently than it treats any other citizen. It's one standard for everybody. And that standard is that if you say something that you know is false or that you're reckless, that you really don't care if it's false or not, you're in big trouble."