Let's Get This Straight: August 1997 archives

By Scott Rosenberg
Published August 31, 1997 10:56AM (EDT)

Don't visit the sins of Drudge upon the Net

"Too good to check!" This was only a half-joking phrase in the big-city newsroom where I worked for a decade. It got applied to delectable tips, rumors and gossip that might not withstand the scrutiny of careful reporting but that could be fit into the more loosely patrolled confines of a daily column without causing an attack of editorial conscience. From the New York Post's Page Six to the San Francisco Chronicle's late legend Herb Caen, the print media have always understood the value of a good old gossip column in selling papers.

"Too good to check" also seems to be the working philosophy of Matt Drudge, the Net-based gossip columnist. Drudge is a conservative-leaning Hollywood dirt-disher who says he idolizes Walter Winchell and who has creatively used the Internet to build his reputation. From his own Web site and mailing list to content-distribution deals with Wired News and, more recently, America Online, Drudge has built a small media empire on hearsay, tips and some adroit trolling of media companies' internal computer systems.

The Drudge empire shook this week after Drudge ran an item accusing journalist and recently appointed White House aide Sidney Blumenthal of having "a spousal abuse past." A fast retraction hasn't kept Blumenthal's lawyers from his door; they're threatening a whopper of a libel suit that's also expected to name America Online as a defendant.

Drudge told the Washington Post: "Someone was trying to get me to go after [the story] and I probably fell for it a little too hard ... I can't prove it. This is a case of using me to broadcast dirty laundry. I think I've been had." That wouldn't make him the first reporter to be so used -- but it does suggest that there is a downside to Drudge's gleeful proclamations (to Newsweek) that he has no editor and therefore "can say whatever I want."

Nevertheless, the truth is, Drudge isn't doing anything too different from the print predecessors and colleagues upon whom he has modeled himself. But the fact that he's online has given print pontificators an easy cudgel with which to whack him. And so we have Todd Purdum in Sunday's New York Times: "Drudge works in a frontier medium, established by academics but now also infested with the phantasms of conspiracy theorists, kooks and disinformation specialists." Purdum, hilariously, goes on to quote newspaper editor Jerry Nachman as saying, in regard to the Internet, "There are no rules of the road" -- as if the newspaper Nachman used to edit, the New York Post, had any kind of journalistic good-driver credentials.

Similarly, Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post sagely observes that "the Internet has turned anyone with a mouth and a modem into a global publisher." But was it the Internet that gave Drudge his soapbox -- or the bevy of national publications, including Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, that ran sometimes fawning profiles of him and helped him build his circulation? If Drudge were truly operating so far beyond the pale of legitimate journalism, why are so many legitimate journalists encouraging him? When will the mainstream media stop tarring the entire Internet each time anyone uses it irresponsibly? Or should we here on the Internet start holding the New York Times responsible for every dumb UFO story the Weekly World News has ever published?

Aug. 21, 1997

Time slobbers over Jobs

In the wake of last week's Microsoft-Apple deal, a Newsweek commentator mused: "Why a company with less than a 4 percent market share gets so much ink is one of life's mysteries." But the question didn't seem to bother the editors of both Newsweek and Time, who splashed the story over their covers -- and provided, in bright contrast, an inadvertent illustration of the dangers of "access journalism." In this case, Time got the access, and Newsweek got the better story.

Access journalism is when publications trade favorable coverage for the chance to hang out with celebrities or sit in, "fly-on-the-wall" style, on deal negotiations or movie shoots or similar behind-the-scenes situations. Of course, most publications won't admit that there's a quid pro quo going on -- they're just going after the best story for their readers. But the results couldn't be clearer.

The story this week was Apple's deal with Microsoft: Bill Gates invested the paltry (for him) sum of $150 million in Apple, paid Apple an undisclosed amount to settle looming patent-infringement lawsuits and committed Microsoft to keep making Macintosh software for at least five years. Apple, in return, agreed to make Microsoft's Web browser a part of the Mac operating system, to share more technology with its former competitor -- and to stay in business, helping keep the antitrust lawyers from Microsoft's door. The stock market loved the deal; Mac fanatics hated it.

By most yardsticks, the deal was a coup for Gates, who outflanked his real rivals at Sun and Netscape and cemented his final domination of the one tiny niche of the desktop marketplace that he didn't already own outright. And most publications chose to illustrate their coverage with the striking Macworld Conference image of a giant video projection of Bill Gates looming over the tiny onstage figure of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Not Time. Under the banner "EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Apple-Microsoft Deal," Time shows Jobs in a squat, talking into a cell-phone, saying "Bill, thank you. The world's a better place." Inside, a two-page spread of Jobs in shorts , New Balance sneakers propped on a boardroom table, leads into a lengthy wet kiss to Jobs headlined, "Steve's Job: Restart Apple." The Microsoft deal "caps the comeback quest" for Jobs, according to Time. Jobs, returning to the company "corporate pinheads" had booted him from over a decade ago, has flown "the rebel flag" again at Apple: "Jobs is firmly at Apple's helm, and take it from us, the beleaguered company will never be the same."

At this point, readers will understandably assume that Steve Jobs has returned as Apple's CEO to replace the recently ousted Gil Amelio. In fact, of course, Jobs has publicly turned down that job as well as that of chairman and insists that his primary loyalty remains with Pixar, the computer-animation company he heads. Jobs is "advising" Apple through a transition, but he's not exactly committed to it. In fact, the persistent reader of the Time piece will eventually arrive at one of the article's few actual revelations -- that the mystery seller of 1.5 million shares of Apple earlier this summer, one of many maneuvers that weakened Amelio's hold on the company, was none other than Jobs himself.

That, at least, is a small scoop, but Time buries it. There are doubtless many important stories to tell about Jobs -- the San Jose Mercury News told some of them Sunday, in a dark portrait of corporate infighting that suggested Jobs pretty much double-crossed Amelio and stage-managed his ouster. Instead, Time's piece focuses on stuff like Jobs' home life, his patterns of speech, even his waist size. As Time explains it, "All last week, Jobs allowed Time to follow him as he negotiated his ditente with Gates." In return, Jobs gets myth-burnishing coverage in the magazine: The news weekly paints his savvy but humiliating capitulation to an arch-rival as some sort of personal triumph.

Newsweek didn't make any access deals, but it has something better -- a correspondent (Steven Levy) who literally wrote the book on Apple ("Insanely Great"). Newsweek's editors rightly put Gates on their cover, not Jobs, though they tacked on some misleadingly distorted headlines that pitted Levy's piece against a column by Allan Sloan ("Bill Gates is good for Apple ... No he isn't").

In fact, Levy presents a balanced picture of a deal that benefits both parties but that unavoidably represents the final triumph of Microsoft over Apple. Levy's piece has everything Time's lacks: historical context, insight into some of the key issues that remain up in the air for the Mac (like Apple's feud with the companies it licenses to make Mac clones) and an awareness that this day belonged not to Steve Jobs but to Bill Gates.

What's really funny is that Levy had enough sources of his own inside Apple that he was able to tell substantially the same "inside story" that Time did, down to Jobs' barefoot weekend stroll in Palo Alto with Microsoft's chief financial officer. What did Time get for its deal with Jobs? Something any self-respecting phone hacker could have helped it with -- the chance to eavesdrop on a single cell-phone call.

Aug. 14, 1997

The Vonnegut virus

I should have known better.

When the message marked "Kurt Vonnegut's commencement address at MIT" first landed in my e-mail box last Thursday -- sent to our staff here at Salon by a colleague -- I found myself laughing at some passages and nodding my head at others. Usually, I resist the urge to forward jokes, homilies and pleas for help that have been forwarded to me; I know how overloaded everyone's in box is. But the Vonnegut message -- the one that began, "Wear sunscreen" -- got past my personal filter, and I did what apparently many thousands of other people on the Net did last week: I forwarded it. When my wife received it, she forwarded it to the staff of her company. Repeat this scene in hundreds of offices. The meme spread madly.

As you probably know by now, Vonnegut didn't write that speech; a columnist for the Chicago Tribune named Mary Schmich did (you can read it at the paper's site).
What we all just experienced is one more example of the power of the Net to spread bad information, like the Craig Shergold saga or the Good Times virus. Right?

What's different this time is that the "good" information -- the truth -- has had at least a fighting chance of driving out the bad. More people are more experienced using e-mail and the Web these days; bullshit detectors are better tuned. By Monday, the forwarded notices about how Vonnegut didn't actually deliver the speech were outnumbering repeats of the speech itself. Meanwhile, Web sites like Wired News that had been taken in by the hoax (they'd run a line from the speech as "quote of the day" on Friday) ran their own stories correcting the record. By Wednesday, the New York Times and other print papers were on the case. I don't feel that bad about being duped now that I know, from the Times story, that Vonnegut's own wife fell for the e-mail, too, and forwarded it to their relatives.

So in fact the online medium worked the way it was supposed to: Misinformation vied with accurate information on the open market of the Net. Which is why the dire conclusions participants in the story are now drawing seem a little off-base. In a column recounting her experience, Schmich referred to cyberspace as a "lawless swamp." In the Times, she said that the online world now seems to her "less merely interesting and more dangerous." And she told the Chronicle of Higher Education,"Cyberspace is a little scary. Anybody can put out anything with anybody's name on it, and it becomes truth."

Now, plainly Schmich has a right to be miffed; her column of advice didn't exactly circle the globe until some prankster had attached Vonnegut's name to it. Salon columnist Susie Bright argues, quite rightly, that the incident reveals how widespread our gender biases about writing remain: a piece of advice like "Keep your old love letters; throw away your old bank statements" might have been dismissed as an Erma Bombeck line under a female byline; but attribute it to a grand-old-man of hip like Vonnegut and many readers will suddenly find it profound.

Nonetheless, nothing that happened in this little affair seems remotely "dangerous" or "scary." The misinformation here traveled by thoroughly private routes, personal e-mail to personal e-mail, like a big game of telephone -- an urban myth accelerated and then debunked by technology. It's easy to blame that technology, but the only thing scary here, really, is the persistence of human gullibility, regardless of the medium.

Aug. 7, 1997

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------