The oddest feature of the affair that pits White House flak Sidney Blumenthal against Internet gadfly Matt Drudge is probably the most revealing: the failure of the press to defend one of its own.
Last August, Blumenthal filed a $30 million libel suit against Drudge for reporting a rumor that Blumenthal was once involved in a spousal abuse court case and then (though retracting the claim) failed to reveal his unnamed sources. I should state at the outset that I am the co-chair of the Matt Drudge Defense Fund, which is raising money to support his legal defense. What follows explains why.
Matt Drudge is a self-made entrepreneur who made his Web-based Drudge Report a national media player, often quoted by the likes of Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal. While media conglomerates, in their glass-towered fortresses, deploy battalions of scribes across the globe, Drudge operates alone from his Hollywood apartment on a salary of $36,000 a year.
Such a mismatch should have made Drudge the underdog favorite in a case that would seem to pit a White House Goliath against an Internet David.
But it hasn't. One obvious reason is that little Matt Drudge kept scooping the big guys -- on stories ranging from alleged White House scandals to Republican politics and network television changes -- and big guys in the media really resent that. Drudge also played right into the hands of a journalistic establishment that resents this upstart new medium, the Internet. His apparent recklessness in reporting a rumor he couldn't back up evoked images of journalistic irresponsibility and informational chaos generated by a free medium many find threatening.
The fact that Drudge is an Internet libertarian rather than a statist liberal doesn't help his case either. Sidney Blumenthal, on the other hand, began his career at the socialist tabloid In These Times. From there, he went to such bastions of official liberalism as the New Republic and the Washington Post. His time at the Post was an up-and-down experience; he did a brief stint reporting foreign policy before being sent (some say demoted) to the less weighty Style section. He shifted to the New Yorker where political soul mate Rick Hertzberg had become the new managing editor. Appointed the magazine's White House reporter, the sycophancy of his stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton and his constant playing down of the mushrooming Whitewater scandal made other reporters at the New Yorker (even Tina Brown) wince.
Yanked from his beat, Blumenthal finally got what he really wanted: a job at the Clinton White House, as a senior communications advisor. There was a chorus of hoots from his "colleagues" in the press; the New Republic suggested the Clintons owed him back pay for services already rendered.
This is the man who has taken a holier-than-thou attitude to the offending Matt Drudge for reporting a "Republican rumor" he was unable to back up. No matter that Drudge immediately retracted the item when it was first challenged and apologized for it in an interview with the Post's Howard Kurtz. Blumenthal wanted sources and when Drudge refused -- as any other self-respecting journalist would have done -- Blumenthal slapped him with a $30 million suit. For good measure (and for its deep pockets) Blumenthal also named America Online, which had a contract to run the Drudge Report on its network.
Blumenthal's attorneys compiled a 137-page summary of the charges, throwing in chunks of columns from Howard Kurtz and other comments from Blumenthal friends they thought incriminating to Drudge and circulated the lawsuit to the entire media and anyone else who requested it. Since lawsuits often contain damaging but unsubstantiated charges, lawyers, as a rule, forbid their clients from distributing such filings, even to friends, to avoid the prospect of libel suits in return. The aim is clear: not merely to nail Drudge, but to warn other critics of the Clinton establishment, including those online, to beware.
Despite such attempted intimidation -- not to mention the rather low esteem in which he is held by the profession -- Blumenthal has, up to now, been able to rally the press to his cause. When asked about Drudge in a Christian Science Monitor survey on Internet reporters, Joan Konner, head of the Columbia Journalism School sneered: "Drudge isn't a reporter, he's your next-door neighbor gossiping over the electronic fence." Forgotten in their dismissive rush to judgment about Drudge are some of the low-ball hits Blumenthal has administered against people he didn't like -- like calling former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro a "mafia princess" in a New Republic cover story, or referring to Midge Decter as a "dog" in his book-length take-down of the modern neo-conservative movement. As for accuracy, in a piece he wrote about me in the Washington Post, he managed to mangle three separate details about my life in the space of three sentences.
The press would be well advised to put aside its snobbish disdain for cyberspace journalism and consider the consequences of abandoning Drudge to the mercies of
Blumenthal and his legal juggernaut. Is there a reporter in any corner of
the media who has never made a comparable mistake? Or is Drudge being turned into a whipping boy for an ancien régime fearful of the subversive and the new?
The cry has gone out: The Internet must be brought under control. At the same time, online content providers like AOL have been warned: Don't mess around with upstarts, while the rest of us are told to be wary of individualistic eccentrics who don't toe the proper line. This fight isn't just about Matt Drudge, it's about the battle for Internet freedom. And if the Internet loses, guess who's next?