It seems that on Monday evening Yahoo's Web servers were broken into, and for about 15 minutes, if you were visiting Yahoo using a really old browser (one that doesn't support frames), instead of seeing the site's usual home page you'd encounter a rant calling for the release of the imprisoned "cracker" Kevin Mitnick -- and threatening computer users everywhere with a "logic bomb/worm implanted deep within their computer," ready to explode on Christmas Day and "wreak havoc upon the entire planet's networks."
The hack didn't affect too many people, but it's a legitimate story when a site as popular as Yahoo is caught with its guard down even for a few minutes. The story, of course, is that somebody found a way to break into Yahoo's server. The threats of virus-borne devastation are self-evidently absurd: "Logic bombs" and "worms" are two different things, and neither can be transferred to your computer by your use of a search engine, which is what the Yahoo burglars claimed. To see that the threat was a hoax, all you had to do was read their manifesto: "The virus can be stopped. But not by mortals. An antidote program has been written. This program is resting somewhere on a computer in the southeastern hemisphere." Since when is there a southeastern hemisphere?
Coverage of the Yahoo break-in by responsible Net journalists was suitably low-key: News.com reported, "Yahoo suffers short hack attack"; Wired News wrote, "Yahoo hack: Heck of a hoax." One Web site, though, decided that the virus threat was big news: The Drudge Report not only ran a fat headline that screamed, "YAHOO HACKED! TERRORISTS CLAIM TO LAUNCH 'LOGIC BOMB'" -- it also sent out an e-mail "FLASH" trumpeting the news. That bulletin in turn spread quickly across the Net from one e-mailbox to another, spreading a buzz around the break-in story that helped it land in Wednesday business sections at papers like the San Francisco Chronicle.
While most coverage made it quite clear to readers that there was no danger to their systems, Matt Drudge subtly slanted his report the opposite way, repeatedly referring to the pranksters as "terrorists," suggesting incorrectly that they'd "broken into the Yahoo! database," asking, "Has the era of computer transmitted disease begun?" and framing a skeptical quote from an expert (borrowed from an AP report) with the statement that "it is at least theoretically possible to exploit security flaws on the Internet and implant such a virus."
Drudge, in other words, decided that it would be fun to scare people.
The Drudge Report is, of course, the same site that made news this past summer by airing unsubstantiated spousal-abuse charges against White House aide Sidney Blumenthal -- a move that has made it the target of a libel suit. As in that instance, Drudge made a quick retraction with his Yahoo story: Two hours later, his headline read, "YAHOO: NO LOGIC BOMB, THREAT ONLY UP FOR MINS."
The Drudge modus operandi is quite simple: If a hot story lands on his desk, he puts it up on the Web, and only then starts to check it out. This neat inversion of normal journalistic practice has turned his site into a popular rumor source even as it has eroded his credibility. Would you trust a radio announcer who took every "hot tip" that landed on his desk and read it directly into the mike?
In the wake of the Blumenthal lawsuit, some defenders of Drudge who happen to share his conservative political bent -- like Salon columnist David Horowitz and a Seattle Times editorialist -- have argued that supporters of the Internet should rally around Drudge, suggesting that he's a Web hero, a nimble digital David taking on hidebound media Goliaths. If only.
There's no heroism in spreading misinformation and paranoia. You don't fight Time and CBS and the New York Times by giving people good reason to mistrust you. And you don't help build a new medium by discrediting it through carelessness or gullibility. Drudge's defenders have placed themselves in the ridiculous position of arguing that because the Internet is a fast new medium that's easy to get started in, old-fashioned concepts of journalistic credibility -- like checking your facts -- no longer apply.
The sad truth is that Drudge is no manifestation of some new digital-age journalistic vitality; he is simply an old-fashioned gossip columnist taking advantage of the Web's speed and cheapness. There is an old saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. On the Internet, Matt Drudge is one of the people who trundles untruths onto jets.