Drudge vs. Blumenthal

The inside story of the settlement negotiations that fell apart over an apology.


Anthony York
May 3, 2001 1:21AM (UTC)

Big Buzz

Matt Drudge's top story today is -- Matt Drudge, and his victory over former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, who Tuesday dropped his $30 million libel suit. Blumenthal had sued the Internet provocateur in 1997 after Drudge printed an item saying that Blumenthal had a history of domestic violence.

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Drudge later retracted the story, but according to Blumenthal, never issued a formal apology. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, for one, disagrees with Blumenthal's assessment. In a piece published Aug. 15, 1997, Kurtz writes that Drudge did indeed apologize to the Blumenthals.

Amazing how a $30 million lawsuit can come down to a question over whether or not Drudge ever apologized. Long before the standoff at Hainan Island, apparently, there was the scrum between Matt and Sidney. In fact, Blumenthal says he had been trying "for quite some time" to settle the case. He and his wife were simply looking for an apology from Drudge, and for Drudge to make "a nominal charitable contribution to a group devoted to domestic violence."

In an April 12 letter obtained by Salon, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola addresses both legal teams in an effort to put an end to the suit.

"I think we have had a productive few days," Facciola writes. "I have found that it helps me to advance settlement by putting in writing my thoughts so that you and your clients are reacting to concrete proposals as opposed to vague abstractions."

The judge then drafted this apology for Drudge to OK:

On August 12, 1997, I published in the Drudge Report a story which stated that Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up. The report quoted an influential, anonymous Republican who stated that there were court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife.

I now appreciate that the sources who provided me with this information were advancing a political agenda and that there is no information whatsoever to support their accusations. I am not aware of any information whatsoever that Mr. Blumenthal has ever struck his wife, and I was not aware of any such information before I published the statement on the Drudge Report, other than the assertions made by my sources. I acknowledge that no information has emerged since I published the story to substantiate what the sources told me.

I appreciate how the story could have caused Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal anguish and distress. I sincerely regret it did so.

"Is this acceptable?" the judge asks.

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"He seemed to agree [to the apology], then he withdrew after we had signed off on it," Blumenthal says.

Drudge says Blumenthal's apology spin is simply "false. It was the judge's words, not mine," he writes in an e-mail. "He was trying to find a way to settle the case. I never signed off on anything until Blumenthal agreed to pay $2500 to us, $914 of which was for travel." When asked what the other $1,586 was used for, Drudge replied, "Crow."

Blumenthal cites an article by Kurtz in Wednesday's Washington Post as evidence that Drudge is "continuing his libelous ways."

"With a Clinton-approved lawsuit," Drudge told Kurtz, "a Clinton-appointed judge and Clinton's right-hand man bringing it, I didn't know how it was going to come out. The irony that Blumenthal has to pay me to let him out of a lawsuit he brought says it all from my end." Blumenthal maintains that his action against Drudge was brought independently, and that he only told Clinton and Gore about the suit as a professional courtesy.

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Blumenthal said he agreed to settle largely because a group of conservatives, led by Salon columnist David Horowitz and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture through its Individual Rights Foundation, has been paying Drudge's bills. The foundation has "a history of defending First Amendment issues and case," the center's Web site states. "The IRF provided Drudge with its own staff attorney, Patrick Manshardt, and its legal adviser Manuel Klausner to be his defense team on a pro bono basis."

The center also set up the Matt Drudge Information Center and Defense Fund, for which Horowitz and Andrew Breitbart served as trustees.

In effect, Blumenthal's effort to bleed Drudge backfired. The foundation ended up picking up Drudge's tab while Blumenthal paid "tens of thousands of dollars" in his own legal fees.

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"I believe their strategy [was] twofold," Blumenthal says. "First, to file as many delay motions as possible to bleed me dry. And to create as much publicity for Drudge as possible. For him, bad publicity is simply publicity."

The story broke late in the evening on Sunday, Aug. 10, 1997, on the eve of Blumenthal's first day of work at the White House. According to Drudge, the piece was a response to spousal abuse allegations against Republican political consultant Don Sipple made in Mother Jones magazine.

"The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that top GOP operatives who feel there is a double-standard of only reporting republican shame believe they are holding an ace card: New White House recruit Sidney Blumenthal has a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up.

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"The accusations are explosive.

"'There are court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife,' one influential republican, who demanded anonymity, tells the DRUDGE REPORT."

Drudge refused to name his sources, but later told the Washington Post that "someone was using me" to go after Blumenthal "and I probably fell for it a little too hard. This is a case of using me to broadcast dirty laundry. I think I've been had."

Two days later, Drudge issued this tersely worded statement:

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I am issuing a retraction of my information regarding Sidney Blumenthal that appeared in the DRUDGE REPORT on August 11, 1997.

Matt Drudge

But according to the original complaint filed by Blumenthal, Drudge continued to imply he had dirt on the new White House aide even after Drudge pulled his story. The complaint cited comments Drudge made in a conversation with New York Post reporter Braden Keil about the story.

"In defendant Drudge's conversations with Mr. Keil, defendant Drudge stated that defendant Drudge had removed the information about plaintiff Sidney Blumenthal and plaintiff Jacqueline Jordan Blumenthal from the Drudge Report because 'I just wanted to make [the story] as solid as possible, plus, I have a major addition that just came to my attention.'"

But this grudge match, which gave Drudge his first wave of real Washington publicity, months before the world would know the name Monica Lewinsky, has ended in a victory for Drudge. Blumenthal has agreed to drop the suit, and even cut a $2,500 check for a flight to Washington made by Drudge's attorney for a deposition that had been canceled.

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News of the settlement was the big online buzz of the day. Andrew Sullivan chimes in with this support of Drudge. "I must be the only person alive who's a friend of both Matt Drudge and Sid Blumenthal. (That may end when I post this item.) But I have to say that, however awful Matt's mistake in making unfounded allegations about Sid several years ago, he corrected them swiftly, apologized, and did all he could do to rectify the damage. Sid's subsequent lawsuit was therefore nothing but over-kill and intimidation -- backed by the Clinton White House and its many loathsome cronies.

"It seems to me that his settlement of the lawsuit is a clear vindication for Matt -- and good news for everyone else trying to forge good, risk-taking journalism on the Web. Mistakes, which we all make, should be broadcast and corrected swiftly and openly. The human beings who make them should not be hounded through the courts, when they have done all they can to correct the error. When the person doing the hounding is a journalist himself, he owes the profession something of an apology."

Sullivan later clarified that when he spoke of "risk-taking journalism," he was talking of Drudge's dogged coverage of the Lewinsky scandal, not the Blumenthal story. "That story was reprehensible and he admitted it swiftly and corrected it," Sullivan wrote in an e-mail.

Still, the partisan divisions were clear around the Web Wednesday. Indeed, if Blumenthal is looking for another suit to file, he might want to start by combing the reaction to today's news at conservative sites like Lucianne.com.

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The staff at Lucianne.com had this to say about the settlement: "They won't be going to D.C. to give depositions in the most ludicrous law suit of the last administration. Insect look-alike Sidney Blumenthal, the Clintons' presidential Handiwipe and all-round smearer, has called an end to his legal hissy fit and withdrawn his suit against Matt Drudge. Compounding this nonsense is that anyone would believe that Blumenthal had the strength to beat up his wife in the first place. A well known writer once asked for comment on Blumenthal, with whom he had shared an office, said, "He is the most despicable man I've ever known."

"Blumenthal was a weasel and deserves to pay through the nose for his frivolous lawsuits," writes one of the more tame Lucianne posters. "Another Clinton shill who never learned that loyalty to the Sink Emperor and Thunder Thighs comes at a price and generally you end up with the bill."

But the Sid bashers were countered with loyal Democratic partisans like the folks at MediaWhores Online who had this to say: "Sidney Blumenthal has decided to end his lawsuit against sleazebag Matt Drudge. The suit had become just another form of harassment against Mr. Blumenthal in addition to Drudge's original vicious libel, since Drudge's unlimited access to dirty money from the right meant it would drag on indefinitely with no resolution.

"We're glad Mr. Blumenthal fought the good fight for as long as he did, and exposed Drudge early on as the whore we all now know him to be."

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Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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