From the moment Matt Drudge, the self-styled Walter Winchell of Internet news, stepped to the microphone at the journalists' mecca of the Washington National Press Club, he was on the attack. It was clear he was there to take on the press establishment and stake his claim as a journalist, albeit a particular kind of journalist.
"Clearly," said Drudge, "there is a hunger for unedited information, absent corporate considerations."
As much as other Internet writers have tried to avoid sharing blame with Drudge for lowering journalistic standards, without doubt it was the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) that focused attention on World Wide Web site news. Mainstream journalists reacted by criticizing Internet reporting as sacrificing accuracy for cyberspeed.
So, Drudge's very presence became an us-against-them battle with ramifications far beyond the gossip reporter himself. His importance is symbolic, as the Internet continues to attract more people to news sites.
Michael Kinsley, editor of the on-line publication Slate (www.slate.com), told the Los Angeles Times that Drudge's report that Newsweek was holding up the stow of Monica Lewinsky's alleged relationship with President Clinton "has done for the Internet what the Gulf War did for CNN, and what the Kennedy assassination did for television in general."
Drudge under fire
Veteran political reporter Jules Witcover saw it differently. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, he argued that the Lewinsky stow "surfaced in the wildly irresponsible Internet site of Matt Drudge, a reckless trader in rumor and gossip who makes no pretense of checking on the accuracy of what he reports."
Since that January report, critics have used Drudge's inaccuracy, self-promotion, and "exclusives"--which often aren't--as ways to attack the Internet news process itself. When Drudge repeated at the National Press Club his claim to have broken the Lewinsky stow, reporters wrote that he had only broken Newsweek magazine's decision to hold off on the stow for further fact checking.
Even in reporting his number of readers at six million for April, Drudge was accused of being inaccurate. Staci Kramer, who chairs the On Line Journalism Task Force for the Society of Professional Journalists, used WebSideStow (www.websidestory. com), a service that tracks Internet visitors, to poke holes in Drudge's claim. She says Drudge was counting not his readers but the number of people who used the front page of his Web site as a gateway to other publications. Even the articles of the Drudge Report itself, Kramer pointed out, aren't on the site's front page.
Kramer says she checked out Drudge's claim only to make sure "we're all talking about the same thing."
When James Glassman, of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote after Drudge's speech, "Let a thousand Matt Drudges bloom, and let readers make up their own minds," traditional journalists reacted strongly. What, they asked, would the news consumer be getting in such an environment?
How reliable is Internet news?
Minus all the inflamed rhetoric, Internet-news consumers need to know how to define the hundreds of Web sites that, like the Drudge Report, combine gossip or opinion on the one hand with hyperlinks to traditional wire services or newspapers on the other. How much of the material is original rather than taken from other sources? Is there a way to separate traditional reporters from amateurs who spend evenings tapping away in garages without the benefit of editors or fact checking?
In a climate where Cable News Network retracted a story on the use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War, the Cincinnati Enquirer apologized for its news-gathering techniques on a story about Chiquita Brands International and paid the fruit company $10 million, and two other print publications were embarrassed by reporters …