And who says there's no such thing as principle (me, I think)? But here I am, ready to defend Matt Drudge--who beats up on my friends every day--against Sid Blumenthal, whom I've actually always liked (until now at least), despite Sid Blumenthal ...
I think there are at least three questions lurking in this one that hit me.
1) Does the First Amendment protect accurate reporting about an inaccurate rumor? Matt reported--I assume accurately, don't you--that Republicans were putting out the story that Sid beat his wife and that they had court documents to back it up as retaliation for the Mother Jones story about Don Sipple supposedly beating his ex-wives. Matt also reported that a White House senior aide said it was pure trash and that Blumenthal was unavailable for comment. Now I think he got taken to the cleaners by his sources and that he owes us all a story about how that could happen. I think he should be more careful in the future and that journalists should be particularly careful when they're dealing with matters of personal character. But I don't think he should be closed down for making a mistake, which is what Sid wants to do. As bad as the system is, I can't imagine why anyone--much less a conservative--would consider judicial regulation of the press to be an improvement.
Rumors can be the basis of stopping you, seizing you, searching your house, depriving you of your liberty: If somebody who usually is reliable tells a cop you're carrying a gun, he can stop, search, and arrest you. What makes it a rumor is that it has not been independently verified--maybe it couldn't be; and that should, in my journalist's head, count against going with it. On the other hand, it depends on what kind of rumor it is, and who is spreading it, and how reliable the person has been in the past--and whether you believe that those standards should be enforced by journalists themselves, or by the courts.
Of course, this wasn't a rumor about death camps in Europe, which I think we would all want to see reported. It was a rumor about a man's personal life. Or was it? If Sid really did beat his wife, he would've lost his job that day. Sipple lost a couple of clients right after the reports of his wife-beating allegations. So does that mean it's not personal at all--but relevant to character? And again, who decides--the courts?
Of course, context matters too. Remember Lars Erik Nelson's column a few years ago about the rumor spread from Gingrich's office that Tom Foley was gay--a rumor that forced Foley to hold a press conference denying his homosexuality on the eve of taking the oath as speaker of the House. Ouch. Now Foley didn't sue Nelson, and nobody said Nelson was Drudge--even though many newspapers in turn used Nelson's column to repeat the Foley rumor. A lot of people believed Kitty Dukakis burnt a flag and that her husband was treated for depression--both rumors put out by Republicans and covered by the mainstream press.
Certainly, it has to be OK to report about the rumor mill, since we know it plays a huge role in American politics. Isn't that what Drudge was doing? If the column he wrote had begun with "You'll never believe the disgusting rumors Republicans are spreading ...," would you consider it libelous? I wouldn't, but I'm not sure why the line should depend on a matter of law--as opposed to journalistic ethics--on whether you like, dislike, delight in, or condemn this version of politics. And again, why the courts?
If I sound like an old-fashioned civil libertarian, that's right. And weeks like last week remind me exactly why. I don't like tabloid journalism, I don't like nuclear politics, I don't have the stomach for it, and I never really did. But at the end of the day, I'm less worried about Matt Drudge abusing his power than about Sid Blumenthal abusing his.
2) You wrote in the Nov. 3 issue of the WeeklyStandard: "To exculpate himself, Drudge now claims to see in the Blumenthal lawsuit a Clinton White House plot to shut down its critics."
Silly. I thought so too. Really, these are my friends. Not so silly after all, I discovered, when a column defending Drudge on First Amendment grounds in this supposedly private lawsuit produced a call of complaint from the White House press office. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. In every government office where I have worked, there have been strict rules about using the stationery and the office for personal reasons. To use the White House press office to pursue a private grievance ... I was told that it was just Sid, just the romper room, just the overreaction to too much testosterone (the way I heard it, Dick Gephardt got it for giving the speech; Robert Shrum got it for writing it; and me, I just got it by mistake)--but that's not good enough.
The truth is that they don't even have to call. Sid's job is to feed reporters the tidbits of gossip and back and forth that make a front-page story of whether the president really was mad, or whose idea something was, etc., etc. I expect that Sid won't be sending any choice gems in my direction, and I don't really care, but I would if it were my job to cover the White House and if other reporters were getting gems I wasn't--which might lead me to conclude that a positive Drudge story wasn't a great idea ...
I don't think it's a coincidence that Drudge is an outsider and that virtually every story in the clip file misstates his original reporting in a way that makes it look much worse for him. Todd Purdham was literally the only one to take care to note that it was a rumor that Drudge was reporting, a rumor that had been denied ...
Coincidence, you think? Myself, I think a lot of people in Washington do business with Blumenthal, know this one counts to him, and are eager to pretend that Drudge bears no relation to them. Do you disagree?
3) I like gossip. It's true. I'm just being honest. I call my friends in Washington once a week, and I get a fill of who is saying what about whom and, so long as it's accurate, it hardly matters if it's true. I make of it what I do, just like the people who are at the water coolers themselves. This is what Drudge does. He tells us what you'd know if you had a friend you could call. He's a different kind of editor from the ones at the NewYorkTimes and, knowing that, I still read him every morning. I don't believe everything I see--but in my experience in Drudgeland, he's no less accurate than most of my favorite newspapers.
I think the press going into the 21st century is in a pretty sorry state too. But suits like Sidney's only make matters worse. At least he should say it like his boss wanted to.
And if we're looking for answers to the problems of the press, we shouldn't be looking to the courts to do it. This, of all things, should not be a problem for government to solve. See--conservative to the core.
P.S. Heard any good gossip lately?