No Cigar

No Cigar

No Cigar

Policy made plain.
Sept. 6 1998 3:30 AM

No Cigar

No cigar.

No Cigar

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You already know what that headline refers to, don't you? But how do you know?

In "Readme" recently we told of how a British newspaper tried to evade Britain's absurd Official Secrets Act by inviting Slate to publish an article by a former spy making spectacular charges against the British intelligence services. The idea was that once an American online publication--accessible in Britain--had told the tale, the British press could report that we had reported it. We ultimately declined this opportunity, reasoning that we could not honestly maintain that publication in Britain was merely "incidental," since the instant worldwide accessibility of Slate was, in fact, the whole point. The story was picked up, though, by a more provincial publication--the New York Times--which could more credibly make that claim. And thus the British papers were free to tell the tale.

In the past week or so, oddly, the same process has happened in reverse. A story that almost no American publication will report directly has been widely reported anyhow, sort of, in part in the form of reporting that the story has been reported in England. The story involves President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and a cigar, and allegedly is part of the special prosecutor's as-yet-unwritten report to Congress. The current status of this story is extremely peculiar. It has been Topic A in Washington. There have been jokes about it on Jay Leno and passing comments on the TV yack shows. The Drudge Report and the New York Post have told it in some detail. The British and other foreign presses have also reported it--on the Web as well as on paper. Not a word, though, in the "newspaper of record," the Times. And the Washington Post buried a coy discussion of the British coverage in the back half of a barely related article about columnists turning against Clinton. (Slate has been full of unilluminating references, in "The Breakfast Table," "Chatterbox," "Diary," and BT again.)

There is a real problem here, which the Internet obviously makes much worse. The Washington Post once got widely mocked for an editorial justifying the publication of a damaging rumor about a public official with the argument that while the rumor may not be true, it is true there is a rumor. But actually, there's something to that argument. On the one hand, a publication's standards of proof and taste should not be hostage to the lesser standards of other publications. On the other hand, a story can spread without the help of the establishment media to the point where making no acknowledgment of its existence becomes a failure in your basic duty to reflect reality.

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What does seem unsatisfactory is the current netherworld where serious publications refer to the story as if everyone knows it without ever telling it straight. Burying the story as a way of sort of half-publishing it--the Washington Post approach--also seems silly. So if you don't know what the heck all this is about the cigar, see "Explainer." Of course, we're not saying it's true. We're just saying it's true that it's a rumor.

Lonely and Depressed and Proud of It

The lumber-byproduct media have reported with glee a study out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh purporting to show that spending time on the Internet tends to make people more lonely and depressed. This contradicts the widespread view among cyberfolk (including, apparently, the study's own disappointed authors) that people staring into computer screens form a wonderful new type of electronic community. The authors claim to have corrected for the possibility that lonely, depressed people are more inclined to use the Internet to begin with, and a cyberwag quoted in USA Today has already made the requisite joke that maybe these people are depressed by being in Pittsburgh.

(The study is 25 pages long. To minimize the risk of loneliness and depression, read this nine page press release.)

So how can we Internet apologists explain away this finding? Well, try this. Perhaps Internet users are more depressed because they are better informed. Perhaps their feelings of increased loneliness are reflections of a deepened understanding of the human condition. Let's face it: The world is a mess, life is basically futile, and other people are pretty dreadful and don't like you much anyhow. And you'd never acquire all this superior insight if you didn't spend many, many hours on the Internet. So read Slate. A lot. And don't forget to floss.

--Michael Kinsley