Is Matt Drudge Too Far Ahead of The Times ?

Matt Drudge has declared war on The New York Times . After scooping The Times on Sept. 12 with details of its own investigation into White House overnight stays for Hillary Clinton campaign contributors, Mr. Drudge said he will be regularly rushing information about Times reporters’ work-unfinished or not-to his Web site.

“This is just the first flare that I’m shooting up,” Mr. Drudge said. “It’s going to be a long, long protracted battle with The Times and what they do internally.” To accomplish that task, Mr. Drudge said he has close access to what The Times is thinking and doing.

“I have only just begun. I have access to all of their internals,” he said. Internals? “Budgets, communications, what reporters are working on.” Mr. Drudge later added, “‘Access to all of their internals’-what an arrogant statement. Hee hee hee.”

The Times is firing back, upset at being scooped-not just on the Hillary overnights story, but also on another exclusive on a suspicious 1995 fundraising pitch by Al Gore-and by the publicity from the leaks. Times staffers were careful to avoid engaging Mr. Drudge for fear of validating him and his reports. Nonetheless, John Broder’s measured tones did little to cover the frustration at losing his White House–Camp David overnights exclusive.

“I understand and appreciate that there’s an extraordinary interest in what The New York Times is doing, thinking and working on, and I appreciate that we operate in an extremely competitive environment,” Mr. Broder said. “That said, The Drudge Report is so flawed, so fantasy-ridden and, at times, [so] destructive to our efforts at fairness that it’s disturbing. It’s infuriating at times, not to mention annoying in the extreme. In both instances-the trial lawyer and the overnights stories-we were making efforts at achieving our standards of fairness, accuracy, balance, and it doesn’t help our efforts for the world to know what we’re working on. It’s not clear whose interests-besides his own-he’s serving.”

Whether Mr. Drudge is bluffing about his access to the inner workings of The Times -he claimed to know what goes on in the page 1 meetings every day-remains to be seen. Editors and reporters at The Times have disputed his accuracy.

But the Internet columnist proved that, for one day at least, he had a pretty good idea of what the paper was working on. A report posted on his Web site on Tuesday, Sept. 12, said Mr. Broder was working on a story that Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign was rewarding campaign donors with overnight stays in the White House. Mr. Drudge also alleged that, according to “newsroom sources,” the story had been held for several days to prevent disrupting the debate between Mrs. Clinton and Rick Lazio on Wednesday, Sept. 13.

Reporters and editors at The Times said that Mr. Broder at that point did not even have a list of overnight visitors, much less a link with contributors.

“We were not holding the story,” said Michael Oreskes, Washington bureau chief. “There was no story to be held. Reporting is not the same as having a story ready to run. Journalists know that.”

It’s clear that the Times folk want nothing more than to see Mr. Drudge go away. And it’s easy to sympathize with them. It’s hard enough, particularly in the heavily spun political arena, to get to the truth of a matter. No working journalist wants to also have to deal with Mr. Drudge.

But, whatever one feels about him, one cannot deny that Mr. Drudge can drive the pack. In this case, some of his sway derives from The Times ‘ ability to dictate news cycles, and by the eagerness of the press corps to get in on what’s being cooked up by Oreskes & Co.

But Mr. Drudge’s passionate hatred of the Clinton administration makes his reports immediately suspect. And his lack of understanding of journalism is apparent; he sees no difference between being a news source and a journalist. In the best possible light, Mr. Drudge himself is somewhere in the middle-a tipster. Just like the folks who like to make whispered phone calls promising hot scoops to eager journalists, Mr. Drudge releases kernels of truth surrounded by very little fact. He doesn’t understand that the real journalist does the legwork.

That said, he got the desired reaction to the overnighters scoop. Bill Plante, the veteran CBS White House correspondent, brought it up during White House spokesman James Lockhart’s briefing the following day. Mr. Lockhart said he wouldn’t comment on reports “from that source. If you have some independent reporting and questions, go ahead and ask them. But don’t bring that gentleman’s reporting into this room.”

Mr. Plante followed up: “Have any contributors to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign stayed overnight at the White House or Camp David?”

To which Mr. Lockhart conceded, “Sure. I don’t know about Camp David, but the President and the First Lady, over the last seven and a half years, have always welcomed their friends and supporters and political officials from around the country, prominent members of the arts community, to stay at the White House. Within that group, there certainly have been people who, as their friends, have supported them financially.”

Despite Mr. Lockhart’s plea-”Let me just say for the record that-and I’ll wait until Bill [Plante] stops talking so you can hear this-that it is truly a sorry day when you all walk in here and ask me questions based on a rumormonger’s Internet Web site”-his quote became the crux of wire stories and TV broadcasts.

“No. The crux of the story were my reports,” said Mr. Drudge when Off the Record pointed that out. “That’s the ongoing battle between me and the press. I can’t explain why the main press continues to take Joe Lockhart’s word over mine.”

That Mr. Drudge equates himself-a man who purports to cover the White House-with the man who is the official spokesman for the White House might explain part of his problem. It might also be because so much of what Mr. Drudge reports-and says-is disputed.

Take, for instance, his claim that it was a phone call from him that spurred The Times to publish Don Van Natta Jr.’s story about Vice President Al Gore’s alleged fund-raising call to a Texas trial lawyer. The page 1 story linked notes on “call sheets” with allegations of a quid pro quo-contributions in return for President Clinton’s veto of legislation.

Mr. Drudge reported that Jill Abramson, an editor in the Times Washington bureau, “shouted into the phone” at him, hung up on him and was then heard saying: “Let’s get this thing out!”

Times editors and reporters denied that the story had been on hold until Mr. Drudge phoned. Ms. Abramson disagreed with Mr. Drudge’s characterization of their conversation-she doesn’t recall shouting-and said that Mr. Van Natta’s story was already on the schedule for the next day’s paper and had already been edited.

“Well, shame on them,” Mr. Drudge replied. “Shame on them for not telling people what they know as soon as they know it.”

Mr. Drudge said his reports would help correct The Times ‘ manipulation of the news. “I think I proved last week they were biased. Two stories that they had that I just happened to know about they claim weren’t ready, were not favorable to Democrats, were not run, but several Bush stories have been rushed into print,” he said. “I just think it’s scurrilous for them to manipulate news like that as they’re doing.”

But Times staffers said there are no excuses for Mr. Drudge’s errors.

“Drudge’s lone talent is listening for the echoes of reporters’ footsteps,” said Mr. Van Natta. “But his biggest failing is when he attempts to guess at precisely what we’re doing-and almost always, he guesses wrong.” He gave as an example a 1998 Drudge report about the President’s choice of neckties, which he said erroneously depicted a story The Times was working on. (Mr. Drudge denies he even included The Times in his account.)

Mr. Drudge hinted that he has his own sources-and that he had independent knowledge the overnighters story was true.

“My formula for knowing this and feeling confident to report it is not privy,” he said. “It’s like a Kentucky Fried Chicken formula-I’m not saying. My sources are delicate.”

When Mrs. Clinton addressed the overnighters issue herself (in language similar to Mr. Lockhart’s) at a Sept. 14 campaign stop, Mr. Broder finally filed a story for the Friday, Sept. 15, edition of The Times . And it included this prickly line: “A false report by Matt Drudge, the Internet gossip columnist, on Tuesday night that The Times was suppressing an article on the overnight stays prompted several media inquiries at the White House news briefing the following day.”