Wednesday, Feb. 18
On Thursday, Feb. 12, when right-wing supercybergossip Matt Drudge unleashed the gravity-defying headline declaring that Senator John Kerry’s campaign for President was headed for a 27-year-old speed bump named Alexandra Polier, the TV news hordes reacted like Mr. Drudge’s story was the frog-creature that had come crawling out of a fetid swamp.
“It belongs where it is, on the Drudge Report , because it’s crap,” one NBC reporter spat.
For MSNBC senior political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, that sort of indignation sounded familiar-in fact, it echoed a line from a script he wrote for an upcoming episode of NBC’s The West Wing , set to air on Feb. 25, in which the Drudge Report rattles the Beltway with rumors of-what else?-a sex scandal. While it was written in November of 2003, Mr. O’Donnell said the press reaction to the recent Drudge bombshell fit neatly into his plot line.
“The standard reaction to the Drudge Report publicly is, ‘Oh gee, you can’t believe every crazy Web site,’” he said. “Which I think is word for word one of the reactions I wrote into my script-by a character who then privately says, ‘I assume the Drudge Report is right.’ And that’s the perfect description of the way the Drudge Report is received.”
In Mr. O’Donnell’s West Wing episode, the Drudge Report “reveals” that The New York Times Magazine is working on a story that exposes the sordid truth behind Vice President Hoynes’ resignation. Another Times reporter publicly discredits it, but privately believes Mr. Drudge.
Reached for comment, Mr. Drudge told NYTV that he had not seen a single episode of the NBC show and was immediately concerned with copyright infringement. “They can’t use my image if they use my Web site,” he snapped. “It’s going to be a scandal!”
But when he calmed down, Mr. Drudge agreed with Mr. O’Donnell’s premise, that the media publicly shunned the messenger while coveting the message.
“That’s a very close mirror to the last five days,” he said, “because people in Washington were fully aware of the story and when I did it-’Oh shit!’”
“I don’t mind being pooh-poohed and being called the slimiest person on earth by James Carville,” he added.
Mr. Drudge said he was deeply amused watching the press react to him and was especially delighted by Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, who told WABC Radio on Thursday, Feb. 12, that he declined to discuss the Drudge Report rumor because it was only gossip-but later dedicated an entire panel discussion to it on his show. Mr. Drudge laughed while playing a recording of Mr. Wallace saying, “I’m in the news business, not in the gossip business,” over the phone to NYTV.
“It’s too easy,” chuckled Mr. Drudge.
In Mr. O’Donnell’s view, Mr. Drudge’s gossip acted like a media feedback loop: Mr. Drudge was tipped off by the media itself-specifically, Mr. Drudge claimed, Time magazine, ABC News and The Hill were investigating an as-yet-unsubstantiated tip that Senator Kerry engaged in an extramarital affair, which prompted the rest of the media to follow suit and ultimately flush the rumor out into the open before the facts were nailed down, driving it to a conclusion-in this case, a phalanx of reporters to a suburb in Nairobi and a denial by the woman in question, Ms. Polier, on Monday, Feb. 16. But don’t tell Mr. Drudge that that’s the end of the story.
“Oh, really ?” said Mr. Drudge. “Monica Lewinsky signed an affidavit. We haven’t seen Alex’s affidavit yet.”
In January 1998, he noted, Ms. Lewinsky signed a legal confession about her affair with Bill Clinton, unlike Ms. Polier, who has only made statements to reporters.
Mr. Drudge “tells you what the media is about to do,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Who else knows that? He says what the media is going to do and then they do it …. If his credibility wasn’t so high, there wouldn’t have been any confusion about how to handle this non-story.”
“His batting average on that is so good that the press believes what Drudge is reporting about the press,” he added. “Drudge’s report was not about Kerry, it was about the press.”
While the TV news anchors and talking heads may use Mr. Drudge as the ethical whipping boy, loudly washing their hands of him on the air and in print, the media privately tends to trust his reports exactly because of their origins: the backstage of the media itself. “It says something about Drudge’s credibility,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “It’s huge! It’s very, very powerful. That’s why other media outlets that did pick it up, they were going with Matt Drudge’s credibility. In general, over time, that’s not a bad bet.”
The rumor’s four-day life span, and its gingerly tip-toeing path through TV in that time, offered a look down the throat of the American media, as the rumor poked its way through the tabloid strata, starting with carefully worded innuendoes and arched eyebrows on evening programs on Thursday, Feb. 12, to Senator Kerry’s denial on Don Imus’ radio show on Friday, Feb. 13, to the King Kong headlines in the New York Post and Daily News (and a 20th-paragraph mention in a New York Times article) on Saturday, Feb. 14, to its turn on NBC’s The McLaughlin Group as “the unmentionable” on Sunday morning, Feb. 15.
In keeping with the West Wing script, the attacks on Mr. Drudge’s credibility came from the very news organizations that were either working on it already or who were getting reporters on the case and pronto -even if they were denying it outright, as ABC News’ The Note did on Friday, Feb. 13 when it posted the headline: “The (Democratic) Elephant in the Room: DEVELOPING(?) … The Answer Is ‘No.’”
On the eve of Mr. Kerry’s denial on Imus in the Morning , TV anchors and correspondents wrinkled their noses at the foul, unnamed thing in the room. That night, CNN’s Aaron Brown read an item on NewsNight saying, “The big political news of the day” was the impending endorsement of Senator John Kerry by General Wesley Clark, adding, “We emphasize news.”
Message: We’re not reporting these vile rumors that you may have heard about, for we are a legitimate news organization, above such scandal-mongering. (Next on Larry King Live : Laci Peterson!)
NBC News’ David Shuster cited an unnamed strategist who said that Governor Howard Dean was staying in the race in case Mr. Kerry’s campaign “implodes.” Come again?
Over on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly dismissed “slime” politics from his lofty podium of dignity. “Already rumors about the candidates are flying around the Internet,” he said. “And that kind of stuff will continue because the media loves it. Any whiff of scandal means higher ratings and more circulation. So the press vultures can’t get enough of character assassination.”
Of course, Mr. O’Reilly’s method of getting the news out was the oldest trick in the book: the double-fake reverse mention.
“Nobody was talking about it at that time,” observed Howard Fineman, the Newsweek chief political correspondent and MSNBC’s Hardball Presidential-election panelist. “He was putting it into circulation at a time when it wasn’t in major circulation. He was putting it in circulation on the most highly rated news show on cable television.”
Mr. Fineman said it was a tactic from the Richard Nixon playbook: “That’s like Richard Nixon used to say, ‘Some people say I should attack so and so for being a communist, but I would never do such a thing.’”
Mr. O’Reilly, a freshly minted critic of the Iraq war, has promised an entire series of The O’Reilly Factor on “slime” in politics on future shows. Mr. O’Donnell, can you concoct a TV talk-show character for West Wing who was a drum-beater for the war but then later decided it was a bad war and then campaigned against gossip in politics and then sprouted wings and flew to heaven? Thanks. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]
Thursday, Feb. 19
Tonight, NYTV adopts a grave, stentorian tone and arches its eyebrow in honor of Tom Brokaw, as the Museum of Television and Radio throws a black-tie gala at the Waldorf-Astoria for the retiring anchor. You know, this one is really earned. Here’s to you, Tom! As the late, great John Carmody would have said, a tip of the old rabbit ears to you. If Mr. Brokaw seems out of breath when he arrives, it’s because he literally just jogged three blocks east from 30 Rock after delivering the Nightly News . [WNBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]
Friday, Feb. 20
Memo to Dennis Miller: Straighten up, talk louder and kick your guests around a little more. And bring that darned chimp out more often. Actually, kick the chimp around too. More energy! [CNBC, 15, 9 p.m.]
Saturday, Feb. 21
$ Just as Governor Howard Dean seems to have run out of steam on the campaign trail, his one-time Saturday Night Live impersonator Jeff Richards (whom you may also know as “drunk girl”) seems to have gone missing too. According to NBC, he’s no longer with the show. What gives? “The show just made a shift in the cast,” said a spokesman. Sorry, governor. We have a piece of advice. DON’T GUEST-HOST! [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]
Monday, Feb. 23
For further proof that 19th-century carnival theatrics are back in vogue, Fox brings us The Littlest Groom , the reality dating contest featuring a hot-tubbing dwarf looking for love. Tonight’s the finale, in which 23-year-old Glen Foster must decide whether to marry a normal-sized woman or a height-challenged hottie. We won’t lie: We really do wonder just what the hell is going to happen here. [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday, Feb. 24
Richard Hatch, the 58-year-old actor who once played the dashing, feather-haired Captain Apollo on the 1978 sci-fi soap opera Battlestar Galactica , has a message on his Web site, Richardhatch.com, that neatly sums up his current situation:
“Note: The Richard Hatch of this site is not related to the winner of CBS-TV’s first Survivor show. Additionally, Richard is not participating in the new SCI-FI Channel Battlestar Galactica mini-series which is a re-imagining (remake) of the original show, not a continuation as fans had hoped for.”
Mr. Hatch, a former dreamboat on the 80′s daytime drama Santa Barbara , couldn’t buy the Sci-Fi Channel’s “edgy reimagining of the 1978 television series,” as the network put it, that aired in December 2003. It didn’t make him cry the way the original did.
“Even after the destruction of the colonies, there’s no tear in my eye,” Mr. Hatch told NYTV from his production office in Los Angeles. “I’m seeing a bunch of destruction, but I’m not feeling anything. It just wasn’t moving …. It was as if they took everything that made Battlestar out and replaced it with their own vision.”
Mr. Hatch is in for more disappointment, it seems: The network announced on Feb. 10 that it would produce 13 more episodes to begin production in Vancouver next month.
Of course, Mr. Hatch, the author of a number of Battlestar novels, had his own ideas for the show, one in which he might have had a larger role. In 1995, after attending a Star Trek convention and discovering an enormous subculture of Battlestar Galactica diehards among them, Mr. Hatch spent two years creating and test-marketing a four-minute reel that was a continuation of the original Star Wars Meets Bee Gees in Space concept, including bringing back some of the old characters to play the wizened generation to a new set of stars. He showed it to Universal in 1997.
“I laid out the case and the numbers 20 years ago and the ratings,” he said. “They couldn’t visualize how you could bring back the show.”
In 2002, Mr. Hatch was shocked to discover that Universal could suddenly visualize it after all: They had hired Ron Moore, the executive producer of HBO’s Carnivàle , and David Eick, a producer for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys , to tart it up for the Maxim demographic, changing a couple of male characters to buxom galaxy babes.
According to Mr. Hatch, the new show has divided fans, most of whom dislike it immensely. “It was like a fan war,” he said, reiterating for effect: “It was Fan . War .”
Mr. Hatch found the new version lurid. “Every five seconds somebody was throwing somebody against the wall and ripping their clothes off,” he said. “I can see sex on any channel. I want to see romance . There was cleavage and sex, but no romance.”
The producers offered Mr. Hatch a cameo on the show, but he turned it down.
“Having a cameo, it doesn’t feel like an honor of the original actors,” he said. “It just seems like they’re using them for their name value. To do a cameo would have been an insult.”
Mr. Moore, the new show’s co-producer, said he felt for Mr. Hatch, whom he met last year at Galacticon, the Battlestar Galactica convention in L.A. “I have a lot of sympathy for Richard and fans of the old show, because they were holding out hope for a show that didn’t happen,” he said. But he called his version “a more mature take. It’s a more reality-based show than the original series.”
Still, he hoped Mr. Hatch would eventually agree to come aboard for a few episodes. No hard feelings! “I think he’d be interesting, and the network would love to have him,” he said.
But in his monthly Web-based newsletter to fans, Mr. Hatch said that he dreamed only of a distant, more hopeful future where Mr. Moore and his ilk had bit the stardust.
“I can only hope that someday soon, we’ll have channels and studios that truly understand and respect the wishes of the multi-generational and broad-based Science Fiction community.”
Tonight, the Sci-Fi community comes together for a collective shrug at Stargate: SG-1 . [SCIFI, 44, 8 p.m.]