Drudge Strikes Again! (Where’s the Outrage?)

The time has come when every American probably should prepare an affidavit denying sexual contact with the President-any President-just in case. Sign the document in triplicate, and have the same done by every member of your family, including pets. If you or they have ever set foot in the White House or crossed the Arkansas state border it would be prudent to circulate the denials to media outlets, on background. Otherwise just keep them in a safe deposit box, which should not be opened until the Paula Jones trial is over.

The reason for such precautions is that America now lives in the Drudge-driven news cycle-a perilous spot in cyberspace and real-time where anyone can say anything about anybody else, especially if it involves Bill Clinton, and get national attention for a day or two.

The Drudge in question is not some copy editor slaving overtime at a keyboard, of course, but the mighty Matt Drudge, intrepid Internet gossipmonger and proprietor of a heavily hyped Web site called the Drudge Report .

Mr. Drudge, whose fans sometimes defend him as a “rumor reporter,” seems to suffer from a journalistic form of premature ejaculation, causing him to emit poorly sourced stories about the President, the First Lady and various Clinton aides-which are then repeated by major news organizations. That appears to be what happened over the weekend of Jan. 17, when Mr. Drudge lifted a half-baked story from the offices of Newsweek magazine and caused a wave of panic in Washington newsrooms.

Or as Mr. Drudge himself put it: “The Drudge Report revealed late Saturday night that [ Newsweek ] reporter Michael Isikoff had developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked at the last minute.”

According to Mr. Drudge, the Isikoff article involved a 23-year-old former White House intern and her “intimate taped phone conversations” either with or about the President. The taped intimacies were unavailable, however, so Mr. Drudge could offer nothing more titillating on his Web site than the unfortunate intern’s brief résumé. Roughly 36 hours later, the Drudge Report had a new “exclusive,” saying that the intern had executed an affidavit denying any “sexual relationship” with Mr. Clinton. According to Mr. Drudge-and take that for what it’s worth-the intern gave her sworn statement in response to a subpoena from the lawyers for Paula Jones.

Whatever ailment afflicts Mr. Drudge is plainly contagious. On ABC’s This Week , the usually sober conservative William Kristol, excited by the intern rumor, asked whether “the media is now going to report what are pretty well validated charges of Presidential behavior in the White House.” He brushed aside George Stephanopoulos, who tried vainly to caution him about citing “discredited” sources such as the Drudge Report .

So much for news judgment in Washington, where people like Mr. Kristol are treated as journalists, and where it doesn’t matter that Mr. Drudge’s “reporting” is on a par with his D-average record in high school. Recall that this is the same Matt Drudge who published, as he later admitted, an entirely false column last August alleging that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal beat his wife. In that incident Mr. Drudge alluded to mythical “court records,” much as in this case he cited taped conversations he had never heard. He has publicly confessed that he never tried to verify the charges against Mr. Blumenthal and was “used” by Republican operatives. (Ironically, on Aug. 11, 1997-literally hours before he was forced to retract his Blumenthal fiction-Mr. Drudge assured a national television audience that “I won’t go out with anything unless I know it’s true.”)

The White House intern fiasco is merely the latest “exclusive” plucked by Mr. Drudge from the vicinity of the Paula Jones camp, despite a gag order issued by Judge Susan Webber Wright. The Jones case, and the general topic of Presidential peccadilloes, created the Drudge-driven news cycle-a state of affairs that seems to be understood all too well by someone close to Ms. Jones. Whoever he or she may be, that person knows any rumor fed to Mr. Drudge will be transmitted whole to be swallowed by his avid readers, including editors and producers at nominally professional news organizations.

In other words, Mr. Drudge is the cut-out for scurrilous material in a propaganda campaign against the White House that directly defies a Federal court order. The conservatives who piously urge Mr. Clinton to settle with Ms. Jones for the sake of the Presidency ought to realize why such leaks have made that almost impossible. And they might take a deep breath and ask themselves whether their cause is honored by association with the likes of Matt Drudge. They may think he is digging a grave for the Clinton Presidency, but the deeper the hole gets, the harder it will be for any of us-in politics, in the media, in democratic society-to climb out of Mr. Drudge’s sewer. Drudge Strikes Again! (Where’s the Outrage?)