It isn’t easy to portray Matt Drudge, the would-be Walter Winchell of the Internet, as a victim. The reckless and malicious rumormongering that made Mr. Drudge briefly infamous over the summer made him seem more of a victimizer. But the jaunty proprietor of the Drudge Report has found a pair of patriotic champions who insist that not only is he a victim, but the target of a White House conspiracy to curtail his First Amendment rights.
Last August, as you may recall, Mr. Drudge emitted an “exclusive” dispatch to the effect that Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist and newly appointed assistant to the President, was concealing an “explosive” secret. The Drudge Report quoted an anonymous Republican operative claiming that “there are court records of Blumenthal’s violence against his wife,” Jacqueline Jordan Blumenthal, and that this “spousal abuse past” had been “effectively covered up.” Mr. Drudge was unable to provide even a wisp of evidence for these charges, or for his assertion that he had tried to reach Mr. Blumenthal for comment.
Those who have known the Blumenthals for many years, as I have, were not surprised when Mr. Drudge withdrew his lies with a one-sentence disclaimer the following day. Nor did it seem especially remarkable to learn several days later that the Blumenthals had decided to sue Mr. Drudge and his Internet sponsor, America Online, for $30 million.
What is amazing, however, is that David Horowitz and Peter Collier have stepped forward as sponsors of a “Matt Drudge Defense Fund & Information Center,” and have secured “pro bono” counsel for him. If you are not already familiar with this duo, Messrs. Horowitz and Collier are ex-radicals who have made a career of denouncing their former New Left comrades and causes for the past decade or so. With financial aid from big conservative foundations, they run a conglomerate of organizations that serve primarily to promote themselves and their books. Both are authors, notably of popular biographies of the Rockefeller, Kennedy and Ford families. Earlier this year, Mr. Horowitz published his latest volume, a memoir that concludes (after recounting his lousy childhood and bad marriages) with a homily about family values.
Exactly how Mr. Drudge and his vile assault on the intact Blumenthal family fit into the Horowitz-Collier project is unclear. Mostly they worry about “political correctness,” multiculturalism, liberalism and other such supposed threats to the American way. Their hectoring style is altogether familiar to anyone who suffered through the 60’s listening to ultra-left blowhards, except that the rhetorical wind now roars in the opposite direction. They are as confident of their righteousness today as they were 30 years ago, plodding a well-worn path traveled by other former communists-turned-conservatives and picking up a few bucks along the way. And like their predecessors, they still fail to perceive the irony in their conception of themselves as the lonely vanguard of historical truth.
Truth, historical or topical, is not a major concern of Mr. Drudge, who boasts that his work is produced without the burden of normal journalistic standards. Yet on the Horowitz-Collier Web site, his Drudge Report is promoted as an “independent and reliable” glimpse of “the mediascape as it exists: a frenetic, blurred, amoral world of Washington, New York, Hollywood and global happenings.” Cutting through this technobabble, what seems plain enough is that Mr. Drudge is the pet of a certain right-wing clique.
Still, it seems curious that Messrs. Horowitz and Collier, who have sought to anoint themselves as the voice of the Hollywood right, would choose this moment to glorify a figure as detestable as the worst supermarket tabloid. They do love publicity. But do the foundations that pay for the Horowitz-Collier operation admire this brand of wretched excess? Do the producers and actors who attend their conferences agree that Mr. Drudge was exercising legitimate free speech and should be encouraged? Or do they feel, as so many in the industry have suggested lately, that this kind of character assassination deserves to be opposed with legal action?
Before bringing their lawsuit against Mr. Drudge, the Blumenthals, both of whom work in the Clinton Administration, carefully sought the advice of the White House Office of Legal Counsel and got a spontaneous nod from the President and Vice President. In the eyes of Messrs. Horowitz and Collier, this was evidence of a Clintonite conspiracy “to shut Drudge up” with the “full power and resource [sic] of the White House,” despite the fact that the Blumenthals have retained private counsel. Their lawsuit is an attempt to define the limits of libel on the Internet, not a plot to suppress free speech.
Mr. Horowitz calls himself a “strong libertarian” with doubts about libel laws. But there could be another, less high-minded reason for his defense of Matt Drudge-namely, a rancid old grudge. In his memoir, Mr. Horowitz dwells at length on a mocking piece about him published 10 years ago by the “leftist” Mr. Blumenthal, then a staff writer for The Washington Post . To cloak petty retribution in the Bill of Rights would be perfectly in character for someone who now decorates all his old resentments with snippets of the American flag.