Last Friday at 7:58 p.m., Matt Drudge, the notorious Internet journalist who told the world about the liaison between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton, sent an e-mail to hundreds of thousands of people on his electronic mailing list.
"The Drudge Report," it read, "is monitoring information on what appears to be an 8.4 magnitude seismic event that occurred in the BALTICS-BELARUS region in NW RUSSIA." Was the story true? An 8.4 quake would be greater by far than Loma Prieta in 1989, Kobe in 1995 or even San Francisco in 1906.
Yesterday, Drudge's website was reporting that "one military source has become convinced that the reading was a technical error." We called Robert North at the International Data Center, Drudge's source, who said that his "automatic processing isn't perfect. . . . That earthquake never happened."
This rumbling is what the new E-Journalism is all about. Drudge, who may be the most powerful reporter in America and is certainly the most heroic, hears something, sees something, monitors something. Drawing on his own instincts to assess the item's veracity, he tells his readers, and they can check it out themselves (Drudge provided a handy link to the IDC's website)--or swallow it whole.
In other words, E-Journalism demands judgment not just from writers but from readers. Better yet, it reminds us that all journalism demands such judgment. We may feel better about a story because it has a brand name like AP or CBS attached, but skepticism is always warranted.
When I saw Sunday that corporate twins Time and CNN were reporting that the United States "used lethal nerve gas during a mission to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War," I wondered: How good were the sources? Where was the chemical evidence? Was reporter Peter Arnett himself credible? Were CNN and Time stretching this tale to create a blockbuster premiere for their new TV show?
Then again, readers of this column can question my own skepticism. Wasn't Glassman the host of a Sunday chat show that CNN killed last January? Does he harbor a grudge?
Such questions are legitimate and necessary--and I credit Drudge with reminding us they must be asked. The conventional editing process is no guarantor of truth, as Drudge pointed out in his virtuoso performance Tuesday before a snarling audience at the National Press Club.
He noted that NBC's legions didn't prevent Tom Brokaw from smearing Richard Jewell, that the Wall Street Journal recently suffered a huge libel judgment and that fictionist Stephen Glass deceived, among many others, John F. Kennedy Jr. and the editors of the New Republic.
By contrast, Drudge said, a journalist operating alone takes personal responsibility for his stories in a way that large news organizations do not. "No 'Periscope' here," he said. "No 'Washington Whispers' here. I put my name on it. I'll answer for anything I write."
Also, with Internet reporters such as Drudge around, stories are less likely to be hoarded by journalism's elite, who use the "public's right to know" as a constant defense but who really mean "our right to tell the public when we feel like it." Newsweek put the Lewinsky story on ice--an unsound judgment. Drudge let the world know.
Drudge had no apologies for non-membership in journalism's smug little guild. "If I am here to defend what I am writing," he said, "why isn't that enough?" It is. Let Drudge write his version of truth, and let readers judge for themselves. If he libels someone (as Sidney Blumenthal, the smirkish Clinton aide, alleges), then he'll be sued, as he should be. If he gets the story wrong too many times, no one will listen to him. The marketplace for news is like any other.
But this kind of marketplace, spread by the Internet, is a threat to the people with the power today, especially in politics and journalism. Drudge quoted Hillary Clinton, who said earlier this year, "We're all going to have to rethink how we deal with the Internet. As exciting as these new developments are, there are a number of serious issues without any kind of editing function or gatekeeping function."
She talked about a kind of balance, warning that "any time an individual leaps so far ahead of that balance and throws the system, whatever it might be--political, economic, technological--out of balance, you've got a problem."
Really? Maybe you've got a problem, "you" being the folks in charge before someone leaps "far ahead." The rest of us, gatekeeper-less, have more choices, more freedom, a more exciting future.
Drudge wondered if Mrs. Clinton would have said the same thing about such balance-upsetters as Edison and Ford. "If technology has finally caught up with individual liberty," said Drudge, "why would anyone who loves freedom want to rethink that?"
Exactly. If there is a problem with Drudge, it is that there is only one of him. Let a thousand Drudges bloom, and let readers make up their own minds.
As for that earthquake. Okay, so it didn't happen in Belarus, but it's happening in America today--to the dismay of the National Press Club and Hillary Clinton--and the reading is at least 8.4.
James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at AEI.