Can the mainstream media resist being dragged through the mud?
This column appeared Jan. 7, 1999, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site. Drudge has taken his articles down, but you can still read them here. To track how the Clinton paternity story infiltrated the media, see A cybersleaze timeline: Anatomy of a smear.
Matt Drudge and Larry Flynt — who would have thought them soulmates?
Drudge, the enfant terrible of online journalism, has been ratcheting up the hysteria volume this week over his latest “world exclusive”: that Bill Clinton may have a 13-year-old son, the result of a tryst with an African American prostitute who’s seeking to prove paternity through DNA testing.
Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, is planning to reveal the marital infidelities of one Republican U.S. senator and as many as a dozen GOP congressmen in the coming days, having offered a $1 million bounty to women who came forward with evidence of congressional sexual philandering.
Drudge and Flynt have more in common than an appetite for sleaze. Both are ideologues: Drudge is an admitted Clinton hater, Flynt is a Democrat who’s seeking to purge the moral high priests from their pedestals.
Both purloined other publications’ stories and claimed them as their own: Drudge hijacked the “Clinton’s secret son” story from the supermarket tabloids; Flynt borrowed the idea of “outing GOP hypocrites” from others, most notably Salon (his remark “Desperate times deserve desperate actions” echoed Salon’s clarion call, “ugly times call for ugly tactics”).
Most pointedly, both are forcing those of us in the news media to examine our souls and wrestle with issues of where to draw the line in reporting stories that so clearly go against the grain of traditional journalistic values.
“Both of these cases raise real questions about the capacity of the mainstream media to set the agenda for news coverage,” says James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The media seem to be caught in a tight spot — somewhere between following their instincts to chase the news wherever it leads, including sexual peccadilloes, and following their instincts to respect privacy in ways that are becoming increasingly difficult to define.”
Let’s first consider Drudge, who declined to be interviewed for this article. Despite a week of trying to whip up another media feeding frenzy, the scorecard through today looks like this: The Clinton paternity story has been covered by the supermarket tabloids, talk radio, the Fleet Street press, a smattering of foreign newspapers, Fox News, the New York Post, the Washington Times — and that’s all. (See A cybersleaze timeline on how the story percolated up from the marginalized media.)
The trajectory is becoming a familiar one: Stories of dubious provenance, ignored by the traditional press, find a home in the fringe media or supermarket tabloids; the reports make the rounds on the Internet, where they transmogrify and take on a new life; soon, they bubble up to the surface on talk radio, cable talk shows and late-night monologues; finally they appear in more traditional conservative publications. The story achieves a level of acceptance at every stage.
But this time, the so-called mainstream media have resisted.
Is Drudge fading out? Have the news media developed a backbone?
Perhaps. But it’s more likely that Drudge is chasing an old story — one that scandal-weary Americans and journalists, by and large, are sick and tired of.
“There’s nothing here that we haven’t beaten to death over the past year,” says Felicity Barringer, a reporter who covers the media for the New York Times. “For most publications, it’s probably a matter of: ‘Do we want to devote our resources to this? What is the sourcing, what’s the relevance, what’s the reliability of the information?’ ”
There may also be some resistance on the part of the news media to following the dark prince of cyberspace down another trail of scandal. “Perhaps there’s a dynamic at work that you don’t want to look at Drudge because you don’t want him making these decisions for you,” Naughton says.
That will change, of course, should the supermarket tabloid the Star reveal test results that show Clinton’s DNA is a paternal match for the 13-year-old Arkansas boy, Danny Williams. (Note to editors: If that happens, don’t just send your political reporter to the press conference; send your science reporter, too.)
And what to do when Flynt holds his press conference — perhaps in the next week — reporting the results of his under-the-covers investigation of congressional sexcapades? Inevitable questions arise: Is this news? Should the press ignore the spectacle? What’s the point of invoking higher standards when the list will be available on the Net and other media outlets within minutes of its release?
“To argue that just because something is ‘out there’ we ought to print it strikes me as self-serving,” Naughton says. “Every day we make judgments, we serve as filters for what’s of interest to a general audience. We used to have a set of standards that were, more or less, generally understood. Now we seem to be groping for a new set of standards that will hold true.”
In and of itself, adultery does not rise to the threshold of news — unless you have violated the public trust, spent public funds on a mistress, or committed lies under oath. Or unless you’ve committed the media’s mortal sin: hypocrisy. Moralizing about the unfitness of someone else to hold public office while committing the same acts.
“There’s a power to hypocrisy in a sexual context that’s greater than in a financial or political context,” Barringer says. “At the same time, if one of your standards for going with the story is hypocrisy, that’s a pretty low threshold.”
Naughton agrees. “I’d be very circumspect about how I’d play that. At best I’d have something inside the paper, or late in the newscast, or at the bottom of the Web site. But you don’t go crazy with it and you don’t republish it without authenticating it.”
I think Naughton’s right. Reporting on politicians’ personal foibles sets us up as arbiters of morality. To see Flynt waving his little list, and the media dutifully reporting it, recalls nothing so much as McCarthyism.
Says Naughton: “It took a fairly dramatic television performance to shame public officials into confronting McCarthyism. Maybe we need someone — a pro-impeachment Republican or a leading journalist — to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’ ”
Journalists have to ask ourselves: Are we ever going to get out of writing about sex lives if we don’t draw the line somewhere?