Drudge enjoys reluctant support in Internet libel suit

Thursday, March 19, 1998

Matt Drudge...
Matt Drudge

If Matt Drudge's name weren't attached to it, presidential adviser Sidney Blumenthal's libel suit against the Internet gossip columnist might resemble an underdog tale, perhaps even a journalistic retelling of David and Goliath:

Lone reporter camps out in tiny Los Angeles apartment banging away at online column for only a few thousand dollars a month. When White House bigwig sues him for inaccurate report of spousal abuse, reporter has no libel insurance or money to battle back.

But this is the case of Matt Drudge, who despite his First Amendment pleadings counts few allies among the media, those champions of the underdog and of free-press issues.

Many reporters and free-press advocates say they detest Drudge's lackadaisical reporting and posting methods; they appear almost eager to watch the infamous columnist fall in his court battle against the Blumenthals.

Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline Jordan Blumenthal, filed their libel suit last August after Drudge wrote in The Drudge Report about rumors of alleged “spousal abuse” by Blumenthal. Drudge retracted the Aug. 10 story the next day after Blumenthal, who seeks $30 million in damages, denied the accounts.

The mainstream news media's disdain for Drudge revealed itself last week when he appeared at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., for a preliminary hearing. Walking near news reporters gathered not for the columnist's case but for the grand jury inquiry into Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, Drudge faced shouts of “Are you a reporter?” and “Do you check sources?”

“I'm a working reporter who has written thousands of stories and driven dozens of news cycles,” responded Drudge, according to The New York Times. “I check all my sources.”

Many disagree, saying Drudge merely lifts content from published and unpublished reports generated by the legitimate press and posts them in his Drudge Report. Others say the power of the press belongs to anyone who has a press, i.e. an Internet site.

Working the high wire

Drudge's methods aside, the question at hand is whether he is even a journalist in the first place. The few who agree say that while Drudge is a journalist, he's not a very good one.

“He may not be Edward R. Murrow, but he is a journalist in the same sense as Liz Smith and Walter Winchell are journalists,” says Barry Steinhardt, director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group promoting free speech on the Internet.

Steve Rendall, a former reporter for the International Herald Tribune and several stateside newspapers, reluctantly agrees.

“I would like to be more elitist about it and say it should be a more exclusive club, but I don't think I can,” says Rendall, now senior analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. “I think a lot of people are qualified to report.”

But Rendall describes Drudge as “a failed journalist.”

“He's a journalist who boasts of an 80 percent rate of accuracy,” Rendall says. “Any journalist I know tries to get everything right.”

He says if Drudge were a high-wire act, the tightrope-walking gossip columnist would be dead on the circus floor.

Drudge, in his own reports, prefers to compare himself to pamphleteers of colonial America. He admits he's shocked at the animosity directed at him and the lack of support from media advocates in the Blumenthal case.

“This case marks the first time a sitting White House presidential advisor has sued a reporter,” Drudge wrote in a Feb. 23 report. “Journalists certainly should be outraged.”

Defending himself before the grand jury-hungry news reporters, Drudge said the Blumenthal story, at worst, “was an accurate report of an inaccurate rumor.” In a Wall Street Journal profile last week, Drudge said: “Maybe I made some mistakes but … the First Amendment protects mistakes.”

Drudge notes, too, that he filed an immediate retraction to the Blumenthal story. Drudge didn't return e-mail messages to him at Drudge Report.

A defender for Drudge

While the mainstream press hasn't been supportive, Drudge found an ally in David Horowitz, the founder of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Horowitz says that he found Drudge with scant financial resources–America Online pays him only $3,000 a month for the reports–no libel insurance and little knowledge of the court system.

“This is a guy who thought he could simply walk into court, tell his side of the story and that would be it,” says Horowitz, who describes the Blumenthal lawsuit as a “White House political vendetta.”

Horowitz, who arranged legal help for Drudge, attributes the media's resentment to Drudge's help in breaking stories on President Clinton's alleged relations with Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky. In both instances, Drudge posted detailed reports of articles Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff had been preparing.

“He's broken the Isikoff story on Willey and broke it again with Lewinsky,” Horowitz says. “The only person who should be mad at Drudge is Isikoff.”

Isikoff says he doesn't want to offer new comments about Drudge. Instead, he referred to previously published comments where he called Drudge “totally reckless” and “a menace to honest journalism.”

But Horowitz claims Drudge isn't that bad.

“If this guy was as reckless as lots of journalistic people have said, he would have been hit with libel suits a long time ago,” he says. “And this one is really a minor case. As he said in numerous accounts, the story was the rumor itself. Serious libel is stating falsehood as fact.”

But media experts say Horowitz's statement isn't altogether accurate. Publishing a rumor, they say, isn't protected absolutely.

“If that's [Drudge's] sole defense, he's not going to win,” says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Yes, he has First Amendment rights, but they are no greater than what anybody else has.”

Kirtley says neither the retraction nor the rumor defense won't eliminate grounds for the libel suit although the retraction may help in limiting damages. She and other media experts agree that the Blumenthals may find it difficult to prove extensive damages, considering Blumenthal's influence with the media and the White House.

Kirtley said no one believes the “spousal abuse” story anyway.

'Operating on the fringes'

Lawsuits aside, media experts say that the Drudge case points out that journalistic standards don't end at the computer. Online news reporters, they say, must adhere to accuracy and fairness, too.

“We're living in this fool's paradise with people thinking they can do whatever they want on the Internet and not be accountable for it,” Kirtley says.

“If Matt Drudge is a journalist and claims to be a journalist for purposes of access to information and for the purpose of attracting readers and information from potential sources, he must be prepared to accept the same standards of accuracy,” says Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

While reporters may regard Drudge as distasteful and a practitioner of poor journalism, they should rally around Drudge on principle alone, Steinhardt says.

“The principle being that when you speak about public figures, you're entitled to a great deal of constitutional protection,” he says. “If you don't defend the Matt Drudges of the world you'll be handing a license to government censors to come after more mainstream news sources as well.”

“There's always this kind of cringing reaction of why are we standing up for these people,” Kirtley says. “The answer is because the First Amendment protects those who operate on the fringes.”

But not all see it that way. Most notable of the dissenters is Floyd Abrams, the noted First Amendment lawyer. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Abrams flatly stated that Drudge is not a journalist.

“There is such a level of built-in irresponsibility in everything he says and does,” Abrams said. “If one were rewriting libel law today, one would try to write it to assure that the false statements of Matt Drudge were treated as libel.”

Kirtley says she doesn't understand why so many members of the news media don't see that supporting Drudge is a necessary cause.

“I really don't. I think they are really offended by Drudge's admitted lack of qualitative sourcing,” she says. “But let's face it. The general media hasn't been real good with qualitative sourcing either lately.”

Even among newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, unsubstantiated rumors, incorrect reports and anonymous sources pepper what is supposed to be complete, objective reporting on Clinton's alleged affairs, some say. The rush to get the latest news has left many newspapers stooping dangerously close to Drudge's level.

Kirtley says: “Look at it in that context, and what Drudge is doing doesn't seem that out of control.”