From the day that online gossip sheet Drudge Report broke the story eight months ago, the Internet has played a crucial and controversial role in the national uproar over the investigation of President Clinton.
The medium's importance became universally recognized when Congress made it the delivery vehicle for independent counsel Kenneth Starr's 445-page report on his investigation of alleged White House improprieties. And Web sites will continue that momentum by carrying a video of Clinton's grand jury testimony on his affair with Monica Lewinsky when it is released today by the House Judiciary Committee.
If that weren't enough, the Internet's special place in the controvery was further cemented last week when Net magazine Salon published a story about an affair the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee had 30 years ago. Other journalistic outlets had known about the story but decided not to run it, according to an editorial that Salon ran on the day it published the story.
"I feel more and more sure that definitely this was the right thing to do," cofounder Andrew Ross said. But that doesn't mean that the standards on the Net are any lower, he is quick to add.
While the Drudge Report is universally regarded as a gossip sheet that runs unsubstantiated tips, Ross argues that Salon goes to great lengths to get sources on the record and to check its stories thoroughly--even more so than established papers, including the venerable New York Times.
Right or wrong, it's probably no coincidence that at least two of the scandal's most controversial elements have broken on the Internet.
Despite their obvious differences, Salon and the Drudge Report both lie outside the traditional news media structure. Both ran stories that newspapers and magazines had initially declined to publish. And both were criticized for it by the same press that, Ross points out, that carried the very stories they were criticizing.
Many journalists left traditional media vehicles, such as newspapers, "because they not particularly interesting and had a sort of narrow view of the news," Ross said. Salon, for example, was founded by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner.
"The reason Drudge had the story first was Newsweek spiked the story," Ross said. Without the Net, he said, perhaps the National Enquirer "would have run the story. It's really difficult to say."
Since its report, Salon has been besieged with calls, email, press inquiries, and raging hit counts--at one point last week it was getting 75,000 hits per minute, the magazine said. The publication even endured a bomb threat Friday, though editors played down the incident.
While many callers have praised Salon for running the piece, others have joined media critics in chastising it for running what they have largely said was old and irrelevant information.
To Ross, the story was about fundamental hypocrisy: The person sitting in judgment of the president had himself lied about an affair, though he had not technically perjured himself as Clinton is alleged to have done.
"The guy hasn't lied under oath, but he's lying," Ross said. "What is the difference between reporting on the 30-year-old affair and spending $40 million on a 20-year-old land deal, which has nothing to do with Bill Clinton as president?"