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The Drudge in the mirror

Net "reporter" Matt Drudge has become the poster boy for the traditional media's stated fears about the Internet.

Shortly after "Clinterngate" broke last week, CNN telecast live a press feeding frenzy that should give pause to journalists of every stripe, Internet and otherwise.

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr was to make a statement. For the first couple of minutes of the broadcast, Starr attempted to shuffle toward the microphones as a mob of cameramen, reporters, and sound guys pressed in on him, clicking, whirring, and shouting. "Mr. Starr! Ouch! Move back! Get off my toes! I can't move; he's shoving me!" CNN's open microphones faithfully transmitted live. The only mercy was that the melee didn't end in a heap of arms, legs, and lenses.

This media powder keg was ignited by none other than Matt Drudge, the 31-year-old Walter Winchell wanna-be who publishes an email scandal sheet from his West Hollywood apartment. Ever since his Drudge Report featured gossip of the story allegedly killed by Newsweek, the press has devoted a lot of ink to Drudge himself. "Compromised copy--how the Internet pollutes journalism," the Baltimore Sun headlined one column on Drudge. "Web is Wild, Wild West to maverick who sparked Clinton troubles," declared the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Since the Internet has become a vehicle for news, journalists working in other media have tended to point to the Net as a boil on the honorable body media. And since last year, when Drudge made headlines with a $30 million lawsuit leveled against him by a Clinton aide, he's become the poster boy for the traditional media's stated fears about the Internet.

But Drudge is neither Satan nor savior of the Internet--nor are the journalists who use the Internet to deliver news. He's more like a symptom. He's a sign of the times, a mirror that reflects back to us the beauty and the blemishes of the medium and what we've made of it. And, in an odd way, Drudge may be unwittingly pointing the way toward a measure of redemption for the much-despised press, no matter what medium we use.

With little regard for traditional media safeguards, Drudge shoots out email brimming with innuendo, gossip, and just plain unfounded rumors. He states matter-of-factly that he doesn't check facts and doesn't do any original reporting, two reckless practices that make the blood of most journalists run cold. He just gets the "news" out fast, right or wrong.

Even without the Internet, the competitive pressure to get the news, get it first, get it live, and get it 24 hours a day has become almost unbearable to most journalists. Without any editorial leash, Drudge takes this pressure to its absurd extreme, spewing forth a full range of the information that comes into newsrooms but rarely leaves them. By reporting the allegations against President Clinton, even second-hand, he made an opening for even "respectable" journalists like ABC's Sam Donaldson to "report" rumors of some pretty seamy details.

Which, in turn, escalated the competition amongst thousands of news outlets worldwide. With so many outlets vying for the news, we journalists have even fallen on ourselves. Let's not forget that Drudge's original report was a secondhand account of a Newsweek story about Monica Lewinsky's alleged affair with the president. And Drudge himself showed up on a blitz of TV and radio programs after he broke the story of Newsweek not breaking the story.

But while Drudge may be a most visible symptom of media saturation and the recklessness that can result from the drive to be first, he also embodies the boldness, the exhuberance, and the independence of the Internet.

Drudge is working outside the system. He's unbeholden to institutional or corporate sources to feed him the daily machine-made stories that most publications rely on to fill their pages, like speeches, press conferences, and earnings reports. Drudge says he doesn't worry about offending the White House because he never had access in the first place--and frankly, he doesn't need it. Boldly spoken, if a bit naive.

In several interviews, he has said that he thinks most journalists are too close to their subjects, that they've lost the critical distance that makes it possible to courageously report even bad news. He may be right, but there is a difference between courage and carelessness that he hasn't yet divined.

Like the Net, Drudge is experiencing a speed and freedom that is foreign to the press. Now if he'd just use that freedom to do some real reporting, to dig up and follow up the stories that journalists relish and rarely get the opportunity to report, he might become a real populist hero, a journalist that people really trust for important, substantive news, not just dilenttantish gossip.

For now, he's little more than a reflection of this toddling medium's strengths and weaknesses, and a vague hope for its future.