ainstream media tried to But life has a funny way of Journalistic blunders abound in
eat Matt Drudge, the self- evening the score. In the last sev- the reporting of the Clinton-
made cyber sleuth who eral months, mainstream journal- Lewinsky scandal. The Boston Globe
regularly publishes the online ism has suffered a run of discovered a popular columnist had
“Drudge Report” and who scooped embarrassing disclosures that make routinely invented people she
Newsweek on the Clinton-Lewinsky Drudge’s online reporting look like quoted. The New Republic admitted
scandal, bringing it to the public’s it’s Pulitzer-Prize caliber. that one of its writers fabricated all
attention first. Actually, mainstream journal- or parts of more than two dozen
Then mainstream media ate ism should have seen its recent articles. That same writer infected
itself and now it’s eating the Net. black eye coming. The entire news stories in other major magazines
More recently, there was the
CNN/Time magazine scandal
involving an unprovable story
about how the Pentagon
dropped nerve gas on U.S.
military deserters hiding out
in Laos during the Vietnam
War. CNN fired the producers
of that story; Time retracted its
article and apologized for its lack
of journalistic oversight.
Myth of 80 Percent
A popular rap against Drudge is
In each case, big media has been debacle surrounding the bombing that he boasts about being “80%
left reaching for the pink stuff to of Centennial Park during the accurate” in his news stories and
relieve its heartburn. Olympics was the tip-off. News that such a percentage is good
Somebody owes Drudge a big organizations from TV to news- enough. Drudge’s statement makes
apology. No, make that a lot of papers were caught flat-footed by his mainstream critics apoplectic.
somebodies. For more than a year, wrongly fingering Richard Jewel “Foul!” they cry. He could never
old-line media used Drudge as as the perpetrator. get away with such a cavalier atti-
their personal whipping post. The As we know now, Jewel didn’t tude at a “real” news organization.
more drubbings Drudge’s brand of have anything to do with the Small catch: the quote is a modern
journalism took from the august bombing. Several news organiza- urban myth.
gatekeepers of American journal- tions apologized to Jewel; some The geniuses of this “80% fac-
ism, the more puffed up they paid him in lieu of litigating tor” reveal a different story. In an
became. But oh how the mighty embarrassing libel suits. Since April 11, 1997 Washington Post
have fallen ... on their swords in Jewel, the news has been all story by media critic Howard
many cases. downhill. Kurtz, Drudge said a story about
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9 11
the president having fondled a vis- news services is skyrocketing. In portal site, Snap, and taking a
itor to the Oval Office “seemed to 1995 only 4% of adults went minority stake in C-Net News.
have about 80% of the facts.” He online at least once a week to get Disney, which owns ABC, followed
never said those facts were inaccu- their news; as of May 1998 that by buying into Infoseek.
rate, nor did he say all his stories figure is 20%. Meanwhile, viewer- This sudden embracing of a
were 80% accurate. ship of broadcast news is plum- medium that mainstream journal-
Drudge did admit in a National meting. In 1993, 60% of all ism once held as unclean is,
Press Club appearance earlier this Americans over 18 tuned their frankly, not an altogether welcome
year that “I once gave a quote that, TVs to the news on a regular basis. occurrence.
oh, I guess I’m 80% accurate [for] As of May, the Pew survey says
the body of my work.” But he that number has dropped to a Co-opting of Net News
included in this percentage all the mere 38%. Newspaper readership For decades we have seen the corpo-
predictions he makes, such as spec- remains steady—68% of those ratization of the mainstream press.
ulating that the recent Jim Carrey polled read a daily newspaper reg- More and more outlets held by a
film, The Truman Show, would ularly while 47% say they read a fewer number of companies. This
make $300 million. newspaper “yesterday.” However, concentration in the news busi-
If all the talking-head pundits newspaper readership is becoming nesses has dented investigative jour-
on Sunday-morning news shows less clear; only 28% of those under nalism to the point where it’s
had to factor in their own off-the- 30 surveyed said they read a news- almost nonexistent. The daily news
cuff predictions, I’d wager their paper “yesterday” compared with is dry and boring; white bread
accuracy percentages would be 69% of seniors. served up in black-and-white print
much lower than 80%. The journalistic landscape these or blow dried on TV and cable.
At the same National Press days, at least in the mainstream, is And the loss of a diversity of
Club appearance, Drudge was being pressured on all sides and voice in the news business is
asked if he could “succeed as a the stress is showing. In the shocking; the public should be
journalist working for an organiza- attacks on Drudge and by exten- outraged, instead they are merely
tion that required 100% accuracy sion, all things Internet, and in the turned off and so they tune out, as
instead of 70% or 80%?” rush to be first, at the expense of the Pew survey so starkly shows.
Drudge answered: “I don’t being right. Velocity, not veracity, There is, I fear, a real danger
know what organization that it seems, is the thrust of the news that online journalism is heading
would be.” A smattering of cycle these days. for a similar fate if big media con-
applause followed. Touche. Writing about the CNN/Time tinues to encroach. How can it
fiasco, New York Times columnist not? Big media is all about the
Running Scared Frank Rich says, “the culture that bottom line. And to keep the bot-
The subtext of all the piling on caused it remains entrenched—and tom line healthy, these big media
attacks from mainstream journal- ubiquitous. It’s the same entertain- companies have to keep advertisers
ists directed at this poster child for ment culture, with its insatiable happy. You don’t keep advertisers
bad boy Net journalism is easy to hunger for new stars and daily happy by running hard-nosed
read: We are afraid. scoops (however tenuous), that has reports on industry failings with
And if a recent survey from the contributed to many of our recent any regularity.
Pew Research Center surveying media messes...” And when it comes to online
3,002 adults is to be believed, The fact that the Internet has a journalism, there is a paucity of
mainstream journalism may indeed built-in immediacy almost impos- advertisers in the first place, there-
have good reason to be afraid. sible to match has lead mainstream fore, the main thrust is attracting
The Pew survey, a biennial journalism to start to embrace it, advertisers. Making online news
study of news consumption habits rather than repeal it. NBC, which “safe” for advertisers will have an
of Americans (www.people- is a partner with Microsoft in the adverse effect on the quality and
press.org/med98rpt.htm) shows joint venture MSNBC, kicked off type of journalism produced there.
that consumption of Internet-based this trend when it bought into the This is exactly why we need the
12 September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
Matt Drudge’s of the world.
Whether or not you like his partic-
ular brand of journalism—and
from the traffic Drudge claims his
Web site receives, there are plenty
of people that do—Drudge repre-
sents a diversity of voice that isn’t
found in the mainstream press. It’s
a diversity the mainstream will
But the Internet still has that
diversity; it still has that verve.
Yes, much of what passes for Inter-
net news is wacko, completely off
the wall. So what? It’s a market-
place of ideas; let the buyer beware.
The important thing is that if
there are 10,000 or a 100,000
voices out there producing news,
much of it will be good. Much of
it will be ground out by idealistic
journalists looking to make their
mark and forget the big dollars
that come with a TV contract or
star columnist slot. I predict we’ll
see many more I.F. Stone’s emerge
from such efforts than many more
The news consumers now flock-
ing to the Net in numbers that
make the bean counters at newspa-
pers and broadcast networks envi-
ous are smart enough to glean the
wheat from the chaff. Whether or
not Net news actually becomes co-
opted by big media dollars remains
to be seen. It’s a sure bet, however,
that these big media types will, for
the near-term future, continue to
wring the hands while trying to
figure out how to stop the hemor-
rhaging of their audience … and
keep reaching for the antacid. c
Brock Meeks (brock.meeks@
msnbc.com) is chief Washington
correspondent for MSNBC.
© 1998 ACM 0002-0782/98/0900 $5.00
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM September1998/Vol. 41, No. 9 13