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January 29, 1998

Deadline U.S.A.

The most significant sidebar to the shlong und drang  of the past four days is the sudden rehabilitation of Internet gadfly Matt Drudge. Drudge, whose on-line Drudge Report  stated in August that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that had been covered up, has undergone stern censure from other media practitioners --- all of whom have painted themselves, by comparison, as serious and responsible emblems of their craft. Evidently, the overeager Drudge, a throwback to the dit-dit-dit Jimmy Fiddler style of Hollywood gossipistes, had been stung by sources with an animus toward Blumenthal, and Blumenthal has filed a $30 million lawsuit against Drudge and his carrier, America Online. Last Sunday, when Drudge peppered the Internet with the exclusive that Newsweek  editors had killed Michael Isikoff's story on Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the cyber badboy may well have stanched his hemorrhaging stature.

Drudge's prominence is clearly an irritant to his buttoned-down careerist peers. Physically the 30 year old Los Angeles publisher resembles a cartoonish Jim Jarmisch character, and the combination of his tortured syntax, rightist tabloid sensibility and Hecht/MacArthur newspaperman-as-hot-shit breathlessness appear to have rather unsettled the press corps' notions of its own gravitas. The fun house mirror Drudge holds in front of mainstream media has accomplished what the two past decades of formal media criticism haven't: revealing a pocked-assed brood without figleaves and pasties, ripely en delecto  with the officialdom it supposedly monitors. The media's feelthy secret, of course, is that Drudge is, if you will, bigger and better than they are at the dissemination of the entertainment and titillation which presently passes for reportage, and doesn't pretend that what he does is by definition ennobling. Drudge's success and the corresponding envy it has engendered has become a prickly inducement (the national discourse seems like an extended Leno monologue, doesn't it?) to self-examination within the profession, producing spiraling yelps of denial which have resulted in calls for close scrutiny of alternative news sources. At a recent "whither journalism" forum in L.A. where Drudge was invited to occupy the hot seat, one could only come away with the impression that there weren't enough violins in all the land to accompany the wail about the threat to the integrity of the profession from the likes of Drudge and similar Web publishers.

* * *

That a Matt Drudge should now come to the fore is perhaps the only sort of adventitious event which could shock the industry into a semblance of self-recognition. The celebrity capitalism of the past 20 years, with its Hollywood-Washington axis embroidery, has made the media willing accomplices. Six-figure salaries are approaching the norm for reporters in Washington, media connubialism (very Hollywood) is commonplace, and the combination of such assets puts the gracious old homes in the District's Cleveland Park, the sports utility vehicle and the kid's private school tuition manageably within reach. This acquisition of instant breeding, derivative of Reaganism's nouveau reestablishment of pomp and glamour to the capital, separated the mere onlooker from the inside player --- skeptical scribe from deferential confidant  --- a most crucial distinction one had to make in reconnoitering a career path. The maintenance of good taste among the press flock eased the onset of media corporatization and its attitudinal disciplines; what the hell, a little self-censoring, some regular reassessment of news judgment --- after all, the political center had shifted  --- and those correlative ingredients to professional maturity, balance  and fairness, sooner or later had to supplant youthful ardor and ideals. As city rooms assumed the pallor and animation of insurance offices, smoke-free and shorn of the clack of typewriters and teletype machines, tweeds and corduroy went the way of pinstripes, the rye pint became an Evian bottle, and newspapermen had become journalists, fat, flush and heavy with the nobility of purpose flackery had made so lucrative.

There's a deliciousness to the occurrence of the Drudge phenomenon, and its arrival at a moment where Washington's most salient cultural characteristic has become publicly manifest is most appropriate. Intrinsic to the processes of the federal quarter for generations has been the fact that Washington is a place "where the men fuck down and the women fuck up." In previous years, a less otiose press corps, nominally predisposed toward graver national concerns, had left such tidbits largely undisclosed. This past decade, with its lockstep march of capital and attendant and discordant moral pieties, has changed all that, and the media have bent with a will to the task of detailing the free-for-all panorama of consumerism and notoriety. The new corporate parameters of journalism, with acquiescent reporters in tow, consequently extol the glories of the marketplace along with the minutiae of reverb frivolity. Under the circumstances, why the high quotient of handout and "horserace" coverage of political matters should astound anyone is puzzling; surely, success  is what we're about here, is it not? And so, when the chief representative of the new global economy savors its inherent perks --- in this instance, partaking of aspirant groupie head at his desk and in his limo --- we in the trade can either query about such behavior in the context of the V-Chip/content-labeling family-values zeitgeist (or, had we still the callowness, the germaneness of political economy), or we can keep the mortgage payments safely out of arrears with the convenience of Neilsen polling, detailing what this might augur for Bill's place in history and other such tinny perceptions-of-perceptions, in keeping with our insistence that the nation yet hungers to be fed the vagaries of who's on top. One might also wonder if the next batch of Iraqi children scheduled to be bombed will have sufficient time to register their input into these matters.

* * *

Along comes Matt Drudge, press card in hatband, to inferentially yawp the impertinent question: Well, what's it going to be, gang? Gonna exercise that choice, or admit you're just like me, only better dressed? Lately, Drudge has sparked the ire of a coterie of ostensibly non-mainstream journalists (Sidney Blumenthal, it should be noted, toiled for In These Times  prior to his neoliberal conversion), among them Joe Conasan of the New York Observer, and Orville Schell, now proffering tutelage to the next crop of newsies at Cal Berkeley. Conasan, another Clinton codependency case, in a harebrained column denouncing Drudge this week, provides us sufficient evidence that should the chorus ever commence for mandatory licensing of journalists, liberals will have initiated it.

Such codification is not only unworkable, but begs the point. We already know who are the duly "authorized" vendors of information, so we can reasonably surmise who are the outlaws. As standard-bearer for the latter, Drudge, for all his overweening miscues, is rekindling the old romance and enthusiasm of the craft, and in tweaking those who've abandoned it for the gaga thrall to privileged access and the culture's conspicuous baubles, you can bet your katooties they despise him for it.

You'll look high and low in the mainstream these days for any  in-depth news about Russia, China, corporate subsidization, trade and labor issues, the environment, etc. For that you have to log on to the Internet, and the networks and the print media know it. Taking brickbats to Drudge is an attempt to forestall public awareness of the substantive resources of the Net and its limitless possibilities for contouring the discourse in the future.

And while we're on the subject, nothing Drudge has written, or conceivably will write, could equal the inchoate ranting of NBC's December 19 newscast, and I certainly welcome the magnates of responsible journalism assigning their fairest-minded ombudsmen to investigate it. A full half-hour special on Saddam Hussein, the program was as vile a blast of jingoism as I have ever witnessed, an unadulterated extravaganza of water-carrying for the CIA, where, among other things, we learned that Saddam is the way he is because his mother hated him and hadn't wanted him to be born in the first place.

I was reminded of the praise a local columnist --- a Pulitzer recipient --- accorded Tom Brokaw a few years ago. Brokaw, who as his December 19 broadcast reinforced, is long unsurpassed at imparting absolutely nothing of value and getting away with it engagingly, was lauded by the columnist for having "the best sign off in the business." It was, unintentionally, the finest sentence the man ever wrote, and the fact that he probably wouldn't recognize it as such  says all that needs to be said about the profession to which he dedicated his life.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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