Media Arrogance, Public Contempt
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 16, 1998
It seems a week doesn't go by that doesn't find some media
scribe breast-beating about the public's lost love for his profession. Why, oh
why do they disdain us so? Well, perhaps I can help answer this question.
Simply get hold of a copy of the January 8 broadcast of ABC's Nightline. If
this doesn't clarify the problem, nothing will.
The program topic: To what standards of accountability
should society hold those who publish material on the Internet, and should
on-line services like AOL be held liable for the irresponsible actions of its
The case study: Matt Drudge is a so-called cyberjournalist
who fancies himself as a conservative modern day Walter Winchell. On his web
site he publishes the Drudge Report, a collection of news and gossip culled
from newspaper stories and occasional tips from insiders in Hollywood,
Washington, DC and New York. Based on a tip he received last August, Drudge
reported that newly-hired White House staffer (and former New York Times
reporter) Sidney Blumenthal had an police record for spousal abuse. After a
furious Blumenthal denounced the report, Drudge retracted the story a day
later, and publicly apologized. Unfazed, Blumenthal has sued both Drudge and
AOL, seeking $30 million in damages. Fair?
To answer that question, Ted Koppel turned the controls over
to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and what followed was twenty
minutes of sanctimonious clap-trap denouncing those using the Internet to
circumvent the mainstream media.
From the outset Kurtz wanted it understood just how
responsible, fair, balanced and just plain extraordinary real
journalists are. "This is how a newspaper story begins. A reporter, say
me, sends the story to an editor. Then higher ranking editors get involved,
sometimes even company lawyer worried about liable. There are plenty of
ink-stained cooks in this particular soup. The story is massaged, rewritten,
often even improved before it is fit for public consumption. About 10 hours
later the story finally gets to you, not real speedy, but most of the time at
least, we manage to get it right." Golly.
And Drudge? "Here's what happens when [he] wants to
make some news. He presses a button and boom, you read it... No editors, no
lawyers, no annoying bosses... He makes his living from gossip, delicious,
tantalizing and often not quite confirmed."
Kurtz turned to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff to
denounce Drudge, who had "not only poisoned the atmosphere for real
reporting, he was reckless and irresponsible and he did a real disservice to
So what's the big deal about one cyberspace gossip
columnist? Because - this is The Big Picture time -- the Internet is
infested with a veritable army of dangerous and malicious right-wingers.
"There are thousands of Drudges out there, political opinion mongers,
college professors, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists dissecting the death of
Vince Foster or more recently, the death of Ron Brown ... There is a down side
to this vast place called cyberspace, where the normal rules often don't seem
to apply. There are lots of words floating around out there and words can
In the discussion segment, Koppel was more circumspect about
Kurtz's lecturing. "We must sound to an awful lot of people out there,
maybe with some justification, like a bunch of whiners because it's not that
we as a class of reporters are necessarily all that much better." But
Kurtz would have none of it. "The difference between Drudge and a
mainstream journalist," said our intrepid mainstream journalist, "is
that any newspaper or TV reporter in the country who makes this kind of
blunder, without checking the facts, without calling for comment, he's out of
there. He's out of work."
It's at this point that you don't know whether to laugh or
throw up. You think back to the merciless, vicious, irresponsible, and
unfounded accusations hurled by mainstream reporters from outlets like the
Washington Post at men like Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan and countless other
conservatives and ask what penalty they paid for the harm they caused. There
was no penalty, no apology, no nothing.
Matt Drudge made a mistake, no question about it. But Drudge
immediately acknowledged that mistake, immediately corrected his report. And
immediately apologized. When was the last time a reporter - say, Howard
Kurtz - publicly acknowledged a mistake in a report and corrected his story?
Better yet, when has a reporter - say, Howard Kurtz - ever voluntarily and
publicly apologized for an inaccurate report that damaged someone's
Those rules just don't apply to this very elite, and
oftentimes very arrogant community. Being a member of the mainstream press
means never having to say you're sorry. And it's those very same journalists
who then wonder why they're held in such contempt these days.
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