CONASON: Just Another Drudge

Always darkly comical, the matter of Paula Jones v. William J. Clinton has turned into a satire of, about and in the national media. No longer just the saga of a woman's quest for revenge and vindication (or money and fame), it suddenly has become a parable of press manipulation by her Republican attorneys -- and by an Internet gossipmonger with the memorable moniker of Matt Drudge. The latter's promise of a bombshell revelation -- that the President would soon be forced to confront allegations of sexual harassment by a former White House volunteer employee -- recently ended in a desultory squib when Kathleen Willey, the woman in question, announced that she has nothing to say. But perhaps the best way to begin is with fanfare by Mr. Drudge, a Hollywood retail clerk who is now sole proprietor of an electronic sheet called the Drudge Report. As he proved in his Aug. 1 dispatch, he makes up for any lack of ethical (or grammatical) standards with a flair for drama: "A tale that first started to unravel in this space nearly a month ago. It has reached the front pages of newspapers worldwide. It brought fame and infamy to the doorsteps of this report." Though not necessarily in equal measure, it might be added. The tale actually begins somewhat earlier than Mr. Drudge's "world exclusive" on July 4, which reported that "a few years ago," former White House employee Kathleen Willey allegedly had been "sexually propositioned" and "fondled" by the President "on Federal property." Mr. Drudge had not dredged up these accusations himself, since he has never spoken with Ms. Willey. He attributed his newsbreak to "several sources" who informed him that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff was "hot on the trail" of Ms. Willey. Well, if not hot, then at least lukewarm. In fact, the Willey story started with a tip last winter from Jones attorney Joseph Cammarata to Mr. Isikoff, a reporter he apparently deemed friendly. Back then, Mr. Cammarata had only a vague description of the woman in question, from an anonymous caller claiming to be her. Mr. Isikoff found and interviewed Ms. Willey soon enough, and she told him something -- it's not clear what -- but no story ran in Newsweek. As the seasons changed and the story failed to appear, Mr. Cammarata presumably grew frustrated. Mr. Isikoff's caution was no help to his strategy, which is to build pressure for a settlement with leaks of "evidence" embarrassing to the President (such as Ms. Jones' "recollection" of a distinguishing mark on Mr. Clinton's anatomy). So somehow -- and Mr. Isikoff insists it was not from him -- Mr. Cammarata eventually learned Ms. Willey's identity and prepared a subpoena for her testimony. And then somehow -- again, Mr. Isikoff denies responsibility -- Mr. Drudge got wind of Mr. Isikoff's dormant story and featured it on his Web site, which functions as a kind of tip sheet for some media organizations. Bolstered by the Newsweek imprimatur, the Drudge Report's pirated "scoop" spread swiftly into the national media, just in time for Mr. Cammarata to hand out copies of the Willey subpoena. The salacious coverage must have gratified all of Mr. Cammarata's hopes, and lingered for a day or two, until Ms. Willey's attorney issued a statement saying that she would resist the subpoena, knew nothing relevant to Ms. Jones' complaint and "continues to have a very good relationshipÓ with the President. Only after this unseemly sequence of events did Newsweek finally run an article by Mr. Isikoff that made plain why nothing had been published before. Devoid of quotes from Ms. Willey, it explained that at the time of the alleged incident she had just lost her husband, a lawyer facing disgrace because he had stolen more than $274,000 from a client, to suicide. Broke and depressed, she had gone to Mr. Clinton for consolation and a better job, and had never complained about any ill treatment. A female friend who did go on the record said that Ms. Willey had asked her to lie to bolster whatever charges Ms. Willey made off the record to Mr. Isikoff. That leaves Mr. Cammarata, who requires no further comment, and Mr. Drudge, who does, if only because he symbolizes the present direction of journalism in an era when compulsive masturbation is the most apt clinical metaphor for the condition of the national media. Matt Drudge is sufficiently afflicted with Clinton-hating conservative dementia to have become a favorite of that great newsman Rush Limbaugh. Like Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Drudge has flogged some hilarious whoppers about the Clintons, including an "exclusive" proclaiming that the "distinguishing mark" is a golden eagle tattoo, and another that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be indicted before last November's election. Responsibility for this kind of garbage doesn't trouble him, so long as he gets attention. That may explain why, when interviewed, he has claimed the mantle of Walter Winchell. "Fame and infamy" well describe the career of Winchell, the gossip giant who ended up as a soiled tool of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. Winchell's life was tragic but glamorous; these days, it is being replayed on the Internet as shabby farce.

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