The rumor cropped up February 12 on Matt Drudge’s Web site, and he treated it with his customary reserve: CAMPAIGN DRAMA ROCKS DEMOCRATS: KERRY FIGHTS OFF MEDIA PROBE OF RECENT ALLEGED INFIDELITY, RIVALS PREDICT RUIN.
If the editors here would let me run the previous lines in type about five times this size and insert an animated siren, you might understand the level of hysteria with which Drudge, at least, greeted this news. Rush Limbaugh, of course, took to the air with it minutes later, and other conservative organs followed. On my own political news and gossip Web site, I expressed doubt as to the veracity of these allegations, running Drudge’s rumor with the headline, “Kerry: Would You Have Sex With This Man?”
Despite the eagerness that mainstream news organizations showed back in 1998 in picking up Drudge’s somewhat similar scoop — his news that Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff had tried to publish a piece about an intern named Monica Lewinsky — none seemed very interested in this one. At least no reporters asked Kerry about a story that Drudge claimed was the subject of investigations at “Time magazine, ABC News, the Washington Post, The Hill and the Associated Press.”
The American press showed great restraint in not picking up on this story — until, that is, the woman at the center of the rumor (whose name I won’t commit to print here) denied it, backed by friends, family and at least one journalism school classmate. After that, the stories came out in a rush, many of them editorials by journalists congratulating themselves for not running the story in the first place.
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote that his paper “acted properly and carefully in this episode.” “The coverage was mercifully restrained,” opined the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman portrayed the media’s silence as a moral triumph: “Despite the best efforts of the anonymous tipsters, the rumor flopped.”
But if the measure of a rumor’s success is how much people talk about it, this one was hardly a flop.
The New York Daily News ran excerpts from a suspicious profile attributed to the woman on the online social networking site Friendster (www.friendster.com), quoting a cheeky self-description she’d supposedly written “ABOUT ME: Just another hot piece of ass.” The New York Observer, Manhattan media’s pink Bible, splashed the non-Monica’s picture across the front page and went to the Friendster profile for details as well. The Observer, at least, had the decency to pretend its story was about the nature of celebrity and information in these hyper-connected times.
“[A]s with so much information that’s found in an environment encrusted with irony and cynicism and much colder than the medium cool of television,” mused Observer reporter Alexandra Wolfe, “the data about [Kerry’s would-be lover] can be interpreted in many different ways.”
Specifically, the Friendster profile could be interpreted as “a joke” at best. Friendster profiles frequently contain playful boasts — mine contains a testimonial asserting that I sent Nixon his dog Checkers. There’s even an entire population of “Fakesters,” from the fanciful (Giant Squid, Jesus) to the fraudulent (John Kerry, John Edwards).
At worst, the profile quoted by the Daily News and the Observer is a lie with the specific purpose of embarrassing this seemingly innocent woman or Kerry.
By keeping the rumor itself at the center of their coverage, these somber guardians of journalistic integrity missed going after bigger story: Where did the story come from? Who wanted to bring down Kerry? What kernel of truth, if any, existed? If someone is out there spreading rumors among gossiphounds, the press has still done nothing to impede him.
This episode is only one in an ongoing tussle between unfettered online sources and mainstream reporting. In the wild, wooly — and increasingly influential — world of blog writing (I hesitate to call it journalism) there are no rules about what you can and can’t publish; there’s simply one’s own conscience. Blogs with a wider audience — DailyKos.com and Instapundit.com claim daily audiences in the tens of thousands — are beginning to develop their own codes of conduct. But these guidelines can never completely parallel those of mainstream journalism, because blogging often is its opposite: personal, biased and almost always written with the expectation that someone out there will let you know if you’ve screwed up.
Bloggers’ proximity to their writers provides a useful corrective — they have to respond or risk not being taken seriously. Big-time newspapers may have ombudsmen, but reporters’ insulation from the righteous judgment of readers shows in the self-congratuations they now are heaping upon themselves now for their restraint.