An Opportunity In Drudge’s Fall

The fall of Matt Drudge from the TV high wire offers a unique chance to define what journalism can be, but often isn’t, in the age of the Internet.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Matt Drudge was never a journalist, Internet or otherwise. He was a political activist with a links page. Real journalists check their stories, seek scoops from all sides, and don’t play the games they cover. Drudge did all those things.

Drudge’s “scoop” was to run with a single source complaint about a real outlet’s reluctance to run a story which was bound to break anyway. This “success” gave Drudge a pipeline to a network of other conservative activists, who knew he would break anything they could make up.

Drudge got more than his 15 minutes worth in part because mainstream journalists wanted to discredit what we do on the Internet, and in part because he milked the attention for all it was worth.

Mainstream newspapers and broadcasters hate links. They expect to vet everything themselves and only let you see what they decide you should see. The Internet breaks down this gatekeeper function, but by identifying links with a slimeball, the media could brand links as lazy, maintaining discipline in their own shops and causing readers to distrust anyone they didn’t “brand.” Thus, the old barriers to entry into journalism could be reasserted – putting Drudge on shows like “Meet the Press” served old media’s interests.

Drudge didn’t ask about anyone’s motives (another Clue he wasn’t practicing journalism). He happily did his TV turns, never realizing the real journalists were laughing behind his back. In the end, his story became like that of Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic “A Face in the Crowd” – he confused our amusement with power, and thought it gave him a license to tell us what to think.

Now that Drudge is back in his hole, the old media is smirking big-time. They’re also going right back to their old tricks of gatekeeping and of preventing links – both outgoing and incoming. (FoxNews.Com is the leading expert in the latter trick – your Java-enabled browser can’t link into their inside pages.)

But there are other web sins the media should have to answer for. Outgoing links should reach data relating to the direct point a story is trying to make – not just someone’s home page (and not at second-hand either, as the New York Times does it). Stories also shouldn’t be pulled and moved after just a few days. That cuts off the web’s memory and makes it impossible to build tomorrows on our yesterdays.

The fact is that Internet journalism can be the most credible, not the least credible, of all media. Any claim can be referenced, and that reference can be checked in a few seconds – if we all cooperate in the effort. You don’t have to believe what you read. You can check it out and decide for yourself. (Memo to Fox – that’s called “we report, you decide.”)

What makes a journalist is a continuing effort to build credibility – through writing, through talking and (now) through links. This last lesson is one the mainstream media still hasn’t heeded, but I’ll keep pounding on it. Matt Drudge never figured out any of it, and good riddance to him. (Oh and I’ll take my hat back now, loser. Don’t let the door of the press room hit you on the way out.)

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