Clown Time Is Over
When Blumenthal vs. Drudge finally ended last week, the whole media community leaned back and had a big collective yawn. In a way, the reaction was surprising, because this battle once mesmerized our crowd. It began in the summer of 1997 when Internet gossip reporter Matt Drudge used his news service, the Drudge Report, to suggest that former journalist Sidney Blumenthal had a wife-beating past, a charge that Blumenthal fiercely denied. Drudge retracted his account the next day, and later made a public apology. Blumenthal, who assumed a senior job in the Clinton White House on the day of the retraction, filed a $30 million libel suit against Drudge and America Online, which made the Drudge Report available to its users through a licensing agreement.
On May 1, that suit reached a quite unexpected conclusion: Blumenthal agreed not only to drop it, but also to pay Drudge's side $2,500 to cover costs. (AOL had been removed earlier as a defendant in the case.) In effect, of course, this was a dramatic victory for Drudge. Given all the noise the suit generated a few years ago—there are hundreds of stories in the Nexis database—one might have expected major coverage everywhere.
But the coverage was decidedly minor, and not even close to everywhere. The Washington Post ran an initial story online, and then a 718-word report on the front of its Style section. There were a handful of wire stories, brief discussions on some cable news shows, and a smattering of online stories and opinion pieces. But here is the clearest indicator of the media's level of interest: Though the news broke on a Tuesday night, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times waited until Friday to report it. Each gave it about 200 words, deep inside. The Journal's item, which appeared on the back of its B section, ended with a wistful nod at the story's former importance: "The lawsuit was the subject of a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal."
What do we make of this? Drudge himself made hay. On Thursday, with most of the major papers still silent, his Web site headline read: AFTER YEARS OF COVERAGE: BIG MEDIA SILENT ON BLUMENTHAL'S CASH SETTLEMENT. With a great show of indignation that didn't quite conceal his glee (Drudge's persona requires that he eternally play David to the media's Goliath), he reminded his readers that the front-page Journal story had quoted media lawyer Floyd Abrams in a harsh critique of Drudge's work: "There is such a level of built-in irresponsibility in everything he says and does."
Role-playing aside, Drudge has an excellent point. If a libel suit filed by a powerful White House staffer against a powerful Internet jockey (he who launched the Lewinsky story) is huge front-page news, the dropping of that suit should, in fairness, be more than tiny, back-page news. This is especially the case since the White House staffer in question intends to remain a highly visible public figure. A few months ago, it was reported that Blumenthal would receive a $650,000 advance from Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a book about his White House years, prospectively titled, The Clinton Wars.
Besides being an utterly perfect title for a book by Sidney Blumenthal, that phrase points to another reason why the media stopped caring about Sid and Matt, a factor much deeper than the Establishment's antipathy toward Drudge: The Clinton wars are over, and suddenly the leading warriors are a lot less interesting than they were in real time. And most striking of all is how similar they are starting to seem. You can tell a lot about people by their choice of enemies. Often we are most incensed by those who remind us, in some hidden but real way, of ourselves. The most bitter public foes tend to be weird mirror images of each other.
Both Blumenthal and Drudge came to public notice as journalists, Blumenthal at The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and other publications, and Drudge through his own Web site. But both were always journalists second and ideological warriors first. And both thrived in the Clinton era, which was all about ideological warfare. Bill and Hillary Clinton are warriors from way back, people who need to believe in a vast right-wing conspiracy of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Richard Mellon Scaife, Matt Drudge, and many others. They drew into battle a lot of people who need to believe in a vast left-wing conspiracy that includes Dan Rather, Barbra Streisand, the Clintons, and Sidney Blumenthal, among others.
Both conspiracies actually exist, in that they reflect real cultural tribes, and we all have our views on them. But both are also phantoms, simplifications, cartoons. And those who choose to believe in them most passionately become cartoons themselves. This is what happened with the warrior twins, Blumenthal and Drudge, and it is why nobody cares to talk or read much about them these days. Though the Clinton wars have ended for the moment, some insist they haven't, and go on fighting. They are embarrassing to watch, especially to those of us who ostensibly share a profession with them and who got caught up in the hysteria ourselves.
Of all the news reports on the Drudge-Blumenthal battle, one struck me as the most appropriately framed. The News & Record newspaper of Greensboro, N.C., ran the story in its "Odds & Ends" column, immediately beneath another item that began: "Rodeo clown Marvin Nash rolled a 180-pound barrel from Ocala, Fla., to Cody, Wyo., covering 1,700 miles in 123 days."