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Internet pioneer Matt Drudge walked into the lion’s den last week –
the National Press Club. He was confronted by a series of rude,
self-righteous questions from Doug Harbrecht, president of the group and
Washington news editor of Business Week, and his colleagues in the
beltway media establishment.

In his introduction of Drudge, Harbrecht admitted his first reaction
to inviting the speaker was: “Why do we want to give a forum to that
guy?”

“Drudge’s methods are suspect in the eyes of many journalists,”
Harbrecht continued. “He moves with the speed of cyberspace, and critics
charge he has no time to know his sources or check his facts. Like a
catfish, he mucks through the hoaxes, conspiracies and half-truths
posted on-line in pursuit of fodder for his Web site. That can have
unpleasant consequences.”

After what should have been an enlightening talk by Drudge about how
the Internet is changing the face of journalism forever, Harbrecht was
back to the inquisitorial insults.

“How does it advance the cause of democracy and of social good to
report unfounded allegations about individuals and Neilsen ratings?” he
asked.

Drudge hit the ball out of the park.

“Well, that’s a good question. … One of my competitors is Salon
Magazine On-Line, which I understand is the president’s favorite Web
site. And there’s a reporter there, Jonathan Broder. He was fired for
plagiarism from the Chicago Tribune. And I read that in the Weekly
Standard. But do I believe it? Because, as much as I love the Weekly
Standard, they have had to settle a big one with Deepak Chopra, if I
recall. I heard that from CNN. But hold on. Didn’t CNN have the little
problem with Richard Jewell? I think Tom Brokaw told me that, and then I
think Tom Brokaw also had to settle with Richard Jewell. I read that in
the Wall Street Journal. But didn’t the Wall Street Journal just lose a
huge libel case down in Texas, a record … $200 million? I tell you,
it’s creative enough for an in-depth piece in the New Republic. But I
fear people would think it was made up.”

Even the hostile audience at the National Press Club had to laugh at
that one. Drudge’s point was simple. Mistakes are made in the
establishment press all the time. In fact, I would say, many more poor
judgments are made in the traditional press than are made in on-line
journalism. So, where do these guys get off vilifying Drudge,
WorldNetDaily and the handful of other Internet news pioneers who are
actually doing what journalists are supposed to do — watchdogging
government, exposing high-level corruption, challenging the status quo?

Drudge’s words were indeed prophetic. Last Friday, the largest
news-gathering organization in the world, the Associated Press,
inadvertently displayed on the news service’s Web site a report
indicating Bob Hope had died. The next thing you know, a congressman was
announcing it on the floor of the House of Representatives, and ABC News
was reporting it on radio nationwide.

How did this happen? With all the wonderful checks and balances built
into the establishment press’ fact-checking systems, how could such a
crucial and embarrassing mistake be made? Where were those corporate
gate-keepers? Doesn’t ABC have editors? Doesn’t the AP double-check
reports before cybercasting them on the Internet? Where were their
sources? Why didn’t anyone pick up the phone and call Bob Hope’s home to
learn he was quietly eating breakfast with his wife and that, in the
memorable words of Mark Twain, rumors of his death were greatly
exaggerated?

Drudge may not have any journalistic credentials, but I do. Yet I
admit I am subject to human error as much as the next guy. All the
training and experience in the world doesn’t make you immune.

A perfect example occurred last Friday. I received an e-mail
memorandum reportedly from the dean of student affairs office at MIT,
where President Clinton was to deliver the commencement address. The
memo warned female students against offensive dress during the event.
Off-limits, it said, was the wearing of black berets and kneepads.

As wacky as the message seemed, it looked legitimate. I called the
administrative assistant’s number listed, and, indeed, the voicemail
message was from the employee named at MIT. No one was available for
comment by phone or e-mail. The return e-mail address seemed to be
working. I was ready to go with the story.

But I was talked out of it by my webmaster — a guy with no
journalistic experience. It turned out, when I did get a spokesman for
MIT, the memo was a “hack job.” It was a hoax, and I had fallen for it.

I think one of the biggest differences between the new Internet
journalism and the old media is that practitioners of the former are
willing to admit their human frailties and correct their errors. The
general public finds that lack of arrogance refreshing — which explains
why the old media is so jealous of people like Matt Drudge and Joseph
Farah.

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