Tangled Web

Invisible Ink

How the story everyone’s talking about stayed out of the papers.

Last weekend, the print media got cold feet and spiked the story. Television dipped its pinkie toe in, yanked it out as if scalded, and then plunged back in. Meanwhile, the half-told tale unfolded in all its seamy glory on the Web, where everyone went to read about it and post their comments in newsgroups. Not until Wednesday morning did the big dailies finally report what everyone was talking about: the president’s alleged affair with a White House intern.

It starts late Saturday night, when Web-newsie Matt Drudge files this breathless report on his site. “At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, Newsweek magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!” Drudge explains that “reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top Newsweek suits hours before publication.”

From here the story spreads with speed. At 2:23 a.m. Sunday morning, someone posts the Drudge item in the alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater newsgroup. Other newsgroupers, though they know only what Drudge tells them, repost the item. By 1 p.m. Sunday, alt.impeach.clinton is in on it. Following suit: alt.politics.clinton and talk.politics.misc. Many of them buy Drudge’s account (“I’d settle for a president who doesn’t f**k interns in the White House”). Bickering ensues (“Do right-wing morons really believe what they read in the Drudge report?”). Some don’t trust Drudge ("Gosh, that Drudge, such a pillar of journalistic integrity. Snicker!”). But the story’s out there. Soon enough, talk turns to the intern’s high-level security clearance and the chance that she might blackmail the president.

The scandal moves to television Sunday morning. Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol strategically inserts it in a discussion of the Paula Jones case during the round-table section of ABC’s This Week With Sam and Cokie. It is approximately 12:45 p.m. EST, about a half-day after the Drudge eruption. Other “incidents” of Clinton philandering may surface, Kristol says, and “the media is going to be an issue here.” He continues, “The story in Washington this morning is that Newsweek magazine was going to go with a big story based on tape-recorded conversations, which a woman who was a summer intern at the White House, an intern of Leon Panetta’s–”

Kristol is cut off by fellow commentator George Stephanopoulos, who knows where Kristol is coming from and where he is going. Before Kristol can explain why the intern is in the news or identify Matt Drudge as the source of his scoop, Stephanopoulos says, “And Bill, where did it come from? The DrudgeReport. You know, we’ve all seen how discredited–”

Now Stephanopoulos is cut off as Kristol battles for control. Co-host Sam Donaldson comes up with the ball and concludes, “I’m not an apologist for Newsweek, but if their editors decided they didn’t have it cold enough to go with, I don’t think that we can here … how could we say Newsweek was wrong to kill it?” Co-host Cokie Roberts ends the discussion by changing topics.

By 8 p.m., CNBC’s Equal Time joins the fray. They agree that “Michael Isikoff is an extraordinarily fine investigative reporter,” and that the Newsweek brass must have got cold feet. Drudge’s page is referred to as a “gossip report.”

Monday brings more postings on various Web sites: The Drudge Report updates the story–and the story behind the story. Drudge names Monica Lewinsky as Clinton’s alleged paramour. Slate mentions the Kristol-Stephanopoulos-Donaldson exchange in “Pundit Central” and the alleged spiking of the Newsweek story in “In Other Magazines.” The Webzine the Underground makes it the day’s feature story. CNBC’s Rivera Live airs a few choice rumors about the scandal. By Tuesday, Matt Drudge speaks his piece on CBS Radio’s Mary Matalin Show and keeps filing on the Web. Tuesday night, Drudge writes that federal investigators possess taped phone conversations that substantiate the rumors of a presidential affair.

And from the print media? Not a peep until Wednesday morning. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times withhold the story from their first editions but include it on Page One of the home-delivery editions. (The two dailies don’t trace the story back to the Drudge Report.) CNN goes to Defcon1, with constant updates, and so do the wire services. The other TV networks follow, as do the big news Web sites– CNN Interactive, MSNBC, and ABCnews.com.

Would the story have broken if not for the Web? Probably. Did the Web give the story additional velocity? Definitely. The ethics cops who patrol newspaper and magazine newsrooms can’t control the rumors and unsubstantiated stories that people post to the Web. And they can’t undo whatever quick-tongued network-TV guests like Bill Kristol say in 10 seconds. If the Web prints it and television goes with it, print must follow.