Matt, Bill, and Monica

Dear David:

       Of course saying “It is a rumor that” should not excuse the sloppy and scurrilous repetition of stories about George Bush’s war record, Michael Dukakis’ mental health, Kitty Dukakis’ patriotism, Tom Foley’s sexual orientation, Vince Foster’s murder, Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Vince Foster, Larry Lawrence’s war record, the cause of Ron Brown’s death, etc.
       When you hear a rumor, you check it out; if the rumor is news, you report who is spreading it, what their motive might be; you make sure you include any appropriate denials; you try to reach the person involved. As I understand it, Matt did all those things; he was more careful in reporting this particular rumor than many others that the targets have brushed off as unfair but not libelous, or at least not worth suing over. Would it be better if he had waited a day, asked to see the court papers himself, etc.?
       Sure. But we’re not talking about what people should be taught in journalism school.
       Would it be better if Matt Drudge were driven out of business by this mistake, and if America Online stopped carrying anybody but the fully insured, totally bought-in employees of the four companies that employ everybody else in America (myself included, most of the time–et tu?)?
       Jump ahead a few years, to when Jackie Blumenthal takes the stand and testifies about how old friends came up to her to offer shelter from her supposedly abusive husband. You think that L.A. jury that threw the book at Aaron Spelling, giving Tylo Hunter $5 million, was mad. Let’s say they give Sidney just what he’s asking for. Thirty-one million dollars.
       You and I both want a press in America that is free, strong, fair, and accurate.
       Will $31 million to Sidney Blumenthal advance that goal?
       America Online won’t carry the Drudges of the world if they cost them that kind of money. Don’t you agree?
       Will we be better off without any more Matt Drudges?
       If you agree that he has done very good work, why are you content to drive him and his ilk out of business to protect someone who you readily concede can protect himself quite well without the help of you, me, the courts, or Slate?
       You write about the poor innocent citizen who finds himself the target of the vicious rumor mill and needs the courts’ protection from a Drudge-like press. Believe me, I’d rather write a piece than have one written about me any day. But this case isn’t about a private figure; the press isn’t interested in that guy, and if they are, they’ll be held to a higher standard under New York Times vs. Sullivan. This case is about a guy who is a public figure, whose job it is to manipulate the press, who can fight this one out in the marketplace of ideas. And it is precisely because we are at a point when most of us–you and me included–start out with a view that the press is despicable that suing Matt Drudge is probably the most popular thing Sid has done in recent years.
       And it’s not just Matt Drudge. In Miami, the mayor has warned the Miami Herald that if the newspaper isn’t “nicer” to him and “his people” in its coverage–in this case, about alleged voter fraud in the election–then the city will pull all its legal advertisements from the paper. In response, the publisher is at least saying that church and state are still separate–that advertising and business are still distinct from news and reporting. In Los Angeles, there’s not even that pretense anymore; the top people are the business people, and their responsibilities extend to editorial judgment.
       But my favorite anti-press champion is Johnnie Cochran. I’m sure you know, but others may not, that the Court TV host is suing the New York Post for suggesting that he’s no fan of the truth. After Cochran was hired to join the legal team representing Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was allegedly beaten and sodomized with a toilet plunger by New York police, New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser wrote that “history reveals that Cochran will say or do just about anything to win, typically at the expense of the truth. Louima deserves better. … Most of all, he deserves to see the truth come out. And so do the rest of us. This is not L.A.”
       Cochran is suing for $10 million–and all the free publicity and positive feedback he can get. He told the L.A. Times’ Eleanor Randolph, “You can’t imagine the number of calls I’ve gotten from people who say to me, about the Post: It’s about time.”
       Now the Cochran suit–in my humble opinion–shouldn’t even get to the jury; not only is he a public figure, but this was a column, for goodness’ sake, a statement of opinion. But courts have been known to disagree with my humble opinion and, with a little adaptation, your argument for Sidney might well carry the day for Johnnie. Just labeling a fact as an “opinion” shouldn’t allow you to publish lies any more than calling it a “rumor,” should it? Cochran argues, and on this I’d agree with him, that the New York media doesn’t know squat about his professional record pre-Simpson (which was outstanding), and that a description of his “history” is no mere statement of opinion, and in this case is clearly wrong. What if Peyser didn’t call anyone about his “history” and instead rushed to judgment herself? Reckless? Malice? At least enough to get to a jury? And dare I say–Johnnie does know how to pick his juries, and the possibility that he could find a dozen Post-hating Cochran-sympathizers hardly seems far-fetched–it’s certainly easier than finding 12 people who would vote to acquit O.J. Simpson.

All the best,