Net Election

Flash! Net Ignores Steamy Rumor!

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Has the Internet abandoned its role as the leading incubator of political rumor?

Judging from the Net’s nonchalant treatment of a steamy story alleging recent infidelity by a presidential candidate, the answer could be yes.

In its Jan. 4, 2000, issue, the National Enquirer has a story about a woman who claims to have had an 18-month affair with one of the leading contenders. (Although the Enquirer named both names, Slate will not do so. We want to be able to tell the story of the story without being accused–reasonably–of just using that as an excuse for telling the story itself.) Ms. X, described by the Enquirer as a “stunning Playboy model,” claims to have had eight sexual encounters with the candidate in at least two states between December 1997 and June 1999.

Ms. X’s story has little apparent credibility. The Enquirer itself concludes–19 paragraphs into its story–that “while her story may have the appearance of truth, it’s false–although [she] vehemently defends it.”

Rarely has the falsity or unverifiability of a spicy political rumor been an impediment to its widespread distribution on the Web. But Matt Drudge has taken very little interest in the tale of the candidate’s alleged affair. And it’s next to impossible to find Ms. X’s story mentioned anywhere on the Net. Even two sites devoted to full-time bashing of the candidate have thus far been silent about the Enquirer story.

One of the major candidate anxieties of the 2000 presidential race has been that the unchecked proliferation of political rumor on the Internet would force mainstream media outlets to cover stories that were unchecked, or even irresponsible. For example, this summer the Wall Street Journal and other venerable media outposts ran stories on mere allegations of cocaine use by George W. Bush–without any corroboration–largely because the stories had become so widespread on the Internet.

And it’s not hard to imagine Ms. X’s story being picked up by, say, the Drudge Report, a British tabloid, and then the Washington Times–a time-tested spin cycle for dirty political rumors, particularly when they are damaging to Bill Clinton.

So far, though, there’s been silence. One minimizing factor might be the fact that the story appeared in the publicity netherworld between Christmas and New Year’s. And Ms. X’s story seems to have less supporting evidence than, say, Gennifer Flowers’$2 1992 tale about Clinton, which was backed, however sketchily, by tape-recorded telephone conversations (a technology that would later revisit the Clinton presidency).

But clearly some of the Web’s indifference to the Ms. X story is attributable to the gulf between the Web and the tabloids. The Enquirer’s Web site has posted the cover of the issue containing Ms. X’s allegations, with a big coverline hyping the “smear,” but the Web site doesn’t offer a click-through to the story itself.

The Enquirer’s print circulation is a little over 2 million; it is part of American Media, a tabloid chain with annual revenues of approximately $300 million. In mid-1999 it was bought by the New York investment firm Evercore Partners.

Although both the Enquirer and its sister Star have Web sites, they do not use them to push their dirt. That’s probably because tabloid readers are not the nation’s most wired demographic; regardless, if the tabloids don’t post their stories in a timely fashion, would-be Web publicists have nothing to link to.

For a time, Drudge straddled the divide between Web and checkout-line cultures, making the national press corps regularly scramble to cover a tabloid item. But if Drudge passes on a particular story, there are few other columnists–in print or on the Web–who have the inclination and audience to break a tabloid tale out to mainstream readers. (The New York Post’s “Page Six” gossip column ran a lead item on the Enquirer story on Christmas Day.)

Some might argue that Drudge–whose politics, while difficult to define, are generally right of center–is pulling punches to favor the GOP. But Drudge was out front this summer reproducing stories about Bush’s property having a racially restrictive lease, a tale that received wide Net play but little mainstream attention.

Drudge’s relationship with the tabloids has lately soured a bit. In January 1999, Drudge trumpeted the details of a Star investigation into a 13-year-old boy whose mother–a black prostitute–claimed that Bill Clinton was the father. But that investigation, despite Drudge’s serial hype, determined the woman’s claims to be false. Since then, many tabloid publishers have come to see Web gossip sites as both nuisance and competition.

It may be, too, that Internet rumor sites are a highly precise barometer of public opinion. That is, they are ignoring the notion of a candidate’s girlfriend because, in the post-Monica political climate, few Americans believe that, even if true, the allegations have any political significance.