Friday, May 19, 2006

Defending Karl Rove from the perils of "blog porn"

I don't mean to sound like an old buzzard, a "mainstream media" relic who pines for the bygone days of manual typewriters, glue pots, and rotary phones (all of which I used). But here is my main beef with the blogosphere:

All its attributes aside, it still has the potential to debase journalistic standards that are worth preserving.

A classic case in point:
It has now been a week since an online report declared breathlessly that not only was GOP strategist Karl Rove facing imminent indictment, but that he had already shared that impending news with President Bush and numerous high-level administration officials. This report, according to a website called, was supposedly based on the inside skinny from "a half-dozen White House aides and two senior officials who work at the Republican National Committee."

What happened next was the blogosphere at its worst. Even though the report was really no more than a rumor -- in the sense that no other news organization was able to confirm its veracity, or to determine why eight high-ranking sources would spill the beans to somebody named Jason Leopold and nobody else -- it nevertheless sped through the "new media" like a virulent disease.

Liberal blogs linked to the story, thus spreading the word, not because they had checked it out and found it to be true, but because they wanted it to be true. Last Friday, a few hours after Leopold's report appeared online, Kevin Drum of the respectable Washington Monthly blog provided a link and said, "What the hell. It's Friday evening, and that's a good time for some blog porn."

Also that same night, a blog called the Democratic Daily allowed a reader to link the story. Others soon followed, with headlines such as "Bush's Brain Takes a Hike." One blog linked to Leopold, simply saying, "This is huge news if true." And as I mentioned a few days ago, the "news" moved so swiftly that Rove's supposed indictment was announced at the podium of a Michigan trial lawyers association dinner on Saturday night.

I recently watched the movie All the President's Men, and was struck by the fact that those reporters spent weeks on one story, methodically nailing down each fact -- and then Ben Bradlee tosses it back at them and says, "You haven't got it...Get some harder information next time." What an amazing concept -- OK, I am sounding like an old buzzard -- because today we're in a climate where basically a reporter empties his raw notes into the blogsophere and people who like the premise simply pick it up without a moment of reflection.

Here's what a moment of reflection, and a few minutes on Nexus, would have turned up: Jason Leopold, by his own admission, has "a checkered past," which includes being deficient in the craft of collecting facts. Four years ago, he wrote an article about a Bush administration official for Salon, the online magazine, and there were so many questions about the material that Salon had to retract it. Leopold has also written a book that talks about a 1996 arrest for grand larceny, and a dispute with a former employer, Dow Jones Newswires, which was upset with his coverage of Enron because (in Leopold's words) "seems I got all of the facts wrong."
All this was covered by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, just one year ago.

By the way, if Rove is ultimately indicted, I'm sure somebody will argue that Leopold was right all along. Sure. In the same way that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

This whole incident reminds me of what happened to John Kerry during the 2004 presidential primary season, when the right-wing Drudge Report (which in the past had billed itself -- this is an attribute? -- as 80 percent accurate) posted the "world exclusive" that Kerry had dallied sexually with a young unnamed woman. And since the rumor was deemed to be "out there," it was spread by bloggers who wanted it to be true. It took a week for that non-story to die.

I wrote a piece about that incident at the time. It appears in full below (because I can't link it from the paid archives), and it deals with some of the same underlying issues. Call it another cautionary tale. If you're still interested in this topic, keep reading:
February 18, 2004
By Dick Polman

When a gaggle of national political reporters sat down to an Italian dinner in Milwaukee on Thursday night, they were too wired to read the menu. Instead, they peppered one another with questions:

"What do you hear? What do you know?"

It was fruitless. They had all heard the same rumor - that Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry had allegedly dallied with an unnamed woman - but nobody "knew" anything, beyond the fact that the rumor had been floated on a right-wing Web site that bills itself as 80 percent accurate.

But six days later, now that the frenzy has subsided, it's possible to look back and track the rumor as it moved like a virus through the media bloodstream - demonstrating, yet again, the ways in which instantaneous scandal-mongering threatens traditional news values, warps the discourse of campaigns, and imperils political careers.

In this case, despite the best efforts of the anonymous tipsters, the rumor flopped. As posted last Thursday on the Drudge Report Web site, the "world exclusive" stated that some respectable news outlets were looking into whether the rumor had any basis in fact. But apparently there is no such fact, because Kerry's alleged lover now says there is nothing to allege.

Within the mainstream media community, the apprehension persisted all weekend, in part because memories of 1998 were still raw. Drudge had been right that year: There really was a complicit intern, and she really did have a soiled dress. Drudge had gone where the mainstream media had feared to tread, and everyone followed. Suddenly, it seemed old-fashioned to believe that a rumor should be vetted as true prior to dissemination.

And the speed of dissemination has quickened during the last decade. When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, his first accusers were the supermarket tabloids (especially the Star, which paid Gennifer Flowers for her allegation). Today, there is no respite from infotainment; Web-driven rumors can flash on your Blackberry within seconds.

In the words of ex-reporter Tom Rosenstiel, who runs the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism: "There are more outlets to shovel this stuff out fast. People who want to manipulate the press and public have more leverage than ever. It's a seller's market."

And there are no rules of evidence in cyberspace, no editors to ask irritating questions about accuracy. Matt Drudge posted his tease Thursday morning (he offered no proof of a liaison), and by noon, Rush Limbaugh was in full cry on his radio show ("This is sort of like the Lewinsky situation. . . . If Kerry denies this, that's not going to be good enough."). To underscore the point, Limbaugh's Web site ran a doctored photo of former intern Monica Lewinsky hugging Kerry.

Two Web sites, run by the National Review and the Wall Street Journal, also recycled the rumor, even though the Journal site noted that Drudge was sometimes wrong. Indeed. In 1997, Drudge "exposed" a Clinton White House aide as a wife-beater. The aide sued, and Drudge had to run a retraction.

Then last Friday, the British, with their looser standards, weighed in. The Sun, a tabloid owned by conservative magnate Rupert Murdoch, ran the rumor and outed the woman, Alexandra Polier. (It also quoted Polier's parents speaking harshly about Kerry; Terry Polier now says that he was misquoted and that his wife never spoke to the Sun.) Later Friday, Wonkette, a U.S. Web log, supplied a link to the Sun, and that put Polier's name in play stateside.

Also that day, Kerry dismissed the rumor on the Don Imus radio show. That, in turn, prompted the New York Post and New York Daily News tabloids to decide that Kerry's denial of an unsubstantiated rumor merited cover-page treatment Saturday.

Another London newspaper, the conservative Telegraph, ran its own weekend story, hinting that a blockbuster scandal was on the way. This is the same paper that, during the '90s, ran a long string of articles accusing Clinton of drug-smuggling, money-laundering, murder, and "incipient fascism." But its Kerry story was displayed on C-Span on Sunday morning, when a caller from Ohio complained that the U.S. press was covering up.

Meanwhile, Drudge wasn't delivering promised goods. Thursday, the site had hinted that Kerry's purported affair was being outed by a disgruntled former aide named Chris Lehane. It had attributed this rumor to Craig Crawford, a respected analyst employed by MSNBC. But it turned out that this was merely Crawford's unproven theory, which Crawford had shared in private e-mail with MSNBC producers - only to discover later that someone had forwarded it to Drudge. Crawford complained to Drudge, and the Lehane item was removed.

Lehane, who had moved from Kerry to candidate Wesley Clark, also denied that he was Drudge's tipster. Not everyone buys that, particularly since Clark reportedly mentioned the rumor during some off-the-record banter with reporters prior to the first Drudge posting. But Clark went mum on the matter when he endorsed Kerry on Friday; the campaigns of Howard Dean and John Edwards stayed silent, treating the rumor as radioactive.'

Actually, most of the mainstream media did the same. The Inquirer didn't acknowledge the rumor until yesterday, when it reported Polier's Monday denial. This approach was not atypical; as Larry Sabato, author of Feeding Frenzy, a book on scandal coverage, said yesterday: "The mainstream media has generally weathered this one responsibly. TV, too. I was on some shows over the weekend, and I was repeatedly warned by producers, 'Don't bring it up.' "

The caution paid off, because this rumor failed the Lewinsky test. There is no independent documentation of guilt (Lewinsky's friend Linda Tripp had worn a wire), for starters. But Rosenstiel said that more sordid Web rumors would probably plague the '04 campaign, because "there are more outlets with low standards. If a rumor is 'out there,' that's enough justification to cover it."

For some conservatives, the Kerry rumor is still "out there." In the chat room on, they don't buy Polier's denial. As "Doctor Raoul" writes: "Was she threatened? Were parents pressured? . . . It's time for John to release all his records with regard to 'Le Affair Kerry.' "