Anatomy of a smear

Feb 18, 2004 at 12:00 am

Late last week, much of the nation’s “respectable” media went frantic over a “breaking” new story that they were dying to nail down so that they could lead the pack in reporting the breathtaking slimy details … just as long as they didn’t have to do it first.

Here’s what was going on: CBS and Time and ABC, The New York Times, etc., were tripping all over themselves in a frantic race to uncover a wonderfully sleazy sex scandal that might turn the entire presidential campaign around.

This all started when, early Thursday, Matt Drudge, the Internet gossip columnist, reported that John Kerry, the all-but-certain Democratic presidential nominee, had a recent affair with a young woman, perhaps an intern, who “recently fled the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry.”

That was enough to set off a behind-the-scenes feeding frenzy of massive proportions. Drudge, in case you didn’t know, is a journalist in the same way crack cocaine is medication. He finished near the bottom of his high school class and moved to Hollywood, where he worked in a CBS gift shop. Fascinated by celebrities and computers, he started an Internet Web site devoted to gossip.

Nobody paid much attention … till he became the first to report the juicy details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998. Newsweek had declined to go with the story, saying it wasn’t sufficiently nailed down. But some staffers were disgruntled and word was passed on to Matt, who cheerfully Drudged it up for all the world to see. Within days, everybody was reporting all Monica, all the time.

Ever since then, Drudge has been a celebrity in his own right. Not that everything he has is correct or accurate. He ferrets out early exit polls on Election Day and puts them on his site long before polls close anywhere. Never mind that many of his numbers are wrong, and have predicted wrong winners. Reporters tend to profess contempt for him even as they secretly devour his site. They dismiss Drudge as “not a real journalist,” but within months of Monica they asked him to speak to the National Press Club.

Here’s what he said: “We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter … the Internet gives as much voice to a 13-year-old computer geek like me as to a CEO or speaker of the House. We all become equal.”

So far this year, he has been without equal in his quest to reduce the Democratic front-runner’s whole to some of his parts. But he is hardly without imitators. By midafternoon Thursday, that staid bible of the newspaper industry, Editor and Publisher, was openly speculating on how long it would take the mainstream press to follow Matty into the cesspool. “RUMOR LEADS AMERICA DEEP INTO JOHN KERRY’S PANTS!” headlined a parody site called “the Drudge Retort,” which cynically guessed the answer was, “four to five hours tops,” which I thought was about right.

Actually, while the story blossomed in British tabloids and various right-wing Web sites within hours, the press here was more restrained. The next morning, radio talk show host Don Imus, sort of a Howard Stern lite, finally asked Kerry about it, and taking their cue from that, so did respectable print reporters.

“I just deny it categorically. It’s rumor, it’s untrue, period,” said the candidate.

Sadly, many Americans remember Gary Hart denying adultery and challenging the media to follow him around. Far more remember Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman,” and all that followed.

Yet presume for a moment that Kerry is totally innocent. What else could he say? By week’s end, the story was splashed across the cover of both New York City tabloids, with the same picture of Kerry rubbing his knotted brow.

The more scurrilous British tabloids went further. They identified the woman in question, and ran a picture of her. They said she was from Philadelphia, had been a reporter, and was now in seclusion in Kenya, of all places, with her fiance.

Interestingly, one paper interviewed her parents, who said they didn’t like Kerry, but indicated no affair had occurred. They also lewdly quoted Kerry’s wife as having said (of her dead first husband) that if she caught him fooling around she would “maim” him.

That was the State of World Journalism, February 2004. Naturally, by the time you read this, legions of other women may have come forward, or Amelia Earhart may have landed to shed new light on the matter, or something.

And at this point you may be rightly asking, “So what?”

Here’s why this matters. In a civilized world, even a president would be entitled to a zone of personal privacy. Yet the naked fact is that in our demi-civilization, nobody pays any attention to anything once there’s a whiff of sex scandal.

John Kerry knows that, and he knows the current rules of politics. So if he had been fooling around in 2001 and 2002 (with a young reporter, yet) while getting ready to run for president, he was amazingly stupid or unacceptably reckless.

Both are hard to believe. Democrats were muttering darkly that this smelled like a GOP disinformation smear plot. Which, if it is, seems to me to be working.

For, as it stands now, what this does is cast a little cloud over the front-runner, not enough to cost him the nomination, but raising a few doubts in the national subconscious. That way, voters will be more open to doubt when, this summer and fall, the Republicans unleash a ruthless, $100 million-plus national advertising campaign.

What will happen then isn’t clear. What is clear is that the media need to find a way to prevent sexual innuendo from swallowing all our politics.

But it seems, as of now, we just don’t know how.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]