This is fortuitous. I was looking at the Sun-Times from Jan. 29, 1998, searching for something related to the book, and stumbled upon a column by me on how the Monica Lewinsky scandal was a turning point for the coverage of news via Internet. We've moved on, of course, where the online world is seamlessly meshed with our own, not only in the reporting of news, but as we've seen with the pillaging of the Capitol Wednesday, in the creation of it.
After ethical qualms kept Newsweek magazine from breaking the Monica Lewinsky story, the torrid tale was quickly spread anyway in a media that never has qualms, ethical or otherwise: the World Wide Web.
"Because the magazine did not have enough time for sufficient independent reporting on Lewinsky, her credibility, and her alleged role in the drama . . . Newsweek decided to hold off publishing the story," the magazine explained in a posting hurried onto the Internet, which future historians might argue came into its own with this sex scandal, much in the same way that the Persian Gulf War established CNN and the idea of 24-hour news coverage.
Exactly 24 hours after Newsweek's hesitation, the Drudge Report, an online gossip sheet written by 31-year-old California muckraker Matt Drudge, posted its "World Exclusive" of a story he predicted, accurately, was "destined to shake official Washington to its foundation."
It did. The news exploded throughout the electronic intricacies of the Internet, and the informed, misinformed, opinionated, outraged and just plain confused leaped to express themselves on the scandal.
"Clinton to step down this weekend," insisted an anonymous posting on the Excite political bulletin board. "I have been assured that Clinton will announce his resignation by the beginning of the new week. Count on it."
The Washington Post was the first "mainstream" news source to go with the story, breaking it the night of Jan. 20, and the next morning the outline of the scandal hit the national papers, including the Chicago Sun-Times.
That evening, Time magazine launched its "Clinton Scandal Supersite" as a clearinghouse for news on the affair. Newsweek posted a long "Diary of a Scandal," both recounting the complex saga and rationalizing its failure to publish it first. The Sun-Times coverage is posted on the "Clinton Under Siege" page.
Although the Internet helped spread the wildfire of the scandal, journalism experts note that it did not strike the initial spark.
"This is not a scandal caused by the Internet," said Neil Chase, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, who pointed out that Drudge's site wouldn't have had anything to go on without the Newsweek digging. "If they weren't doing it, he wouldn't have had it."
Chase said that credibility is key. Drudge, by establishing himself as a source of frequently accurate (and sometimes not) rumors, has made himself a must-read among media and political insiders.
"What's really important to understand is that I could have put up a Web page and said this woman may have had something to do with Clinton and nobody would have paid attention," Chase said. "Drudge . . . put up something particularly juicy, and it got a lot of attention. Which shows that the Internet is a very viable mechanism for delivering information to people. But it isn't a story caused by it."
The importance of reputation, authenticity and reliability was demonstrated by "Monica's Place," what appeared to be Lewinksy's Web site, which was yanked off America Online after being noticed by the media.
But news outlets hesitated presenting the page as authentic. The page ends with a "personal quote" from Lewinksy that is either a subtle suggestion of a hoax, or an irony of the first order:
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 29, 1998