Sunday, January 10, 2021

Flashback 1998: Coverage of crisis elevates Internet

     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


  1. Outstanding ! What a run for you the last few days . It's content like this that brings me to you're blog first thing every morning.

    The posts , the columns, the archives, the guest, the photos and the comments.

    Grateful to live in a time when it's all available at a click and basically free.

    Too bad everyone with a keyboard imagines themselves on a par with dedicated proffessionals such as yourself. A trained , experienced journalist and writer. Sad that many consumers can't differenciate fact from fiction . Reporting from commentary and news from entertainment.

    Thanks for all you do. Very satisfying

    1. Where is the real FME and what have you done to him? ;)

      Though I lived through it and was swept up in in the onslaught of reporting about it like everybody else, it's hard to imagine a time when a prez getting a series of consensual blowjobs could "shake official Washington to its foundation." We had a violent coup attempt a few days ago, don't know what other shoes may still be dropping in the next 2 weeks, the Russians are creating all kinds of havoc, yet Ted Cruz and others seem to think "moving on" is the order of the day. And dozens of reported instances of past sexual misconduct by this president seem not to have concerned evangelicals or most other Republicans in the least.

    2. My take on the Lewinsky scandal is Bill was guilty of sexual harraement in the workplace . Borderline rapey. When you have sexual interaction with an underlying in the workplace can it be consentual?
      Using your position of in this case ultimate authority to gain favors from someone who's proffessional future you can control is the worst kind of abuse of power. Hate me some Bill. Bad man.

    3. It's underling...but I like yours better...a lot more appropriate.
      Or would be if they'd actually had [sorry].

    4. Three excellent comments about that teacup tempest. Don't know about the supposed Lewinsky site but we have her thoughts today. She admits to "chasing" Bill, which doesn't absolve him of his impropriety. She also has related the strong arm tactics of Starr's people, aided by her clueless mother, a deeper assault than Clintons. Perspective and Truth were skewed then and are dangerously worse today.

  2. MS Lewinski's quote from Sir Walter Scott brings to mind a Trump-era update by the well known poet "Anonymous."

    "Oh what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive.
    But when we've practiced quite a while,
    How vastly we improve our style."


  3. For some reason FaceBook, Twitter, et al cannot be sued for anything posted on their platform. Meanwhile, legit news sources can.
    Not that it would eliminate vicious rumors but it would reduce it dramatically.
    What will happen now, which really won't be that different from the present circus, is that Trump, now banished form FB and Twitter will preach to his choir on Parler. Those who idolize him will have a place to call home. They'll be all warm and fuzzy there as they spew hate and plan chaos.

  4. The phone company isn't responsible if we plan a crime over the phone. Politicians have certainly lied over the phone at least a few times in the past. Why should internet be different?


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