A Smear’s Journey to Page One

NEW YORK, February 18, 2004 – She smiles back from page one of
Tuesday’s New York Daily News. Her face is closely cropped, wrapped
in 240-point Arial; ‘I’M NO MONICA’ the headline declares.

The lead spills to page three, where the 27-year-old Columbia
grad Alexandra Polier denies rumors linking her romantically to
Senator John Kerry. The allegations of an affair, made public last
Thursday by conservative rumormonger Matt Drudge, had ignited an
online firestorm that, over time, spread from right-wing websites
to foreign tabloids, and ultimately into U.S. mainstream press.

In the front-page Daily News story, Polier calls reports of an
affair between her and the democratic frontrunner ‘completely
false.’ Other leading American newspapers, including The New York
Times, Washington Post and USA Today, trumpeted her denial, marking
an unusual passage in journalism where mainstream news outlets
report the negation of a story that they initially did not
cover.

The Daily News’s front-page billing of the denial would indicate
that readers had gone elsewhere to read the rumor that sparked the
scandal. This is likely given Drudge’s claim that more than 15
million people visited his site after he released the report on
Thursday. The fervid attention subsequently heaped upon the story
by partisan media groups and British and Australian tabloids also
filtered onto the screens and into the minds of many Americans.

Cutting Corners To Stand above the News
Clutter

These news sources, once inaccessible to average Americans, now
appear alongside mainstream news stories in the results of a simple
Google News search.

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center for
People and the Press, more than 40 millions Americans go online for
election news. Much of this comes via Google News and other news
search engines that return news links based upon a quantitative —
not qualitative — search process. As a result, major news
organizations find their headlines intermingled with those of
publications they might consider less scrupulous than their
own.

How do mainstream American media outlets lift themselves above
the fray? For the most part they don’t, said Ken Auletta, media
critic for The New Yorker and author of ‘Backstory: Inside the
Business of News’.

‘In a cluttered information world, where you no longer are as
dominant as you might have been, where people can chose from
several sources, there’s a tendency to excuse yourself from doing
your own reporting when someone else breaks the story first,’
Auletta said. ‘It doesn’t matter if that source is a Drudge or an
Imus, there’s a tendency to look for an excuse to print rumors
without having to go it alone.’

Auletta sees this as a dangerous byproduct of the accelerated
news cycle. The machinations that transform un-sourced reports into
legitimate subject matter for mainstream consumption exist within
every news organization; a prominent smear that emerges from the
fringes of the Internet will eventually make its way up the media
food chain onto their front pages.

‘The Bush people or the Kerry people or the Edwards people don’t
have to put out attacks on their opponents anymore. They just get
someone like a Drudge to do it and it gets into the media
bloodstream, turns virulent and travels fast,’ Auletta said. ‘Speed
is always the enemy of context and thought and fact-checking.’

While many journalists base the legitimacy of their reporting on
the integrity of their sources, few are willing to follow a
rulebook that doesn’t allow them to cover un-sourced rumors. After
all, Drudge got it right in 1998. He was the first to report on
allegations of an affair between then President Clinton and a White
House intern. And while many believe mainstream media subsequently
over-covered the Clinton peccadillo, none can deny the story’s
veracity, in the strictest clinical sense.

Media that refrained from covering rumors of the Lewinsky affair
in 1998 were beat by those who did.

Breaching the Credibility ‘Firewall’

The Kerry-Polier rumor, on the other hand, is more revealing of
the ways mainstream media now seem more willing to toy with
unconfirmed political sleaze and rush unconfirmed rumors to
press.

Within 24 hours of its release on Thursday, news organizations,
including CNN, The Wall Street Journal Online, Fox News and MSNBC
had already leapt onto the rumor mill by reporting Kerry’s on-air
denial, made during an appearance Friday morning on Don Imus’s
radio talk show. In their estimation, Kerry’s denial while not
legitimizing the rumor, made the story newsworthy.

Forty-eight hours after Drudge, others, including The New York
Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post, had still refrained from
mentioning the scandal, Kerry’s on-air denial or Polier’s name.
‘Maybe this will be the first time that a true firewall is
established between the web, the Brits and the rest of the media,’
a hopeful Andrew Sullivan wrote on Saturday in his popular weblog.
‘That in itself would be a media milestone.’

Shortly thereafter, however, Sullivan’s ‘firewall’ was breached.
And by 5:30pm Tuesday, February 17, almost every mainstream news
organization had reached out to touch the story.

Piling On

In defense of its editorial decision to lead page one with
Polier’s denial, The Daily News suggests that the story passed
muster only after she released her statement via the Associated
Press.

Kerry Burke, who coauthored the Daily News story, said that he
had learned about the alleged affair from one of the Polier’s
Columbia classmates. Daily News began working on the story prior to
Matt Drudge’s release Burke said. ‘The Daily News doesn’t consider
Matt Drudge and the London Sun legitimate sources. We decided not
to go with it until we got her version of events.’

Burke, who went to school with Polier said he tried repeatedly
to reach his former classmate by phone and email. ‘We did our own
reporting on this. We got our tip from another classmate and though
it smelled like dirty tricks to many of us we held off on the story
until we had her side,’ he said. When the AP ran Polier’s denial on
Monday, The Daily News opted to run with it.

From Sleaze to Lead

Polier told the AP, ‘because these stories were false, I assumed
the media would ignore them.’ She was referring to a circling
British tabloid press, which had followed her to Kenya and staked
out her Pennsylvania family home. The London Sun, owned by
conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, claimed to have landed
an interview with her parents, in which the her father called
Kerry, among other things, a ‘sleazeball.’ In a later statement
e-mailed to the AP in New York, the father said he was misquoted by
the Sun and that his wife never talked to their reporter.

Though Drudge had not named the woman, London papers showed no
inhibition. London’s Daily Telegraph splashed Polier’s name across
its front page. The Times gave it two full pages inside. They both
offered photos of her and of her parents’ house.

Stateside, right-leaning news sites picked up on the story the
moment it dropped onto Drudge’s website. NewsMax.com, Weekly World
News, Talon News, The Washington Times and Cybercast News Service
all ran breathless headlines of a Clinton-esque ‘déjà vu,’ replete
with intern and cover up.

‘Mainstream news organizations now sneak stuff into being
published because someone else has done it first,’ Ken Auletta
said. ‘And it doesn’t matter that the other source is a Drudge.
This allows the extremes to set your agenda. If Drudge publishes
it, it moves quickly into the bloodstream.’

Now that Matt Drudge’s apparent blunder has been revealed,
editorial writers in mainstream press have wasted no time to skewer
his reporting. But few have turned their critique inward on their
own organizations’ news processes that turn muck into journalism
and allow political attack dogs to dictate what gets covered and
what does not.

Timothy Karr is executive director of
MediaChannel.org, which earlier this month launched Media for
Democracy 2004
(www.mediafordemocracy.us),
a citizens-powered initiative to hold mainstream media to a higher
standard of election coverage.

© MediaChannel.org, 2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted with
permission.

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