Drudge Match

''I knew that there was a sting operation involving the president's alleged girlfriend, and that seemed to be pretty extraordinary,'' recalls Isikoff.

There were two major restraining issues. Isikoff had been working on the story for months, primarily on background and on an off-the-record basis, and knew that Starr's office was investigating possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges. But Newsweek did not have a copy of one of Linda Tripp's infamous surreptitious tapes until late Friday night. Isikoff and three colleagues listened until 4:30 a.m. Saturday to the one 90-minute tape they had.

''We had expected that the tapes would shed some light on the obstruction of justice charge,'' said Smith. ''As it turned out, the tape we had did not.''

The second major concern was over sources' motivations. Newsweek knew well that Starr had been repeatedly accused of twisting material and overreaching his mandate; the Lewinsky trail might have been a salacious but empty one. To this day, Tripp's motivations remain murky, and Isikoff knew before almost anyone else in the media that she had made her tapes at least partly in hopes of landing a book deal.

That left Lewinsky, whom no one at Newsweek had ever spoken with; only the sketchiest details were known.

''If she turned out to be a wacko,'' asks a top Newsweek editor, ''can you imagine the questions and criticisms we would have received?'' (It's worth noting that there's still a small chance this could turn out to be the case.)

Wasn't it possible, though, to run some sort of middle-ground story? A brief, nothing- but-the-facts account that would transmit the gist of what Newsweek knew, but not use Lewinsky's name or characterize the strength or weakness of Starr's probe?

''We talked about the middle-ground option,'' acknowledges Smith. Of course, Newsweek risked tipping other journalists to the story, who would then have had an entire week to build off Newsweek's scoop. Smith says, however, ''it wasn't a competitive thing--we wouldn't have been able to print the subtleties that we knew,'' especially those about how the magazine's own involvement affected the pace and direction of Starr's investigation.

In the end, the Saturday evening deadline was unavoidable, and Smith remains confident that the magazine made the right decision. ''If we had been a daily paper, I'm sure we would have said, 'Send this back for another day or two of reporting.'''

The magazine's delay was a vacuum Drudge was only too happy to fill. Drudge embodies much of what people fear about the Web: it is idiosyncratic, often inaccurate, and flouts even the pretense of journalistic ethics. Yet Drudge also epitomizes Web strengths: his product is entrepreneurial, ''unfiltered,'' and democratic, bringing the power elite's inside knowledge to a wide readership, without charge.

And he's got the lightning ability to force traditional media to choose or lose. Many do not appreciate the tweak; after a very similar encounter last summer, in which Drudge published news of a held Isikoff story about alleged Clinton sexual harassment, Isikoff said Drudge ''not only poisoned the atmosphere of real reporting, he was reckless and irresponsible.''

This time around, Isikoff says, ''I'm not any more pleased.'' According to Newsweek's account, Drudge's ''item helped poison some tense negotiations between Starr's deputies and Lewinsky's lawyer.''

Isikoff did not want to appear with Drudge on Sunday's Meet the Press, he said, but did so because ''[host Tim] Russert leaned on me.'' (Drudge did not respond to messages left for him over four days.)

In the end, Isikoff was able to capitalize on his months of reporting by placing an authoritative account of his work on Newsweek's America Online site. With most of the media relying for several crucial midweek days on that information, most commentators agreed that Newsweek had been scooped by the Net, then saved by the Net.

Ask yourself this: in a week when scooplets by outfits from the San Jose Mercury News to National Public Radio were getting play, did you hear anything before Sunday about what Time or U.S. News & World Report had or were about to have on the nation's biggest story?

Although it was not the first time that Newsweek used the Internet to push a breaking story, the incident suggests a way for Newsweeklies to elude the tyranny of a weekly deadline in an instant-news world. As Newsweek senior editor David Alpern put it: ''I hope that a more moral, ethical press can [use Web capability] to make a decision based on the story itself, and not based on the fear that if we don't print it, we're going to lose it, and lose it for a week.''

Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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