Libel Bible

Matt Drudge was squirming the other night as he was forced to listen to legal heavyweights lecture him about silly things like fairness and accuracy, relevance and corroboration. "I'm the only one getting beaten up here and I don't know why!" he complained to the audience, which, alas, consisted largely of well-heeled New York liberals.

The occasion was a panel, "Privacy and the Press," held on February 4 at The Association of the Bar of the City of New York. In addition to the creator of the Drudge Report, the panel included journalists Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, Tony Frost of the Globe, and Joe Conason of The New York Observer; political consultant Dick Morris; and two lawyers: Victor Kovner of Davis, Wright and Tremaine, who defends news media (including the Voice) against libel claims, and Thomas Yannucci of Kirkland & Ellis, who brings libel suits on behalf of clients like General Motors and Chiquita Brands International.

Whenever Kovner and Yannucci weren't tongue-lashing him, Drudge was explaining why the old rules don't count. In the age of the Internet, he said, it's every man for himself.

"It's going back to the way journalism was in the beginning, when you were your own person and [there wasn't a] stack of lawyers behind you, telling you, 'You can't, you can't.' " In the world according to Drudge, journalism means "freedom of speech. It's liberty. And now it's this new invention where anyone can be a publisher, without having to go to a corporation of stockholders."

The bottom line: reporting scandals is good business. "It's just . . . good copy, and it will sell advertising, and this is what's at the gist of a lot of journalism, not these highfalutin rules we're talking about today!"

Herewith the gospel according to Drudge:

  • It's more important for a story to be interesting than for it to be true: "Because, unfortunately, I live in an environment in which there are millions of Web sites, and I've got to keep it interesting."

  • It's okay to pay your sources: "The Cosby murder probably would not have been solved if the Enquirer didn't offer that bounty."

  • It's okay to pass on information that may have been obtained illegally: "Recently, I gave someone on this panel some internal e-mails from Kirkland & Ellis that came into my possession. I don't know [if they were] legally obtained."

  • It's okay to turn over information to law enforcement: "I have given information to the FBI. . . . A civic duty is required of all citizens to report federal crimes that they're aware of."

  • It's okay to reveal the names of confidential sources: "I think the future wave is about reporting the whole dynamic about how a story comes out to public review."

  • It's not necessary to have multiple sources: "Sometimes the only source is myself; I saw something."

    Occasionally, as Drudge prattled on ("I don't know why we're sitting here mincing over rules and boundaries and stuff like that"), one of the lawyers gently chided him, as when Yannucci pointed out that there is this thing called First Amendment case law, or when Kovner explained that libel law is not only not new, but inherited from England in 1776, and evolving as we speak.

    Other times, the lawyers were less polite, as when Kovner praised Newsweek for "checking [out the Monica Lewinsky story] adequately before publishing, as opposed to just going with it willy-nilly."

    Drudge responded, "So you're the type that would hold back information from the American people?"

    "Absolutely not," Kovner piped back. "I would just advise people to form a belief in the truth of the information before they put it on their Web site."

    At another point, Yannucci warned that it would be wrong for a journalist to break into an office and steal documents. The rule is that even if such documentation is authentic, "The press shouldn't run stories that they know are the by-product of their own criminal conduct."

    To which Drudge quipped, "That would put me out of business." But despite such inflammatory remarks, Drudge was not led out to 44th Street in shackles by the guardians of the bar. When the panel was over, the iconoclast schmoozed Yannucci, and later that night, he was seen dining with Tony Frost at Elaine's.

    Cool Job Award

    It's been less than a month since Salon editor David Talbot gave Debra Dickerson the job of National Correspondent, but the appointment has already rankled some readers. Why? Dickerson's debut, an essay defending the Gulf War as an exercise in "killing as many Iraqis as efficiently as possible," struck many as uninformed and insensitive.

    Salon readers responded with a volley of letters to the editor. One corrected Dickerson's suggestion that Iraq provoked the Gulf War by "shooting at America" and noted that her essay is "a good reminder that just because something is contrarian doesn't mean it's thoughtful." Another denounced Dickerson as a "self-centered, inhuman vampire."

    Meanwhile, Salon watchers in the media are wondering if Talbot considers Dickerson his replacement for Jonathan Broder, the veteran journalist whom Talbot fired last fall, after Broder publicly criticized Salon's Henry Hyde adultery exposé. Talbot's critics fear that rather than seeking a qualified news reporter for the D.C. office, he picked up a contrarian pundit just to generate buzz.

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