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.

"I think it's the most cynical thing David Talbot has done," says one critic, who adds that the last thing Salonneeds is an- other screed writer.

Dickerson, an African American in her late thirties, has lots of attitude but no training in journalism. A St. Louis native, she joined the air force in 1980, attended Harvard Law School 12 years later, and then moved to D.C. with an agenda. As she wrote in The New Republic in 1996, "I'm a well-educated, well-paid . . . transplant who came in pursuit of a cool job and a place in the power elite."

Her first job out of law school was with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, but in the tradition of the disaffected young lawyer, Dickerson began contributing essays and reviews to the likes of The Nation, the Voice, and The Washington Post. Her big break came in 1997, when former U.S. News & World Report editor James Fallows hired her as a senior editor, as part of his crusade for diversity. She filed cover stories and essays, but was not assigned to a particular beat.

Last summer, after Fallows was fired, Dickerson stayed busy, working on a memoir to be published by Little, Brown. In January, she was awarded a $50,000 senior fellowship by the New America Foundation, a think tank devoted to promoting liberal intellectuals. (James Fallows is a board member; David Talbot's sister, Margaret Talbot, formerly of The New Republic, was also named senior fellow. The fellowships were announced— where else?— in Salon.)

Talbot's critics feel that he needs to redeem the magazine's political reportage, which has been so biased in favor of the White House that Broder felt it hurt his ability to do his job. (See, for example, Salon's January 28 profile of Sidney Blumenthal, which made the sweeping claim that "admirers and enemies alike agree that . . . Blumenthal is brilliant." Did anyone ask Christopher Hitchens?)

"I had no idea that Salon's hires were under such intense scrutiny," Talbot jokes. "In the future, I'll have to float candidates' names in the New York Post." He says Dickerson's column, which does not kick in officially until she finishes her book, will be "reporting-driven. This is part of our renewed commitment to break news and not just comment on it." Talbot plans to add several reporters in the next year, and to hire a Washington beat reporter by next month.


High Times

What are they smoking over there? On January 23, the Times of London magazine published a story on the popularity of illegal drugs in the U.K. In addition to a British government survey which found that "nearly half" of its 16- to 29-year-olds have tried cannabis and hallucinogens, the writer recounted a Drug Enforcement Administration survey which found that 71 percent of some 40,000 U.S. professionals have experimented with "controlled substances."

Oops! It turns out the DEA survey was a hoax. The original story was posted in 1997 on a satirical Web site, www.theonion.com, under the headline, "DEA Survey: 71% of 'Winners' experiment with drugs."

In polished news style, the story quoted a fictitious DEA researcher, who said that "winners have an unknown quality that enables them to use drugs and keep on winning" and cited the Dallas Cowboys as an example of "winners who achieved greatness while engaging in frequent recreational drug use."

The "winners use drugs" story was reposted on the Web site of the Media Awareness Project, which provides balanced coverage of drug policy. MAP Executive Director Mark Greer calls satire "an important communications vehicle" and says that "only those that briefly scanned the article could fail to recognize it as satire." (MAP has now labeled it as such.)

So how did it get past the Times? Simon Hills, the editor who commissioned the story, says he did not question the idea that 71 percent of U.S. professionals have used drugs, because it "didn't strike me as shocking. It's not an unimaginable figure." Writer Stephen Kingston did not respond to a request for comment.

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