Drudgement Day


Matt Drudge sure got noticed when he came to Washington, D.C., and gave an afternoon talk on June 2 at the National Press Club. What got much less notice was Drudge’s ostensible reason for the trip: he had a 10 a.m. date to be in court for a hearing in the multimillion-dollar libel suit White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has lodged against him. Last year, Drudge circulated and then retracted a rumor that Blumenthal beat his wife, Jackie, who is also party to the suit.

In keeping with his peculiar forms of rebellion, Drudge didn’t show up in court. His presence wasn’t legally required, but judge Paul Friedman noticed his absence. “I see that Mr. Drudge is not here, but I understand from the papers that he is in town,” Friedman said wryly.

As soon as it became clear that Drudge wouldn’t show, NBC’s sketch artist left the courtroom; evidently drawing Blumenthal is no fun.

Drudge’s attorney wasn’t there either, except via speakerphone, meaning that Blumenthal and his entourage faced an empty defense table.

Blumenthal attorney William McDaniel said he wanted to begin discovery soon, to determine “the sources, if there are sources, responsible for defaming Mr. Blumenthal.” Drudge’s attorney Manuel Klausner countered that discovery wasn’t necessary, arguing that even though judge Friedman has ruled that Drudge is not legally a journalist, “I think he’s entitled to First Amendment protections. . . . What Drudge did was report on old rumors widely circulated.”

This outraged McDaniel, who said: “Nobody ever said [those rumors]. Nobody heard about it until Drudge spread it out on the Internet.” The two lawyers then began to squabble about other articles, until the judge said: “Maybe that’s why we need discovery.”

Among the disputed print accounts is a November 26, 1997, USA Today op-ed by law professor Susan Estrich. In his original oral argument in March, Klausner argued that a sentence of the op-ed–“In Sid Blumenthal’s case, longtime friends of his wife actually approached her offering shelter”–helped prove his case that the Blumenthal rumor was widespread. But as Press Clips pointed out in March, while Estrich wrote the sentence, it never ran in USA Today.

In April, Blumenthal’s attorneys filed motions arguing that all references to Estrich’s unpublished sentence should be stricken from court transcripts. They further argued that Drudge’s side should be fined for using this erroneous op-ed.

In response, Drudge’s attorney got Estrich to file an affidavit saying she wrote the sentence and stands by it as “accurate to the best of my knowledge.” Estrich added that USA Today editors removed the sentence “for either space or stylistic reasons.” Following all this flailing, the judge denied Blumenthal’s motion for sanctions.

But this mistake may continue to haunt Drudge’s side. As the Boston Phoenix pointed out a few weeks ago, Estrich’s sentence quite clearly refers to rumors that Jackie Blumenthal allegedly heard after Drudge’s report was published.

Thus, if she did receive offers for shelter–and Blumenthal’s attorney adamantly denies that she did–that could conceivably help the other side, by allowing Sid Blumenthal to show damage to his reputation.

As of the Voice‘s Monday deadline, Drudge’s attorney had produced no account of any Blumenthal domestic violence rumor published prior to Drudge’s (although a December ’97 Vanity Fair profile of Drudge seemed to share the view that the rumor had been around for years). Klausner did, however, accuse his opponent of “massive aggression,” citing such oddities as Blumenthal’s attorney faxing a letter to the National Press Club reminding its president of the judge’s ruling that Drudge is “simply a purveyor of gossip.”

The 120-day discovery process begins June 19; the next status hearing is scheduled for October 19, regardless of Drudge’s personal itinerary. Incidentally, the Fox News Channel says Drudge’s weekly talk show will debut sometime later this month.

Newsweek‘s Ad-venture

Are the words and likenesses of Newsweek columnists for sale to the magazine’s advertisers?

It certainly looks that way, judging by a series of ads that have run in the weekly over the last month. In at least two issues, pictures and citations from Newsweek columnists have run above an ad from an online trading company called Datek. The top portion of the page cites the columnist, and the bottom talks about how the firm can be used to make stock trades based on the news, leaving a distinct impression that the ad and Newsweek promo are linked.

In the May18 edition, veteran media-politics columnist Jonathan Alter is used, and in the June 8 edition, computer columnist Steven Levy. Both seem like precisely the type of journalists an online company would want to associate itself with. (Oddly, neither ad points out that these are, in fact, Newsweek writers.) Within the last month, two Newsweek readers and a Newsweek employee phoned the Voice to point out the ads’ unusual arrangement.

The juxtaposition is mildly unsavory, considering how badly Datek needs a public relations recovery from its recent regulatory trouble. A lengthy May 10 New York Times story noted that “behind Datek’s burgeoning on-line empire . . . is a securities firm with a blemished past–a record of aggressive, and sometimes illegal, trading activity; of fines, censures and suspensions, and of shadowy deals involving offshore accounts.” (Newsweek has never covered Datek or any investigations into the company.)

Newsweek publicist Wende Gozan calls this a “complete coincidence.” She said the Newsweek promotions were standard house ads that run in some regional editions to fill space left by half-page ads. She added that the columnists were not paid for their words being reused. She said there was no reason why the ads had run twice above a Datek ad, adding that the Voice had found the only two such ad juxtapositions.

Open Posts

Suddenly there are a lot of holes in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Last week, the tabloid’s number-two editor, David Yelland, was yanked from his post to take the top job at Murdoch’s London Sun, which has recently lost hundreds of thousands of readers. Yelland’s abrupt transatlantic transplant comes quickly after the self-removal of women’s section editor Cathy Bishop–who got nabbed printing an embarrassing job-hunting letter in the Post newsroom–and the departure of Sunday features editor Steve Garbarino to work at Detour.

But Posties say there’s no particular sense of crisis. Yelland’s deputy editor slot is “one of those jobs that we don’t really need,” says a veteran Post reporter. “The last time someone left [that position], it took two months to replace him.”

Times’s Flat-Tax Flack

Not so long ago, it was part of Gretchen Morgenson’s job to bullshit The New York Times. As of last month, she’s a Times columnist. The paper’s choice of Morgenson to replace the formidable business columnist Floyd Norris–who’s joined the paper’s editorial board–is odd. Morgenson is best known as the former Forbes journalist who became the lead flack for Steve Forbes’s ’96 presidential campaign.

Among political reporters, Morgenson–and the Forbes campaign in general–was not exactly renowned for telling the whole truth. On at least one occasion, the Times practically accused her of fibbing about the Forbes campaign’s ad spending. In a February 24, 1996, story, after Morgenson denied that the Forbes campaign was cutting back ad dollars, a Times reporter noted: “A spot check of the FCC documents does not mesh with . . . Ms. Morgenson’s assertions.”

The revolving door between press and politics is not always a problem–but with Forbes almost certain to run again in 2000, can Morgenson really be taken seriously on the presidential race and the federal budget and tax issues it raises?

Times business editor Glenn Kramon did not return a call seeking comment.

Research: Leila Abboud, Jason Vest