As the Clinton scandal watch warmed up again in late summer, reporters seeking scoops once more flocked to the Web site of Matt Drudge, the intrepid Internetter who back in January forced polite publications to make Monica Lewinsky a household name. Newsweek reported on July 27 that "everyone in Washington" looks to Mr. Drudge for information-yet at the same time, journalists are publicly attacking his Web site and new Fox News show for contributing to a decline of media standards.
Whiners, welcome to journalism history 101. Matt Drudge is doing what some of the most esteemed names in American press lore-Benjamin Harris, John Peter Zenger, Samuel Adams, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, and others-did to arouse their communities, make themselves famous, and (in some cases) uphold God's standards of conduct.
The Library of Congress in 1990 had a lavish exhibition commemorating the tercentennial of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, edited by Benjamin Harris. Government officials suppressed the paper after only one issue because Harris reported that France's king, Louis XIV, "is in much trouble (and fear) not only with us but also with his Son, who has revolted against him lately, and has great reason if reports be true, that the Father used to lie with the Son's Wife." In 1690, the authorities successfully stifled reporting of royal incest.
Brave journalists these days compete for awards named after John Peter Zenger, the 1730s editor of the New York Weekly Journal who took on the colony's royal governor, William Cosby. Cosby, a bribe-taker and land-stealer, threw Zenger in jail on a libel charge. Cozy writers and court sycophants at the time were afraid to speak up, but a jury that included "common People" freed the editor and made his case a landmark of press freedom.
Samuel Adams, who failed as a brewmaster but was a hard-hitting columnist on the Boston Gazette during the 1760s and 1770s, emphasized investigative reporting: "Publick Liberty will not long survive the Loss of publick Virtue," he wrote. British authorities accused him of making up stories about corruption, but London's adulterous reality turned out to be even worse than Adams imagined, and a revolutionary battle to regain both liberty and virtue began.
George Wisner, editor in the 1830s of the New York Sun, the first successful "penny newspaper," democratized media that had grown stodgy by emphasizing sensational stories of corruption. He received heavy criticism for naming names of those arrested, but argued that exposure of wrongful action creates "a tendency to deter from disorders and crimes, and to diminish the number of criminals."
Harris, Zenger, Adams, and Wisner all expressed faith in Christ, and coupled exposure of man's depravity with columns emphasizing God's holiness. Late 19th-century journalists continued to show man's ugliness but forgot about God; their problem was not too much truth-telling but too little about what was most important.
The most recognizable practitioner of today's Drudge approach a century ago was Joseph Pulitzer, who owned and edited first the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then the New York World. With headlines like "GRABBER GARFIELD," Pulitzer attacked presidents who took shady campaign contributions. He defended young women preyed upon by older men with headlines like "VICTIMS OF HIS PASSION."
The height of Pulitzer's influence came in 1898, as World circulation soared to one million during the Spanish-American War-but New York newspapers that had forgotten their roots attacked him viciously. Pulitzer outfoxed his critics by leaving in his will funds to establish in 1912 a school of journalism at Columbia University, and to endow the Pulitzer Prizes, first handed out in 1917. The name "Pulitzer," once reviled, is now revered by reporters who do not bite the hand that they hope will feed them.
Whether today's journalists like it or not, if Matt Drudge makes millions and invests his money as wisely as Pulitzer did, his press rehabilitation will not be far behind. The larger question is whether he will be merely sensationalist, like Joseph Pulitzer, or biblically sensational, like the founders of American journalism, exposing sin but also pointing people to God, and showing a willingness throughout to acknowledge their own sins.
That's something for mainline American journalism generally to do. With CNN forced to acknowledge that it blew a big story on the supposed U.S. use of nerve gas in Vietnam; with the Cincinnati Enquirer acknowledging in a front-page apology that stories attacking Chiquita Brands' business practices were untrue; and with Boston Globe and New Republic columnists forced out because of story and quotation fabrication, Matt Drudge's success should be the least of the journalism establishment worries.