Drudge, Dickens, and the Death Rattle (?) of a Rumor

Yesterday, a crestfallen Matt Drudge downgraded the affair alert on his web site from last week’s red (“Campaign Drama Rocks Democrats: Kerry Fights Off Media Probe of Recent Alleged Infidelity”) to a defeated yellow (“Kerry Mystery Woman Dated Campaign Finance Chief”). No more spinning siren. No world-exclusive.

It didn’t help Drudge when the “Mystery Woman” told the Associated Press yesterday that the alleged infidelity never happened (adding to Kerry’s own earlier denial of allegations that it wasn’t clear who, if anyone, had ever actually made in the first place).

With the “Mystery Woman” on the record, U.S. tabloids did feel free to do what their British and Australian cousins had done all weekend — run her name and her photo, along with cheesy headlines like “‘I’m No Monica.’” Some in the press weighed in with their own cautious post-mortems on what Mike Littwin, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News (a non-tabloid tabloid), today called the “story about a story that it now seems isn’t a story at all” and their role in it. Some patted themselves on the back for showing restraint (or quoted a professor doing the patting). Others stressed for readers the difference — and distance — between mainstream and tabloid news.

What none of the navel-gazing printed so far asks is the obvious question: Who fed the hapless Drudge the time-bomb that fizzled? The RNC? Chris Lehane, the Rasputin-like Clark advisor? Karl Rove’s evil twin, Skippy? That would seem to be the real story behind the story. But for now, the press seems too busy high-fiving themselves to inquire into the origins of what looks suspiciously like a trial balloon.

Here is Campaign Desk’s summary of other post-mortems:

Newsday’s media writer James Madore expresses surprise at “how quickly gossip has become front-page news” for some publications, but concludes by quoting a professor who says that “the vast majority of the media” behaved responsibly.

James Pinkerton, a columnist for Newsday, goes Dickensian: “More than ever,” Pinkerton writes, “‘the media’ is a tale of cities” — two, to be precise — one of which Pinkerton calls “Mucky” city (“as in muckraker”) and the other he names “Tidy.” After a decent play-by-play of how the rumor traveled from Drudge all the way to “Tidy City,” Pinkerton concludes that “the judgment of Tidy City — that the Kerry allegations were not a legitimate news story — seems to have been completely vindicated.”

The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg avoids literary references and self-congratulation, opting for a straightforward review of events.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz offers his unadorned “status report” now that the “young woman in question” has gone on record discounting the rumor. He also takes the occasion to remind readers that he “stayed away from the Kerry Rumor business started by Drudge until now.”

But, to those in “Tidy City” crying out for credit, you’ll get no pat on the back here; we always have Great Expectations.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.