Which of These Things Is Not Like the Other?

Kudos to John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and Terence Smith, the media correspondent for “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” for providing the concise explanation of why the mainstream media (well, most of the media) didn’t run with the whispered rumors last week about John Kerry and an intern.

Harwood, appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program yesterday, was asked by host Howard Kurtz why the Journal made no mention of the rumor, first posted by Web gossip Matt Drudge.

Harwood explained the obvious to Kurtz: “Not only are there no facts to the story, there are no allegations, either.”

So, Kurtz asked, what about a charge made by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh that the liberal media was simply “giving Kerry a pass” on the story, at the same time reporters were poring over George Bush’s National Guard service records?

“[W]hat could the press look into?” Harwood asked. “There’s nothing — nothing to look into. Nobody has alleged anything.”

With the National Guard matter, Smith chimed in, there were people to interview, witnesses to track down, documents to dig up, an official policy to scrutinize. With the Kerry rumor, not only were there no witnesses, no accomplice and no documents, there wasn’t even an aggrieved accusor. There was just — Drudge.

And that is the difference between a reporter (Harwood, Smith) and a gossip monger whose stock in trade is unverified rumor (Drudge, Limbaugh). A reporter wants some evidence. In all the fog and smoke that surrounded the issue last week, it was nice to see it laid out like that, at last.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Update, 2/23, 4:08 p.m.: Thanks to a reader who noted that The Wall Street Journal’s online website did mention the Drudge rumors about John Kerry on February 12. Apparently the Journal’s clean skirts on this issue extend only to its print editions.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.