Wash. Post didn't think Webb novel story was newsworthy until Internet gossip Drudge promoted it

››› ››› MARCIA KUNTZ

A Washington Post story on Sen. George Allen's accusations that James Webb's novels include "inappropriate sex scenes and demeaning descriptions of women" contained an acknowledgment that the newspaper decided to report the story only after Matt Drudge had highlighted it on his website.

On October 28, The Washington Post published a front-page story with the headline "Allen Blasts Webb Novels for Sex Scenes," about Sen. George Allen's (R-VA) accusations that novels written by Democratic opponent James Webb include, in the Post's words paraphrasing Allen's attacks, "inappropriate sex scenes and demeaning descriptions of women." The Post article, written by Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig, reported that Allen peddled the story to news media "for weeks" before Internet gossip Matt Drudge first highlighted the story on his website on the evening of October 26. The Post story, therefore, contains a telling admission: What the Post did not consider news "for weeks" became such -- meriting front-page coverage -- only after Drudge ran it on his site.

The Post article credited Drudge with running an "Internet blog [that] often breaks or promotes stories with sensational angles, most recently the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.)." But while Shear and Craig's mention of the Foley scandal might suggest that Drudge's efforts to promote scandal are bipartisan, his role in the Foley scandal was nothing like his role in promoting the Webb story, which, by their own acknowledgement, was treated by the media as not newsworthy until Drudge ran with it at Allen's behest. By contrast, ABC News' Brian Ross broke the Foley story, and, as Media Matters for America has noted, Drudge actually defended Foley, asserting that Foley's alleged sexually explicit communication with one underage former congressional page through an instant-messenger program "wasn't coerced." Drudge went on to say that "the kid was having fun with this" because the conversation included "[t]hese LOLs throughout the entire conversation, these 'laugh out louds.' "

The Post justified publishing a front-page story "weeks" after Allen's aides had attempted to generate media interest by asserting that following Drudge's post:

[T]he new allegations unleashed by [Allen's] campaign had become the highlight of morning talk-radio shows and cable news outlets. Conservative groups seized on the news, with one calling for Webb to withdraw for writing "Triple X" novels. Cable news shows debated the issue throughout the day.

But the Post story did not focus on the media frenzy that followed Drudge's post, undermining the Post's suggestion that such coverage justified its front-page story. The Post did note in the 14th paragraph that "Allen's attack on Webb's novels occurred three weeks after the senator gave a two-minute speech pleading for a return to issues." But rather than focus on the fact that Allen had tried to interest the media for "weeks" in a story about Webb's novels even as he denounced the media for not focusing on issues, the Post led instead with Allen's attacks on Webb.

There's more. Shear and Craig reported that Webb, while appearing with host Mark Plotkin on Washington Post Radio on October 27, responded to Allen's accusations of "demeaning descriptions of women" by noting that Allen's sister wrote a book that describes Allen's "harsh treatment" of her (in the Post's words). Readers would not know it from the Post article, but in the book, Allen's sister Jennifer Richard describes Allen "dragging her up the stairs by her hair." According to an August 16 article by Michael Scherer on Salon.com, the book "was marketed as nonfiction." Although Scherer reported that "Richard said she no longer stood by the memories she had included in her book," the "nonfiction" book described alleged actions by Allen, as opposed to Webb's writings about actions of fictional characters. The Post neither reported on the Richard's specific allegations about her brother nor made clear the distinction between alleged "harsh treatment" by Allen and fictional harsh treatment by fictional characters in books of fiction.

Moreover, while Shear and Craig noted that on Plotkin's show Webb also "shot back" by citing Sisters (New American Library, 1981), a novel written by vice-presidential wife Lynne Cheney, that reportedly, in the words of Shear and Craig, "contains scenes of rape and a lesbian love affair," the reporters simply cited Cheney's response on CNN that Webb was "full of baloney" and her denial that her book contains sexually explicit scenes. Rather than let readers decide for themselves whether Cheney's book in fact contains sexually explicit scenes that are demeaning to women, the Post reported that the book is "out of print and difficult to find" and cited "independent reviews" that describe Sisters as "highly sexual and 'steamy' " and state that it "mention[s] lesbian characters." The Post presumably could have, but apparently made no attempt, obtained a copy of the book from Cheney herself, rather than simply reporting her denials that the book was sexually explicit. Had that effort been unsuccessful, the Post could also have then reported to readers that Cheney refused to provide a copy of the book, did not respond to their request, or said she no longer had a copy -- whichever scenario would have occurred had they asked.

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Matt Drudge
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.