USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

A Tale of Two Rumors: How Reagan, Kerry News Spread Online


Ronald Reagan was gravely ill. John Kerry had an "intern problem." The former turned out to be true, the latter was denied. But both were prodded along by the power of Matt Drudge and the blogosphere.

You know something that few people know. It might be a nugget of information, highly explosive, possibly wrong. Where do you go with this information? You might dig for the truth and find no corroboration. But can it still be shared with the public? Print, TV, talk radio, online?

This is the question that bedevils editors and reporters -- and increasingly, bloggers -- every day. In the chase for the scoop, there's a thin line between grabbing for glory and overreaching and getting it wrong. So when a whisper campaign makes the rounds in Washington, D.C., is it enough to shrug your shoulders and post it online? Increasingly, the online realm is becoming a kind of minor leagues for breaking news and rumors, where people might float a story to see where it might go.

I decided to follow the trail of two such rumors in their early stages, with the 20/20 vision that hindsight affords. In one case, LA Weekly columnist Nikki Finke had the inside scoop on former President Ronald Reagan's health deteriorating, news she disseminated via e-mail because it was after-hours for the LA Weekly Web staff. In another case, it was a lone blogger ruminating on the rumor of a Kerry affair, news picked up by Drudge Report and others, before being denied by Kerry and the woman, Alex Polier, and dying a death of indifference.

On Friday, June 4, the major media newsrooms were buzzing with a rumor that the popular ex-president might have died. Nothing could be confirmed, but a chance phone call from Finke to Newsweek's chief political correspondent and senior editor, Howard Fineman, on another matter furthered the story.

"I first spoke to Howard for a story I was doing on an unrelated subject early afternoon on Friday," Finke told me via e-mail. "He called me back right after we hung up and asked about Reagan. So I put in in a few calls to Hollywood people. They knew exactly what was happening: That Reagan had suddenly had this downslide on Friday, the doctors were at the Bel Air house and the prognosis was only a day or so (to live). By the time my sources called me, between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (Pacific time), I couldn't reach anyone at my paper and neither of Howard's numbers was answering."

This was tricky news at a tricky time. No one wants to guess publicly when someone might die no matter what the doctor's prognosis, and Friday night is not exactly a peak time for editors to work. Finke had what she believed was big news but didn't have an outlet like a personal Weblog. While the Weekly had run some of her stories as Web exclusives in the past, no one was around to check or post this story at the time.

"Frustrated? I was crazed!" Finke said. "Let's face it: Staff on a weekly do take the weekends off, so no one can blame LA Weekly ... On Friday night, all my competitive juices were flowing, like I was back being a wire service reporter. I just kept thinking, 'OK, how do I get this news out?' I have very mixed feelings about blogs. Too many are rants and raves and repositories for incredibly uninformed opinion singularly lacking in rudimentary reporting.

"I've put together a pretty good e-mail list of pretty influential media people, and I figured someone on that list could benefit from knowing what I knew. I guess I did it as a public service, as corny as that sounds. But isn't that what news is about?"

Drudge holds off

Finke e-mailed a few contacts, didn't give many details, and Kevin Roderick, who runs the LAObserved Weblog, was the first to take her up on it and give her a call. Even after he knew what she knew, Roderick, a former Los Angeles Times editor and seasoned journalist, was not convinced he should run it on his blog. He asked Finke about her sources, and then took a couple hours to go out to dinner before finally posting her news on his blog at 8:41 p.m. Pacific time.

"I do think that blogs can and should have a little more leeway, a little looser standards on what is a known fact, because blogs can be corrected so easily and updated so handily," Roderick told me by phone. "In this particular case, I wouldn't have posted it unless I had spoken to her and asked her about her sources, kind of like I would have if I was an editor at the newspaper. I don't know if I would have put that (news) in a newspaper in this case. But I attributed it to her, and made it a conditional type of thing and could easily change it."

Not long after Roderick posted it, infamous online news-hound Matt Drudge decided to run a similar item, also crediting Finke. Like Newsweek's Fineman, he had heard rumors about Reagan's health, but didn't run anything until Finke had something substantial. Fineman was surprised he didn't see anything from Drudge earlier on Friday.

"Drudge didn't go with anything because none of those news organizations was ready to put something on the Web," Fineman told me. "He didn't go with anything saying 'Rumors Sweeping News Organizations.' It took Nikki's thing for it to make it onto Drudge. That probably shows in an odd way that Drudge has become part of the establishment himself. He's enormously important."

Drudge told me that he did hear the same rumors at about 11 a.m. Eastern time on Friday, but held off on posting because he had been through so many waves of Reagan rumors in the past.

"I almost went with the first tip I got, but my gut told me 'no!'" Drudge said. "I've done it before, too much Reagan Deathwatch. He was near death several times. This is not the first time that they thought it was serious. We got to Friday, and it was 'Oh no, not again,' but it was then literally coming from everywhere, and when Nikki Finke flashed, I said 'Oh yeah, let me do it.' Friday evening is the quietest part of the week for me, I try to ease up a little bit. But at that point, if Finke is saying it, the dam is going to break. I think the world of her. She's not a saint, but she certainly is intriguing."

Drudge is known for locating hot stories before they hit print, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which brought him widespread popularity. While many journalists scoff at his fact-checker-free operation and conservative leanings, Drudge has a huge loyal following that includes major media folks. If he isn't the first to run a rumor, he's usually the one who takes a minor Web posting and blows it up big. But how does he decide what to run and what to hold?

"It's all gut instinct," he said. "It hit such a critical mass, and then when Nikki Finke was willing to go on the record with her e-mail, and I quoted her, that put it a little bit differently. Before that no one wanted to have their name stamped on it ... I don't discuss how I do things. If it's something that would interest my readers and I'm confident that it's happening, that's my criteria."

On Saturday morning, AP and Reuters had stories mentioning Reagan's decline in health, and he died later that afternoon. The next week, the LA Weekly did run an in-depth obit on Reagan from Finke, including her story on the scoop. While the weekly newspaper doesn't have plans for a weekend staff, editor Laurie Ochoa told me they were looking to upgrade their Web site so editors could post remotely from home. Plus, they're planning to have daily and possibly blog-like reports from both national political conventions this summer.

Polier tracks down wags

One piece of "news" that doesn't threaten to derail the Democratic convention is that presumptive nominee John Kerry had an affair with an intern. That rumor was propagated online in true Drudge fashion -- in the context of major news outlets preparing an explosive story. Of course, journalists chase various rumors and secondhand innuendo for days and hit dead ends with regularity. But online, those routine investigations take on sinister overtones.

Blogger Stephen VanDyke, writing under the pseudonym "Son of Liberty," reported on on Feb. 6 that "Rumor has it that John Kerry (D) is going to be outed by Time magazine next week for having an affair with a 20-year-old woman who remains unknown." Almost a week later, Drudge had more details on the story, including the fact that ABC News, The Washington Post, and AP were doing serious investigations.

But none of these outlets ended up running any investigative reports about the woman, Alexandra Polier, as she and Kerry denied any validity to the affair. Instead, Polier, a young journalist herself, did her own investigation into the source of the rumors, following the trail of VanDyke, Drudge and various political operatives till she found out a friend had misinterpreted her close relationship with Kerry's campaign (she had dated Kerry's finance director).

"First came a rumor about Kerry, then a small-time blogger wrote about it, and his posting was read by journalists," Polier wrote in a first-person account in New York magazine. "They started looking into it, a detail that was picked up by Drudge -- who, post-Monica, is taken seriously by other sites like Wonkette, which no political reporter can ignore. I was getting a better education in 21st-century reporting than I had gotten at Columbia J-school."

VanDyke was upset that another New York editor, Bob Kolker, interviewed him for the story and that his blog posting wasn't mentioned in its true context -- as a rumination on the harm of political rumors. But even in that seemingly safe context, VanDyke was participating in the same exercise and spreading a rumor himself. Still, he told me via e-mail that he did not want to be a rumor-monger despite gloating publicly over beating Drudge to the story.

"My goal was to examine it as if it would never be legitimate and how those kinds of rumors effect the campaigns, not the rumor itself," VanDyke said. "The blogging media is still in its adolescence and its ability to run honest and truthful information is limited by its inability to corroborate like larger media can. If a blog entry is claiming a fact and they can't back it up with other sources, or don't link to any sources, take it with about a pound of salt. Most everything on the Internet should probably be taken with a few grains of salt regardless of who publishes it."

Feeling guilt and no guilt

While VanDyke does feel bad about what happened to Polier, and disavows any future scandal-mongering, Drudge has no regrets about his role in the story. According to Polier's article, Drudge told her that, "In retrospect, I should have had a sentence saying, 'There is no evidence to tie Alex to John Kerry.' I should have put that."

Polier said she would not discuss the non-scandal again, but New York's Kolker did tell me that her story speaks for itself and demonstrates what happens when Internet and print reporters don't adhere to traditional standards of journalism. "I honestly don't know if people will think twice before posting (online) now, but you might want to look at the section of the piece where Matt Drudge apologizes to Alex."

Drudge apologize? Not exactly. He was furious at the idea, when I asked him about apologizing. Instead, he remains suspicious about New York's motives for giving Polier a platform without even asking her if an affair ever took place. To Drudge, a past sexual dalliance between Polier and Kerry is still an open question.

"The case remains open, very much open," Drudge said. "She did not submit to a TV interview, she did not open herself to questions, it was very controlled. It was her point of view. It's very easy to do in a setting like at New York magazine. I think their journalistic credibility has been shot to hell, not even having someone sit and question her ... She admits to doing it (being with Kerry) in my conversation with her. I'm not prepared yet to splash her again because there's not enough going on."

To splash or not to splash, that is the question. Drudge still stands by his original story on the media investigating a Kerry affair, and says he would not have posted the original Reagan rumor in retrospect, even knowing that the president was going to die the next day. Drudge bristles at the notion that he runs unsubstantiated rumors. It just depends on how you define "unsubstantiated." And that gray area is where the major media fret about how online wags, bloggers and others pick through the scraps, throw them on the wall and see which ones stick.

Related Links
ABC News
AP: Reagan's Children Gather at His Bedside
Drudge Report
Drudge Report: Campaign Drama Rocks Democrats
Drudge Report: Reagan's Condition Worsening
Hammer of Truth: Alexandra Polier: 'How I Got Smeared'
LA Weekly
LA Weekly: Bye Bye, Bonzo
LAObserved Weblog
LAObserved: Reagan takes turn
New York magazine
New York: The Education of Alexandra Polier
Reuters: Reagan's Health Is Deteriorating - Source
The Washington Post
WatchBlog: A Kerry Affair & Push Polling