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Matt Drudge's sordid tryst with a banana

By Bob Harris

THIS JUST IN: Kenneth Starr is secretly attacking witnesses with nerve gas. OK, that's not exactly true. I actually have no information whatsoever that the special prosecutor is using nerve gas to try to compel testimony. In fact, he very probably isn't.

Normally, I wouldn't go around just making stuff up, but suddenly it's the fashionable thing to do these days. The rules of journalism are starting to look curvier than Out of Sight film actress Jennifer Lopez doing the limbo in a fisheye mirror.

Look what's happened just in the last couple of weeks:

A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter admitted stealing voice-mail messages in an attempt to nail the bad boys behind Chiquita bananas.

The Boston Globe was forced to fire columnist Patricia Smith for making up quotes out of whole cloth, just to make her stories sound smoother.

Not to be outdone, the New Republic had to fire star writer Stephen Glass for making up, in whole or in part, no less than 27 stories.

And CNN and Time stole the show with their now-famous report alleging that U.S. troops secretly used nerve gas in Laos. Something worth noting: Leaving aside the intense backlash that followed, CNN's ombudsman never actually determined whether the story was true or false; what he did determine was simply that the reporters hadn't either.

"Journalistic credibility" has lately become an even bigger contradiction than Martha Stewart's Living.

Here's how bad things are: Matt Drudge, the Internet gossip columnist who got famous because (a) he became the target of a huge libel suit from Sidney Blumenthal, and (b) he helped break a story about the president's sex life that, so far, no one in the world--even a guy equipped with subpoena power and CS gas--has been able to verify, now has his own highly promoted show on Rupert Murdoch's 24-hour Fox News Network.

Demonstrating all the imagination for which Fox is known, the show is called "The Drudge Report." Although in keeping with the rest of Fox programming, a better name might be "When Journalists Attack."

Woops, there I go again about Ken Starr and nerve gas. Sorry.

Y'know what? I usually spend a lot of time and energy researching these little screeds, but maybe I shouldn't bother. From here on in, I think I'll just make it up as I go along.

Next week's top story: Linda Tripp's voice mail proves Matt Drudge is having a sordid affair with Martha Stewart and a banana.

Finally, I can start making some real money.

HOW DO YOU KNOW what's in your lunch? You read the ingredients. Unless you're eating a can of generic Potted Meat Food Product, in which case you just sort of mentally picture a petting zoo being lowered into a blender.

How do you know what goes into a TV program? Again, you read the ingredients. You check out the viewpoints of the sponsors and the people on screen and the owners of the networks. Unless you're watching Fox News, in which case you just sort of mentally picture Edward R. Murrow being lowered into a blender.

So how do you know what goes into a scientific study? Same thing. You go over the data and make sure they support the conclusions, and if not, it helps to know who paid for the research.

Guess what? Studies financed by cigarette companies often reveal that smoking has unexpected benefits. Scientists who work for heavy polluters sometimes conclude that kids really aren't getting enough heavy metals in their diet. And when you read that a synthetic food additive is actually good for you, even though a guy down the hall ate it once and now he has a limp, a facial tic, and a giant third eye, you can figure that the research might just have been financed by the folks who make that additive.

That doesn't mean that the research is fraudulent. But knowing who paid for the whole shebang often gives you a hint about who got the benefit of any ambiguity in the data.

That's why leading experts in medicine, urban affairs, and environmental policy are advocating that scientific journals begin publishing funding information as a standard part of articles, along with financial disclosures in which writers state for the record any potential personal gain they stand to get from their findings.

Reasonable? Believe it or not, most journals don't do anything like that right now.

But it's such a good idea, I'll start right here.

The only people who pay for these commentaries are the folks on the masthead of the paper in your hands. If you're reading this online, I'm not making a dime.

And the only profit I stand to gain from the whole thing is cutting a syndication deal, landing a TV show, eventually directing my own movies, and getting really, really rich.

After which I intend to suffer through an early peak, alienate my loved ones, and slip into a long downward spiral of smoking, bingeing on junk food, and eating lead.

There. Now you know my ingredients.

Just mentally picture realistic expectations and linear thought being lowered into a blender.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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