More Sludge From Drudge--and Murdoch

Robert Scheer, a Times contributing editor, is the editor of USC's Online Journalism Review--

Turns out that President Clinton is not the father of the teenage son of a black prostitute in Arkansas, as Matt Drudge, Rupert Murdoch and Jay Leno, among others, would have had you believe. Put that in the file of rejects along with claims that Bill Clinton committed crimes in connection with Whitewater, smuggled drugs, murdered his friend Vince Foster and used the FBI and IRS to destroy his political opponents, a la Richard Nixon.

This latest Clinton non-scandal had been hyped primarily by Drudge on his Internet rumor report. For a week, he’d teased out a story of 13-year-old Danny Williams, holed up in a secret location while the Star tabloid attempted to match his DNA with that of the president.

Star editors confirmed nothing and pointedly noted that it was only one of a dozen stories they were working. Star editor Phil Bunton said Sunday, “We went into it thinking it was more likely to be untrue than true. We might run a couple of paragraphs saying we investigated it and it proved to be untrue.” Of the attempt to match the boy’s DNA to Clinton, Bunton said, “There was no match, nothing even close.”


But for 10 days, Drudge parlayed the tale throughout the world, thanks to the vast news outlets owned by Murdoch, whose Fox network news employs Drudge as a commentator. On NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” host Leno became obsessed with the story and nightly brought a series of lewd jokes into 4 million homes whose viewers might have expected to turn to the darker recesses of cable for such vulgarity.

Drudge can’t take all the credit for the worldwide distribution of this slander against the president. The cybergossip needed the backing of Murdoch, the recently divorced family-values conservative who has done more than anyone to introduce smut into the mass media worldwide.

The Drudge Report was picked up by the Murdoch-owned Times of London, once among the world’s most respected newspapers but now a Murdoch political tool. In this country, the New York Post and the Fox network, also owned by Murdoch, did much to market this non-story as true. Drudge provided a breathy account of the emerging scandal on Fox network news, made available to the Internet rumormonger as reward for his previous attacks on the president.

Although most of the mainstream media in this country managed to avoid printing Drudge’s calumny, the wild allegation appeared in the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and the Washington Times, with its attention-grabbing front page headline, “Media Abuzz With Rumors that Clinton Fathered Boy.” It was alluded to by such conservative establishment columnists as James Pinkerton.

The rumor rapidly became a staple for rabid right-wing talk show hosts eager to blast Clinton. Suddenly the airwaves were filled with attacks on him as a “deadbeat dad” who would not take responsibility for the child he had fathered.

The story was first floated by the president’s right-wing enemies in Arkansas during the 1992 campaign and has been in circulation among the get-Clinton-at-any-cost circles ever since. Former Newsweek columnist Joe Klein alluded to it in his book “Primary Colors.” And most recently, the Star paid the mother of the boy to have his DNA compared with Clinton’s. But it was the Drudge Report that gave the rumor its worldwide exposure.


Last weekend, Drudge was forced to admit the lurid tale was totally wrong. In the time-honored tradition of rumormongers exploiting their own errors, Drudge told his readers, “A stunning DNA showdown came to a dramatic conclusion this weekend when it was learned that Star magazine was in possession of lab results--results that ruled out Bill Clinton as the father.” Drudge previously claimed to be deeply moved by a preview of “a shocking new videotaped confession” by the boy’s mother, produced by Paramount TV’s “Hard Copy.” However, last weekend, he reported that the story he had done so much to hype was “a cruel hoax by the boy’s mother--debunked and flunked by science.”

But the damage was done. What has come to be known as the “Sludge Report” stained the president, and this tawdry tale will be believed--and spread--by many who have not heard of the barely covered retractions or who just don’t care what the facts are, as long as Clinton is smeared.