A Man and His Manifesto: Matt Drudge, media philosopher.

Drudge Manifesto, by Matt Drudge, New American Library, 247 pages, $22.95.

When Matt Drudge broke the news that Monica Lewinsky had paid scores of service calls on the White House, the establishment seemed to be more outraged about the story's venue--an amateurish Web site--than about its substance.

Even when Mr. Drudge's Jan. 17, 1998, scoop turned out to be 100% true, reporters, pundits, think-tank shills and ethical watchdogs savaged him as a merchant of yellow journalism and his medium, the mercury-quick Internet, as an enemy of the truth. By year's end, one TV news newcomer with even less journalism experience than Mr. Drudge--President Clinton's former bootblack, George Stephanopoulos--was spanking him for the "lowering of standards of what is acceptable political discourse."

Blaming the lowering of standards on Matt Drudge rather than Bill Clinton seems an outrageous matter of shooting the messenger. But the administration and its factotums never really feared Matt Drudge as much as they did Drudgism--the specter of uncontrollable voices freely discussing the affairs of state. Any political parley outside the reach of its command-and-control apparatus scares the bejesus out of Washington, whether it is on the Internet, through the initiative process (against which the Washington Post's David Broder has written an entire book) or over the vox populi of talk radio.

What made Mr. Drudge so dangerous to the politico-journalistic complex was his rejection of Washington's established rules of conduct. Here was a reporter who had little interest in writing "beat sweetners" about his subjects for future access to info tidbits; who wasn't above "stealing" a story that he thought other journalists were sitting on; who believed in unvarnished partisanship; who didn't think he needed years, or even minutes, of seasoning in the provinces before taking on the U.S. president; who relished throwing dead cats into Democratic temples but wasn't above torturing Republican kittens; and who was more interested in being first than being absolutely accurate.

Mr. Drudge attempts to chronicle his pioneering Internet life and times in "Drudge Manifesto." But I can't really recommend. His collection. Of sentence fragments. To anybody seeking an intelligible account of. How Drudge. Gave American journalism. A much-needed kick in the tuchas. Besides Mr. Drudge's sentence-fragment tic, he RunsWordsTogetherForDramaticEffect as if under the spell of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, making readers struggle to follow his tale.

The real pity, though, is that Mr. Drudge and his credited ghost, Julia Phillips ("You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again"), neglect to milk the Internet badboy's saga for all it's worth: Imagine a plot line mixing the Horatio Alger myth and the hijinks of "The Front Page" with the vigilance of "All the President's Men" and the hilarity of "Scoop" and you can sense the possibilities.

A born loser and congenital loner, Mr. Drudge barely finished high school in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park before gravitating to Los Angeles in the early '90s. There he got a job in the CBS Studios gift shop and an apartment in the divey Hollywood and Vine area. For reasons apparently unknown even to his autobiographer, he started snooping in trash cans for entertainment gossip. Papa Drudge bought him a computer, and he got connected to the Internet.

What did the loser have to lose? With a cunning born of desperation, the sort known to every punk rocker ever to find an audience by banging out three energetic chords, Mr. Drudge embraced the Do It Yourself ethic and homesteaded a space on the Internet. Almost overnight, he began to fill the ether with raw and gossipy journalism, some of which helped stagger a president.

What Mr. Drudge understood about the Internet from the get-go--and many media properties have yet to absorb--was that not every member of its audience wanted to read a repurposed daily paper or a 24-hour news channel masquerading as a Web site. They wanted a "news portal" that offered the feral variety of the Web, not the world according to AOL Time Warner or CBS/Viacom/Paramount.

The Drudge homepage still includes a menu of hot political stories and links to goofball articles and columnists collected from thousands of sites. Among his innovations was a homepage with direct access to wire services, as well as an e-mail list to alert the faithful to breaking stories. For these reasons, the Drudge Report remains the political news portal of choice among my set, which includes commies, conservatives, libertarians, liberals and even folks on the middle of the wing.

While we're all titillated by the "exclusives" that decorate the Drudge Report--"SECRET WHITE HOUSE VIDEO SHOWS CLINTON WITH OTHER INTERN!"--we know from experience not to believe them until more credible outlets corroborate. Although Mr. Drudge dons the hairshirt for his biggest goof--he reported that another Clinton bootblack, Sidney Blumenthal, beat his wife, and he still faces a libel suit for doing so--he demands ethical equivalence with other media entities. Didn't NBC mistakenly identify Richard Jewell as the Atlanta bomber? Didn't ABC News prematurely report Bob Hope's death? And, besides, Mr. Drudge says, I retracted the Blumenthal story within 12 hours.

By insisting that readers acknowledge his scoops without recording his mistakes--that Clinton's distinguishing mark was an eagle tattoo; that Bill "might" have fathered a love child with a Little Rock prostitute--"Drudge Manifesto" begins to resemble the season-highlights film of a cellar-dwelling NFL team. Kick-offs returned for touchdowns! Heroic goal-line stands! But no mention that the team went 5-11 for the season.

On the long shot that Mr. Drudge's accuracy problem is a correctable vice and not a congenital disability, here's hoping that he makes the best of his six-year apprenticeship and continues his wild experiment, inspiring scrappy outsiders to make their voices heard. More Drudgism! I say. But maybe a little less Drudge.

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