A little more than one year ago, the Internet was the last place people turned for breaking news. Habitual news junkies went first to television, then to newspapers, and finally to the Internet editions of already-familiar news sources.
All that changed in August of last year, when the Drudge Report http://www.drudgereport.com, an exclusively online news source managed by Matt Drudge, broke the first stories connecting Kathleen Willey, Linda Tripp, and President Clinton. Specifically, the Drudge Report indicated that Newsweek was working on a story in which a federal employee was propositioned by Clinton while on federal property.
Suddenly the Net was the source for breaking news. And it wouldn’t be the last time Drudge scooped his big-name media counterparts.
If it’s done nothing else, the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky controversy has illuminated the potential of the Internet for the fast distribution of information.
For hours this past Friday afternoon, millions of people crowded news sites all over the World Wide Web to get a peek at Kenneth Starr’s official report to the House of Representatives. During the morning hours, legislators voted to release the documents publicly; later, the information was burned onto compact discs for distribution to the media.
While government copiers buzzed away, producing hard copies, members of Congress, reporters, and average citizens crawled the Net and printed their own copies of Starr’s report, not to mention the White House’s preliminary rebuttal.
The House of Representatives posted the entire text on its Web site ( http://www.house.gov/icreport. ), simultaneously publishing the same report at the Web sites of the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office.
After 2 p.m. on Friday anyone attempting to visit those sites, or any of the major broadcast news sources in this country, was forced to wait much longer than usual because of the high demand on Internet Web servers. Those who weren’t waiting endlessly for a response from a server were greeted with error messages such as, “Server too busy.”
Even after 6 p.m. CDT C-SPAN’s coverage of the report and rebuttal at C-SPAN was impossible to retrieve, as were all the sites the government established to handle the demand. The load on other news servers like CNN (www.cnn.com), ABC News ( www.abcnews.com ), and MSNBC ( www.msnbc.com ) lightened considerably after 5 p.m., when people started to leave their workplace Internet connections to head home for the weekend.
A report in www.abcnews.com technology section Friday night stated that the news organization’s Web site was experiencing its biggest day ever, with more than 1 million unique visitors to the site seeking out the Starr report. Likewise, CNN reported receiving more than 300,000 hits per minute, and MSNBC was expecting more than 2 million visitors before the day’s end.
CNN reported Monday that an estimated 20 million Americans viewed the Starr report on the Internet between Friday and Sunday.
Smart Web surfers sought out other, smaller sources for the report; sources that other people may never have considered, like the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com), Washington Times (www.washtimes.com), and even the Nashville Scene (www.nashscene.com).
Self-described Internet “portals” such as Netscape’s NetCenter ( http://home.netscape.com. ) and Lycos (www.lycos.com) also got in on the act.
And while the larger news organizations were waiting for the government to deliver its CDs before they published the Starr report, smaller rogue Web sites were downloading the full report from the government’s site and posting it on their own, further disseminating the already-heavily disseminated information.
There seemed to be little space on the Net where the Starr report wasn’t present.
Starr’s report to Congress also acknowledges the Internet as a driving force behind the publicity of the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy. According to the narrative portion of the report (“Section VIII. June-October 1997: Continuing Meetings and Calls,” subsection “D”), Monica Lewinsky details a discussion she had with President Clinton regarding Linda Tripp. Clinton allegedly asked Lewinsky if a woman whom had she mentioned to him on July 4, 1997, was Tripp. Lewinsky added that “he talked about that there was some issue...to do with Kathleen Willey and that, as he called it, that there was something on the Sludge Report, that there had been some information.”
Clinton, according to a footnote by Starr, was actually referring to the Drudge Report.
The House of Representatives’ decision to release the reports on the Internet, along with the White House rebuttal, pinpoints a pivotal change in the way citizens communicate with their government. Moreover, it could conceivably change the way people and the media communicate. Netizen views were less colored by media than those who simply heard the story on television and radio or in newspapers.
Rather than relying on the media to read the Starr report and give readers/viewers their shortened interpretations of the contents, Web surfers got their own eyeful of the sexually explicit Starr report.
In fact, some people in chat rooms dedicated to the Clinton controversy lamented that the same government that attempted to regulate decency on the Internet in 1996 posted a document containing decidedly graphic descriptions of sexual acts allegedly perpetrated by Clinton and Lewinsky. (The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was a broadly written ban on Internet indecency; because of its broad language, it was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of the First Amendment.)
Some news sites ran a disclaimer with the report, indicating its contents were for mature audiences and advising parents to use discretion. No such wording appeared on any of the government’s official Starr report sites. In fact, except for the corporate disclaimers, the only reference to the sexually explicit content of Starr’s report was the rebuttal by Clinton’s legal team.
Wanting to respond quickly to Starr’s accusations, the team had no choice but to release the White House rebuttal online. It was displayed alongside the Starr report on the House of Representatives Web site, as well as on the White House’s own Web site (www.whitehouse.gov). Once they had it in their hands, news organizations provided links to both documents.
In response to the graphic descriptions of the Starr document, Clinton’s team wrote: “And the principal purpose of this investigation, and the OIC’s report, is to embarrass the President and titillate the public by producing a document that is little more than an unreliable, one-sided account of sexual behavior.”
Even on the Internet, great controversies can boil down to “he said, she said.” But if the White House, Congress, and the judicial branch of the U.S. government are all so willing to place public documents, even controversial ones, online there is less evil than good that can come from it. Public opinion is swayed by the media, certainly. But when a government exposes its own documents for the world to view, people’s minds are shaped by a purer knowledge of the facts, something only the Internet can provideunless newspapers, radio, and television suddenly get unlimited space and time to report on such matters.
The only thing that now restricts the dissemination of information on the Internet is bandwidth, the range of available connections to a particular site or Web server. Many people who attempted to view Starr’s report at the government’s sites on Friday ran into a bandwidth problem when they received those “Server too busy” messages.
Even so, more people probably saw Kenneth Starr’s report to the House on the Internet than ever would have seen it if there were no such beast. Whether people actually sat there and read the full document, or even read enough to get a good gist of what Starr was saying, remains to be seen.
Clinton’s legal team promised a more complete rebuttal of the Starr report once they had an opportunity to review it completely. Reports indicated that Clinton’s team worked through the night, reading the 445-page Starr document and responding point-by-point. They posted the new rebuttal online at www.whitehouse.gov on Saturday evening. (It, along with the preliminary rebuttal and Starr’s report, is also available online at www.nashscene.com.)
But just because the news was in the hands of the White House, Congress, and big-name media on the Internet doesn’t mean the original Internet source was left out of the loop.
On Sunday, the Drudge Report released a video of Clinton and a “young woman” (who is not Monica Lewinsky) in the Oval Office. The video reportedly shows the young woman wiping Clinton’s forehead after a jog, after which they retreat through the same door Lewinsky describes in the Starr report.
On Monday, Drudge reported that the White House says the woman in the video is a “friend of Clinton’s from Arkansas.” Presidential officials also confirmed that the video was actually footage of Clinton, and was probably taken in August of 1993. The Drudge Report released the video to Fox News on Sunday night.
Perhaps there’s room for both the wholeness of information on the Internet and the conciseness provided in other modern media. And perhaps the potential destruction of a presidency has come at a greater benefit to mankindthe knowledge that comes from a vast source of information, and the power that comes with that knowledge.
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