The New York Times’ slick approach to the Kerry “intern” rumor

This is really interesting, at least to media junkies like me. The New York Times today has an article that is ostensibly about the use of Internet attack ads in the presidential election.

It gets off to a good start, with a description of a nasty ad on Bush’s campaign web site. But suddenly, halfway through, it veers in a different direction, focusing on one topic: the rumor spread by Drudge about Kerry having an affair with an “intern.”

Here’s how the reporter segues away from the ad topic to the Drudge topic:

But perhaps most significantly, the Web has evolved as a relatively permissive environment. A negative advertisement that might rub viewers the wrong way in their living rooms is apparently less likely to do so when they are at their computers.

The tension between the different strata of media was evident when The Drudge Report, the news Web site, recently reported that several major news organizations were investigating a rumor that Mr. Kerry may have had an extramarital affair.

And from then on it’s all about the scandalette — in other words, it’s really two separate articles, joined loosely together by the theme of how we respond to material on the Net vs. other media.

The reporter’s description of how Drudge’s blatant rumor mongering pressured the “regular media” to respond is fascinating.

Unlike the Monica Lewinsky scandal, news of which The Drudge Report also broke, the Kerry rumor had no accompanying criminal investigation, which could justify coverage by itself, and newsrooms across the country found themselves in a state of paralysis — caught between ignoring a story millions already knew about or validating a charge without independent confirmation.

The pressure mounted as The Drudge Report posted follow-up articles, effectively fanning the flames. Those watching from the sidelines saw the situation as a test of just how far the major newspapers, magazines and television networks would allow themselves to be pushed.

“Clearly the Internet is accelerating the pace at which politics move,’’ said Jim Jordan, Mr. Kerry’s former campaign manager. “And, increasingly, it seems to allow the mainstream media to rationalize editorial decisions that wouldn’t have been made in the past.’’

Ultimately, most news organizations, however, did not take the bait, with some ignoring the story entirely and others, including The New York Times, reporting denials from Mr. Kerry and the woman in question deep within their news pages.

So what the Times did was use an article on Internet Advertising as a framework in which it was able, somewhat awkwardly, to tell a very different story — exactly how the rumor started, how Drudge spread it, and how it was handled by the various media.

I think it tells that story really well. But it was amusing they felt they had to couch it in a more respectable framework (Internet advertising) to avoid looking like flame-fanners themselves.

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