The Drudge Report, Free Speech, and the Election: Is the "Marketplace of Ideas" Working Efficiently?

By JULIE HILDEN


Monday, Sept. 29, 2008

Recently, Washington Post Politics blogger Chris Cizzilla described Matt Drudge's The Drudge Report as "the single most influential source for how the presidential campaign is covered in the country." Addressing doubters, Cizzilla added, "Tomorrow morning, take a minute to look at the stories Drudge is highlighting. Then, later in the day, watch a few cable channels to see what stories they are talking about. It will open your eyes."

Cizzilla charged that lately, Drudge has been hard on Barack Obama, and easier on John McCain, but he also pointed out that many argue that the mainstream media's bias is the reverse: It's pro-Obama.

In this column, I'll discuss the unique role that The Drudge Report plays in the context of how it affects the "marketplace of ideas" that the Supreme Court has stressed as a central component of the First Amendment. In particular, I'll focus on the Court's ideal that readers and viewers must be able to exercise free, well-informed choice as to which of many ideas and viewpoints they will embrace - and consider whether it is well-served by The Drudge Report and by traditional media, both online and off.

Prioritizing Stories: Drudge Versus More Traditional Media

In one sense, Drudge is extremely open about his editorial judgment regarding which stories to include and emphasize - to the point of using red type and larger lettering for the ones upon which he wants readers to focus, and even employing his famous icon of a police siren for stories he thinks are truly major. His decision to include this kind of metadata is one reason that the reader can get the gist of his site very quickly, but then also read much more if she chooses.

In another sense, though, Drudge's editorial judgment is hidden: We don't know the stories that other news outlets believe are major, but that Drudge isn't highlighting. In his blog, Cizzilla points out a few negative McCain stories that escaped Drudge's notice, and several positive Sarah Palin stories that Drudge chose to feature.

Arguably, too, the hidden editorial discretion at work on The Drudge Report is further cloaked by its explicit flagging: Some readers may believe that Drudge's editorial judgment is limited to prioritization, and that he is including on the site all the major stories that break. Drudge doesn't make that promise.

It's interesting to compare the approach of CNN.com - which separates stories into subject areas and uses a list structure on its homepage with the captions "Breaking News" and "Latest News." The message is that CNN.com is covering every important news story, in the order in which it breaks; CNN.com, then, makes the very promise Drudge does not.

Inevitably, though, there's some important prioritization on CNN.com as well. When a story "breaks" is, in part, a matter of judgment, and so is how closely to follow that story, with how many reports. Thus, CNN.com's supposedly objective news categories are disguising its editorial judgment, not eliminating it.

In contrast, Drudge's more open prioritization of the stories he does include at least admits that some judgment is being exercised. CNN.com perpetrates the illusion of media objectivity whereas it is quite plain that The Drudge Report is subjective, selective, and authored.

From a marketplace-of-ideas standpoint, Drudge's greater transparency should be welcome. Just as our system benefits from openness about the workings of government, so too it can greatly benefit from openness about the editorial discretion of the media, which is pervasive, and not limited to the Editorial page.

Moving from Ombudspersons to More Sophisticated Metadata Systems That Reveal Editorial Priorities

Neither The Drudge Report nor traditional media do well with tracking exposing patterns in their prioritization over time. At any given moment, Drudge might offer some metadata in the form of emphasis, but he doesn't track and reveal what he emphasizes over time. Nor, generally, do traditional media.

The Washington Post's ombudsperson, Deborah Howell, deserves praise for her story comparing its volume of front-page McCain coverage versus front-page Obama coverage, but that was the exception, not the rule. An ombudsperson's role should not be limited to an occasional piece in a momentous election season; it should be a regular feature of websites. Granted, independent media watchdogs offer some commentary on bias and selection - but unless news sites are brave enough to give the watchdogs some of their own space, there is little hope that most readers will have direct access to the watchdogs' work at the same time they are reading the site at issue.

Much could be done to improve the reporting of metadata regarding editorial judgment. For instance, cable news channels don't use a scorecard at the bottom of the screen of how many minutes they've devoted that day to McCain versus to Obama. Thus, since few viewers watch around the clock, the fact that a particular issue or story has been strongly prioritized might escape notice, as viewers dip in for one among a steady stream of reports.

Of course, metadata doesn't tell the whole story - one obvious response to Howell's quantitative evaluation as to how the Post's front page was dominated by Obama, was to point out that Obama was less well-known than McCain, and had simply done more newsworthy things in the period of the coverage. But metadata is a valuable piece of the picture that online journalism is especially well-suited to provide, yet largely doesn't. Once it is provided, the illusion of journalistic objectivity inevitably breaks down.

Just as many legal issues are a mix of law and fact, many issues within journalism are a mix of opinion and fact. Until we admit this and try to make the mix transparent, we will inevitably be accepting ideas without reflecting upon them and actively choosing them - in a process that is antithetical to that which the marketplace of ideas envisions, and that the Supreme Court has described as our system's basis and ideal. A mere compilation of unprioritized, unsorted fact would be unintelligible and unreadable. The question is not whether sorting and prioritization occurs, but how.

How Drudge Breaks the Boundary Between Elite and Popular Coverage

Finally, another interesting aspect of The Drudge Report is that it links to stories from both the most elite sources - The New York Times and The Washington Post - to the least elite, such as The National Enquirer (to which Drudge recently and repeatedly linked, for its coverage of John Edwards's extramarital affair) and local newspaper articles. (Full disclosure: I once did legal work for the Enquirer.)

In this sense, The Drudge Report significantly enhances the marketplace of ideas. It should be viewed as outrageous that the traditional media failed to properly cover credible allegations of an Edwards affair -- even when evidence mounted that those allegations were true, and when he had just run for President and might have been chosen for a high post in an Obama Administration. The problem was clearly the subject matter, not the strength of the story; the traditional media could have tried to re-report the story, but largely did not.

Some voters doubtless would have found Edwards's affair relevant; whether or not you or I believe they are right, they are entitled to their opinion and their value judgment. There is no objective answer to whether Edwards' now-admitted affair was relevant to his ability to serve; rather, there are credible arguments on both sides. That leading media entities decided to serve as a judgmental screen between voters and information - playing the role of censor, not speaker - is a disgrace. Withholding a credible story implies that one believes that people are too stupid to pay attention or care when and if it is debunked. Sometimes the truth is lurid; that doesn't mean covering it also is. The Supreme Court described the marketplace of ideas as "uninhibited, robust, and wide open."

In sum, from a "marketplace of ideas" viewpoint, The Drudge Report compares surprisingly well to traditional media - by wearing its subjectivity proudly. A separate site devoted to major stories Drudge chose not to cover, and to some of the metadata regarding coverage that I advocated above, would better complete the picture. But such a site would be a welcome addition to CNN.com, as well. And if Drudge and CNN.com were brave, they would invite such meta-sites to share a prominent corner of their screens - enhancing transparency, admitting subjectivity, and fully informing the reader.


Julie Hilden, who graduated from Yale Law School, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website, www.juliehilden.com, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.



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