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Sunday, January 25, 1998 Published at 08:06 GMT

Scandalous scoop breaks online

The Clinton scandal was first published on the infamous Drudge report

Secret tapes. Threats of impeachment. Persistent journalists tracking the case. There is no doubt that in many respects the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton bears an uncanny resemblance to the notorious Watergate scandal, which brought down the President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Except for one thing: the Internet.

[ image: Maverick Internet reporter Matt Drudge]
Maverick Internet reporter Matt Drudge
For it was in the wilds of cyberspace - not the morning newspaper - that the story of Bill Clinton's alleged affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, first unfolded.

"Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern: 23-Year-Old, Sex Relationship with President" screamed a Saturday-night headline on the infamous Internet tip sheet, the Drudge Report.

"The Drudge Report has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top Newsweek suits hours before publication," the report said.

Holding the story wasn't an issue for Matt Drudge, the maverick Internet reporter who authored the story. Mr Drudge proudly admits that he has no editor but himself. On Saturday, he published the story to the Web's world-wide audience plus, according to his own calculation, his more than 85,000 subscribers.

By the early hours of Sunday, the news had hit Internet news groups. It moved from alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater to alt.impeach.clinton and then to the more mainstream political discussion groups.

[ image: A Newsweek reporter was tracking the story of Monica Lewinsky]
A Newsweek reporter was tracking the story of Monica Lewinsky
Thousands checked into the Drudge Report for the latest news. On Wednesday, one Internet user posted a message saying the Drudge Report site was so busy that he couldn't log on.

"As of 10:30 pm Pacific [time]. Call the police to check on Matt!" he joked.

Why Wednesday? That was when the newspapers finally ran the story - more than three days after it was let loose on the Net.

How the traditional media got scooped

The story belonged to Newsweek magazine's investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, who had been doggedly pursuing the story for nearly a year.

[ image: Newsweek explained its reason for not printing the story online]
Newsweek explained its reason for not printing the story online
On January 14, according to Newsweek's account, Mr Isikoff learned that the Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr was investigating obstruction of justice and perjury in the Paula Jones case, and that Monica Lewinsky was a target of the investigation.

Mr Isikoff continued to report the story for the next three days. On Saturday at 12:30 am (5:30GMT), Newsweek editors heard a tape of conversations between Miss Lewinsky and her friend Linda Tripp. As Newsweek could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording, and some of the statements on the tape raise questions about Lewinsky's credibility, the editors decided to hold the story.

Newsweek has since posted an explanation of why it held the story on the Web.

The dreaded Drudge

This is not the first time that Matt Drudge has "outed" one of Michael Isikoff's stories by publishing it on the Internet.

[ image: The Drudge report has dogged the Clinton administration]
The Drudge report has dogged the Clinton administration
Last summer, while Newsweek was debating whether to publish another charge of sexual misconduct by Clinton, Mr Drudge, who heard it from a source inside Newsweek, ran the story.

But the rogue reporter - who says he is on a mission to divorce the Washington press from its 'too-cosy' relationship with its sources - is far from perfect. Mr Drudge is currently being sued for $30m for a story he briefly posted about liberal journalist and Clinton aide, Sydney Blumenthal, accusing him of abusing his wife.

Arrival of the digital age

The Internet already has played a role in the sensational trial of British nanny Louise Woodward and in bringing conspiracy theories about the crash of TWA 800 to the attention of the world's media.

But this may be the first time that a story of such consequence developed on the Internet. Love him or hate him, Matt Drudge's report on the Clinton scandal is the most visible sign to date of the changing nature of journalism.

In an early interview about the scandal, former Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos, dismissed the report. "And where did it come from? The Drudge Report. You know we've all seen how discredited that's been."

In the future, academics, politicians and journalists aren't likely to dismiss the Internet so quickly.

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