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Amateur Hour at The National Press Club

These quotes came to mind last week, while I read the transcript of Matt Drudge's June 2 appearance before the National Press Club in Washington. It was hell to dig up these quotes, due to a long, brutal relocation of my writing table and the accompanying 37 crates of reference material.

But thank Christ I didn't toss all that printed matter, as the techno-fascists demand. Moving six blocks across town meant losing all Internet and telephone connections for a solid week. Books do not suffer such 'service disruptions.'

National Press Club president Doug Harbrecht's smug attack on Drudge was a pretty good summary of everything sick in the news business. Harbrecht, editor of Business Week, got to stand before his lifeless, yuppie peers in the Beltway and clumsily swing at Drudge.

'There aren't many in this hallowed room who consider you a journalist,' said Harbrecht. There were many references to Drudge's lack of college education and official training. (Never mind that in America, we have no required licenses for journalism, or that many of the finest minds in reporting history studiously avoided university.)

It was cheap, and it was desperate. Finally, it was just sad. Why is this highly-paid editor of a slick corporate magazine so scared of Drudge?

Harbrecht displayed the polite hostility of a Nazi general at the bargaining table -- Thank you for coming, and now we will kill you. And he was wrong about almost everything, even though he tried to embarrass Drudge by claiming 'in the past half hour you have been inaccurate 8 to 10 times -- about history, government, the media.'

Specifically, Harbrecht attacked Drudge's casual assertion that the first radio stations and newspapers weren't profit-driven monsters.

Drudge didn't argue, although he should have. Early radio was run by amateurs, Mr. Harbrecht. It was a hobby. Of course, the highly-paid editor of a greed journal can't be expected to understand doing something out of love.

As for newspapers, it would be difficult to draw a historical line and point to the first newspaper. Was it in ancient Rome, when the day's events were posted in the public baths? Was it the Middle Ages' call of the town criers? Or does the National Press Club's history of delivering the news begin with the first impressive P&L statement by a publisher?

Why is Drudge able to deal so well with these insults?

The answer, as should be perfectly clear to anyone who reads the transcript, is that Drudge doesn't need these people. Nobody needs these people. They are corrupt swine, bloated from their years at the D.C. trough. They went to fine Ivy League schools. They know important folks. Some of them, like journalist-turned-cheerleader Sidney Blumenthal, even managed to get their own offices in the White House.

And they detest the childlike glee Drudge gets from gathering his bits of political, media and showbiz news. Drudge and his clumsily-written dispatches are certainly no threat to Mencken's legacy as the great wordsmith of American newspapers. Yet Matt Drudge has much more in common with the Bastard of Baltimore than the comfortable elitists of today's media establishment.

Both men share fairly humble beginnings and a lack of higher education. Both bullied their way into newspapering because they rightly figured out that no other job offers more fun and adventure.

But in Mencken's time, an ambitious kid could bug a city editor and get a job covering fires, shootouts, whatever. If that kid harbored a brain like Mencken's or Jimmy Breslin's, there would be opportunities to write columns and stamp one's views upon the city.

Drudge was born into an America where such tenacity is rarely rewarded in a newsroom. I barely made it myself, and I credit a brilliant maniac of a city editor named Tim Mayer for giving me a job on a mid-sized daily in 1989 and ignoring the lack of academic titles on my worthless r?sum?. If I ran a city desk today -- a total impossibility because I love hard news and good writing and refuse to take drug tests -- I would scour the country for bright, ambitious nuts like Drudge. I would teach him a bit about language and get him on the police beat and reward him with gossip columns and booze.

Because I'm not at a newspaper these days, and because the good editors I know have left for the wild kick of publishing on the Net, Drudge was forced to mix his love of pre-WWII newspapers with the punk do-it-yourself ethic of the 1980s. He made his own newspaper. God bless him, and may God's bitter fury rain down upon the Ford Explorer-driving, NPR-listening, Starbucks-sucking drones who killed print journalism in this once-great country.

The latest death certificate for newspapers came across the wire this week, courtesy of MSNBC's Brock Meeks. While the increasingly gray-haired newspaper audience remains stagnant, the number of online-news readers has tripled in less than three years. The number of Americans going to the Net at least once a week for news has jumped from 11 million in 1995 to 36 million today.

On June 8, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the survey, which shows Internet news audiences increasing 'at an astonishing rate.'

'Getting the story right and getting it quickly are two things consumers consider important for all news outlets, the survey says,' Meeks writes. 'But a large part of the news audience also wants 'entertaining and enjoyable news presented by personalities who deliver it in a caring way,' the survey says.'

No wonder the pointy heads in Washington are so scared. Those without souls tend to lack personality.

'But we're so careful and accurate!' they cry. 'That filthy Matt Drudge just posts unverified information!'

Uh, sure. Sort of like the AP and Reuters and ABC, all three of which rushed out reports on elderly comic Bob Hope's June 5 death. Seems none of these media institutions could be bothered to call Mr. Hope and ask him how it felt to be dead.

Or the Dallas Morning News and its make-believe story of Secret Service agents watching Bill and Monica get it on. Or the New Republic's fantasy hacker article.

Drudge, like Harry Knowles and his Ain't It Cool movie-news site and even my own, has a loyal audience because there's a heartbeat behind the words. Newspapers killed the human voice, and all they offer instead are voyeuristic, 'objective' reports on the poor girl who may have had a fling with Bill Clinton.

Papers used to be loaded with soul. Mencken, Jack London, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and even the now-despised Hunter S. Thompson used to write for newspapers. Inspired first-person prose by ace writers used to be expected in the papers.

Now those people are gone, exiled to books and the occasional magazine piece by an uptight, bitter media establishment that doesn't want 'em around.

Maureen Dowd, one of the last real newspapermen (and I doubt she would take offense at the term), used to be on the front page of the New York Times. Eventually, they shuffled her back to the Op-Ed pages, as they do to any reporter with style. In New Orleans to cover an investigative-journalism convention, she heard many complaints about the news audience and attended many serious seminars about using databases. But when she looked at the actual reporters, here's what she saw:

'The old image of swaggering investigators in trench coats, noble watchdogs over a political system inexorably drawn to sin, has vanished. They're still trying to be watchdogs, but without an eager audience, they've lost their swagger. In New Orleans, yuppies in khakis, with beepers on their belts, were not addressing the ennui at the core of their profession. They were planning volleyball games, going to the gym and attending workshops about using computer data bases and Internet sites.'

Indeed. When the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen was asked to provide a biography some years back, he wrote a brief description of his career in the arts and finished with 'No hobbies.' This is how it once was with the true newspapermen, who would never be so pretentious to call their trade an art, even though they handled it like true artists.

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