SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Has the internet abandoned its role as the nation's hottest incubator of political rumor?
Judging by the Net's recent nonchalant treatment of a steamy story alleging infidelity by a presidential front-runner, the answer would be yes.
In its current issue, the National Enquirer has a story about Tammy Phillips, a woman from Carrolton, Texas, who claims to have had an 18-month affair with Texas Governor George W. Bush. Phillips, described by the Enquirer as a "stunning Playboy model," claims to have had eight sexual encounters with Bush in at least two states between December 1997 and June 1999.
Phillips' story has little apparent credibility. The Enquirer concludes - 19 paragraphs into the story - that "while her story may have the appearance of truth, it's false - although Tammy vehemently defends it."
Rarely has a spicy political rumor's falsity or unverifiability been any impediment to its widespread distribution on the Web. But Net gossip king Matt Drudge has taken very little interest in the tale of Bush's alleged affair. And it is next to impossible to find the story mentioned anywhere on the Net.
Politex, the anonymous Texas-based architect of the Bush-bashing BushWatch.com site, seemed unaware on Dec. 28 that the Phillips story had even been published. "Since it's been out for a few days, I'm as surprised as you that the story hasn't surfaced somewhere," Politex says.
One major candidate anxiety of the 2000 presidential race is that the proliferation of political rumor on the Net would force mainstream media outlets to cover unchecked or even irresponsible stories. Last summer, for example, the Wall Street Journal and other venerable news organizations ran stories about mere allegations of cocaine use by Bush - without corroboration - largely because the stories were so widespread on the Net.
And it's not hard to imagine Phillips' story being picked up by Drudge and then, say, by the Washington Times - a tried-and-true spin cycle for dirty political laundry.
Yet so far, there's been silence. One reason might be that the story seems to have less supporting evidence than, say, Gennifer Flowers' 1992 tale about President Clinton, which was backed, however sketchily, by recorded telephone conversations.
But clearly much of the Web's indifference to the Phillips story is attributable to the gulf between the Net and the tabloids. On Tuesday morning, the Enquirer's Web site still had not posted the Jan. 4 issue containing the Phillips allegations, though the print version had been available on newsstands for days.
Although both the Enquirer and its sister tab, the Star, have Web sites, they don't use them to push dirt - perhaps because tabloid readers aren't the nation's most wired bunch. Regardless, if the tabloids don't post their stories in a timely fashion, Web publicists have nothing to link to. "I don't check out the Enquirer for stories on a regular basis," says Politex. "In fact, I don't recall ever using an Enquirer story, either as a headline link or a reference in a commentary."
For a time, Drudge straddled the divide between the Web and checkout-line cultures. But if Drudge ignores a story, there are few other columnists - in print or on the Web - who have the inclination and audience to break a tabloid tale to mainstream readers. (The New York Post's Page Six column made the Enquirer story its lead item on Christmas Day.) Some might argue that Drudge - whose politics are generally right of center - is pulling punches in favor of the GOP. Yet Drudge was out front this summer with stories about a Bush property that had a racially restrictive lease, a tale that received wide Net play but little mainstream attention.
It may be that Web rumor sites are a barometer of public opinion. That is, they are ignoring the rumor of a Bush girlfriend because, in the post-Monica political climate, few believe that the allegations have any political significance, even if true.