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Hope is Alive
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

Cyber journalist Matt Drudge probably had quite a laugh June 5, when the media erroneously reported Bob Hope had died. The greatly exaggerated reports of Hope's demise happened within days of when Drudge had spoken at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, where he was harangued by the mainstream media for his alleged lack of "professionalism," "journalistic ethics," and editorial "gatekeepers."

Drudge is a 31-year-old former CBS studio gift shop clerk with no college education and no prior journalism experience, whose email newsletter and website, the "Drudge Report," www.drudgereport.com, has turned modern news reporting on its ear. From a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, he uses the Internet to dig up and publish entertainment and political gossip and tips, and a growing list of sensational scoops, not the least being the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Drudge has also made some mistakes, not the least being an erroneous item alleging that an advisor of President Clinton had abused his wife, for which he is being sued. But at the Press Club lunch, Drudge defended his methods by noting that even before Dewey defeated Truman, the history of American journalism is besotted with mistakes and "sloppiness" that are the inevitable tradeoffs for a vigorous, fast and free press.

As if to prove his point, just a couple of days later, someone at the esteemed Associated Press wire service pushed a wrong button, and a canned obituary on Bob Hope, probably being updated in the aftermath of Frank Sinatra's death, accidentally got posted to its website, "The WIRE," www.ap.org. Like many news organizations, AP prepares advance obituaries on celebrities so stories can be sent quickly when they do die. In the advance Hope obit, X's marked where editors would fill in specifics when the time came. The headline read, ``Bob Hope, Tireless Master of the One-Liner, Dead at XX,'' and the first paragraph read, "LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Bob Hope, the master of the one-liner and tireless morale-booster for servicemen from World War II to the Gulf War, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx He was xx. (born May 29, 1903)."

AP, which is the world's largest news gathering organization, soon became aware of its error and deleted the story from its website. But not before a congressional staffer saw the item and gave a printout to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who handed it to Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona, who proceeded to announce Hope's death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Broadcast live on C-Span, Stump's announcement was soon picked up by other news outlets. And by the end of the day, Drudge was able to report on his website that "in a special national news alert, complete with a Bob Hope death package of clip and performance, ABC NEWS reported Bob Hope dead, citing congress and REUTERS as its source."

Unaware that he was dead, and presumably more puzzled than concerned by the news choppers circling above his home near Burbank, the 95-year-old entertainer was at the time having breakfast. According to the "Drudge Report," it was while ABC news was making its special report that Hope's publicist called and said he was still alive and eating breakfast, causing ABC to correct the story, "live on air, during its initial report."

A sanguine Drudge added that, "In January, ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE devoted a show to the perils of speed Internet reporting and the danger of false information being circulated online without fact-checkers and editors."

How could such a thing happen? Many are again blaming the Internet. After all, if it weren't for AP's website, the House staffer would never have seen the story. Unless, of course, the staffer had access to a news wire, where stories, letters, memos and notes have also been sent inadvertently. Just ask Linda Ellerbee. And if it weren't for another technology, cable TV, providing live coverage of Congress, the story might not have spread so fast.

A more serious problem exposed by the incident is the extent to which the Washington political and media establishments have become chummy. While each professes to distrust the other, reporters tend to accept the word of politicians and vice versa. So when a politician says a news service says Bob Hope is dead, on TV to boot, it must be true.

People shouldn't trust what they see on the Internet any more than what they see in a newspaper or on TV, or, for that matter, on the floor of Congress. But the bottom line is that cyberspace has only made a free press freer. As Drudge noted during his appearance at the Press Club, it has often been said that the only ones who really have freedom of the press are those who own the printing presses. With the coming of the Internet, anyone with a computer and a modem has access to a virtual printing press, bringing freedom of the press to everyone.

(Bob Hope eventually died at age 100 on July 29,2003.)

© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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