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NEW YORK (AP) The roots of the story of the year and it's only February can be found online.

Allegations involving President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky broke on the World Wide Web. And long after broadcast and print media have turned their attention elsewhere, the story will bubble along for months over the greatest gossip fence ever.

"The Internet made this story," Slate editor Michael Kinsley wrote in Time magazine. "And the story made the Internet. Clintern-gate, or whatever we are going to call it, is to the Internet what the Kennedy assassination was to TV news: its coming of age as a media force."

And it all started with a guy named Matt.

Matthew Drudge, 31, publishes the Drudge Report, a gossip sheet on the Web that made history on Jan. 17. He told the Net community that Newsweek magazine was sitting on a bomb about to explode in the White House.

"At the last minute, at 6 p.m. Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation!" he wrote. "A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!"

A week later, Drudge appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," alongside Michael Isikoff, who wrote the story Newsweek spiked, and William Safire of The New York Times. The enfant terrible of journalism, who claims he learned reporting from the Internet, had come a long way.

"I'm a citizen first and a reporter second," he says. "The people have a right to know, not the editors who think they know better. You should let people know as much as you know when you know."

Back in the old days 1993 or so the Washington press corps would have held tight rein on Clinton's crisis. Editors and reporters would have decided, right or wrong, what to print and when. But times change.

"There is something slightly elitist about the attitude that we journalists can be trusted to evaluate such rumors appropriately but that our readers and viewers cannot," Kinsley wrote.

"In any event, these are early days still, and the exact relationship of the Internet with older media is still working itself out."

But by some accounts, the relationship is dysfunctional, and the coverage is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

"On this story, there have been no standards," said Craig T. Wolff, a journalism professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in New York. "I don't think anyone has been above reporting unsubstantiated rumors. I've never seen so much secondhand information used."

The gotta-get-it-first coverage, from Drudge on up, has been the most disgusting aspect of the story, Wolff said.

"As we move into a technological stage in journalism, it's important that we should not forsake basic virtues," he said. "To see journalists approach everything in thibreathless, unmoderated tone I think we are absolutely going to look back on this time as a very sorry day in the history of the media."

Kinsley's solution is to recognize the different standards in all media, to realize that Drudge is a gossip, but The New York Times isn't. They shouldn't be held to the same standards, he wrote.

Not a regular reader of Drudge, Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said Drudge is not responsible for the erosion of standards. Slipping started before the Hollywood parajournalist popped up.

"In Watergate, you had a two-source rule," he said, referring to the practice of two independent sources confirming information about the White House. "Now, you have a no-source rule. If you have a source that has a source who says a Secret Service agent will testify about the president, that's enough.

"Rumor and news just seem to have merged."

Drudge sounded a defensive note, counterattacking critics who blame him for lowering journalistic standards. "That's elitist, and you should know better," he said. He claims that he's giving people what they want to read.

Rosen agreed, albeit reluctantly.

"Journalists can't claim, on the one hand, they are a profession with self-policing standards and demand special treatment and then say, on the other hand, they are a business responding to customers," he said.

"If they legitimize Drudge and use what he reports, then they are saying they're really no different and their standards are no different. And the collapse of standards in a profession as influential as journalism is very worrisome."

The solution, said Scott Ehrlich, executive producer for Fox News Online, is for readers to be their own editors, to filter and be aware of the source of the news.

"If I go to Fox News Online, I can trust that information is as good in that medium as it is in the traditional medium," he said. "If I go to Matt Drudge, and I have no idea who Matt Drudge is, I need to be aware that I may not be getting good information."

(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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