Originally created 02/16/99

The first Internet blockbuster: The Intern and the President



NEW YORK -- It was the first Net blockbuster: The Intern and the President. For the first time, the new medium became a truly mainstream form of journalism.

And following the Senate's acquittal of President Clinton on impeachment articles, the same question that confronts mainstream media now confronts the Web: Where do we go from here?

"The offline and online components converged last year," said David Weir, managing editor of the online news magazine Salon. "This story continues to cycle back and forth, both online and offline, and that kind of relationship is really, really revolutionizing our business."

The public scandal started online on Jan. 17, 1998, when Matt Drudge told the Net community that Newsweek magazine was sitting on a bomb about to explode in the White House.

He appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," made the first mention of the infamous Gap dress and even got his own television program.

He had his stumbles, including a discredited report that Clinton fathered a child with a prostitute while governor of Arkansas. But the giants stumbled, too. The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News yanked early stories from their Web sites when they proved inaccurate.

The major broadcast and print outlets also reported that Clinton stormed out of the room in fury during his taped deposition. That was wrong, too.

"A lot of the mainstream media made the same mistakes -- or worse -- than stuff you could find online," said John Pavlik, the executive director of the Center for New Media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "The online sources in some cases did a better job than the traditional media."

And whatever the source, people wanted to talk about it. The Web became a digital water cooler.

In fact, the Internet almost came to a halt when millions of people tried to download Special Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the scandal.

"There were so many times when the news seemed incredible, the public wanted to absorb that," said Colby Devitt, supervisor for discussion forums at The New York Times' Web site. The forums and the Web "contributed to the feeling that they were part of the nation and a public community."

In 1998, the Times sponsored more than 20 forums on Clinton and Lewinsky, and received more than 350,000 posts. And that's just on one site on the Web, which had Clinton scandal sites springing up like popcorn in a microwave.

A quick search on Altavista, a popular search engine, turned up almost 208,000 sites that mention Clinton and Lewinsky, and more than 136,000 mention Clinton and impeachment. But now, with the story over, what comes next?

A site run by Robert Sherman, www.impeachment.net in Los Angeles, already has plans. "If it really does dry up, we'll just fold our tent," he said.

Others will press on.

"The Internet is a godsend," said Eugene Delgaudio, president of the Council of Volunteer Americans. "It was literally sent by God to give the mimeograph crowd a way to communicate."

His organization sponsors the Committee to Impeach the President, and runs the Web site, www.impeachclinton.org, where the topics are often the deaths of Vince Foster and Ron Brown, alleged illegal fundraising and the transfer of technology to China. He has come up with a new name for his group: The Committee to Impeach the President Again.