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It was fitting that the Starr report on President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky was distributed to the members of the House, the public and the press via the Internet. And it was an unmistakable sign, if any were needed, of the impact the Internet and the Web are having on American public life.

Within hours, the report was available not only from several official sites operated by the U.S. Congress, but from the sites operated by nearly every major newspaper and broadcast news organization in the country. No competitive news organization could afford to be without it. This was a major story, and this was the fastest way to circulate it.

The Clinton administration, of course, is as media-savvy as anyone else, and was quick to make its 73-page advance rebuttal of the Starr charges available in cyberspace as well. As everyone in the White House well remembered, it is at least possible this whole story might never have surfaced had it not been for the Internet and the extraordinary freedom of the press that it has made possible.

The story first broke, not in Newsweek, which got it first, or even the Washington Post, which published it in print first. Nor did it break on any of ABC News’ broadcasts, though ABC News had it at about the same time as the Washington Post. No, the story first appeared on the news and gossip site operated by the controversial Matt Drudge. It is called, as millions know, the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com).

Drudge has developed a form of journalism that might be called “precycling.” His specialty is finding out what journalists working for major news organizations are about to report, and posting the fact that they are about to report it on his Web site. He then joyfully takes credit for “breaking” the story. This infuriates the journalists who did the real work, but it has made Drudge a must-check site for a large number of people, and the Drudge Report is followed with much interest in Washington.

Drudge was first to report on President Clinton’s alleged advances at Kathleen Willey by virtue of his Web-site alert that such a story was about to break in Newsweek. And, most fatefully, last January he reported that Newsweek had the Monica Lewinsky story and had elected to hold off publishing it. At that moment, any chance the story might never be published vanished.

Late the following Tuesday night, ABC News confirmed the story, even as the Washington Post was doing the same, but ABC decided not to report it on “Nightline.” The result: ABC News first ran the story on its Web site (www.ABCNEWS.com) in the early-morning hours that Wednesday. The Washington Post did not run the story in its first editions for Wednesday morning, but like ABC News, it first posted the story on its Web site. The Post then carried it in later print editions. ABC News, by the way, claims it broke the story first, citing its Web-site posting.

Whoever was actually first, the person for whom the White House holds by far the most dislike is Drudge. Readers of the Starr report know that many in the White House, including the president himself, refer to him as “Sludge.” Press Secretary Mike McCurry refuses to answer any questions based on material from the Drudge Report. Joe Lockhart, the man appointed to succeed the departing McCurry, harbors similar feelings.

For better or worse, this is a remarkable thing for a single journalist, supported by no advertising, whose “report” appears nowhere but in cyberspace. It establishes that the Internet is now a source of news and information that is no longer a mere supplement or convenience, but a place where both newspeople and newsmakers find they often must look first to know what’s going on. ABC News, by the way, which announced a couple of years ago it would start a 24-hour cable news channel, then backed away, nonetheless now has a slogan: “Now Always On.” That is a reference not to its radio network, but its Web site.

This may cause some to conclude that anybody with a computer, a modem and some space on an Internet server can become an important publisher. In fact, however, Drudge so far is unique. There are thousands of individual home pages and Web sites established by ordinary individuals that have little circulation and absolutely no impact. And much of Drudge’s material not backed up, or soon followed by, confirmation by mainstream media outlets has no impact either.

Still, the Internet means the competition to be first is now more intense than ever, news cycles are shorter than ever, and a news organization’s ability to sit on a story, believing it won’t get out anyway, is a thing of the past.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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