October 25, 2004 home
THIS JUST IN DEPT.
FIT TO PRINT?
by Ben McGrath
Issue of 2003-09-08Posted 2003-09-01
Aficionados of the Drudge Report may have noticed several striking headlines recently linking to stories from the World Tribune, an enterprise with a title as grand and ambitious as it is unfamiliar. One such story last week began, “U.S. intelligence suspects Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have finally been located.” The apparent scoop—of stop-the-presses significance—was unsigned, and billed as a “special to World Tribune.com.” The Times, the Journal, and the Washington Post, meanwhile, not only got beat but failed even to acknowledge the news in the days that followed. What gives?
Not everyone ignored it: Rush Limbaugh, for instance. “There’s a piece in the World Tribune today—one of the papers in the United Kingdom—exactly as theorized on this program early on,” he said on his radio show. “It’s unconfirmed, but it’s a story that many of the weapons of mass destruction are at present buried in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.” Fox News, catering to a similar demographic, enlisted a military analyst that evening to discuss potential ramifications—military intervention in Lebanon?—on “The O’Reilly Factor.” According to the story, the weapons were probably delivered to the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold, in a caravan of tractor-trailers that was spotted leaving Iraq in January, two months before the war began, as part of a multimillion- dollar storage deal between Saddam Hussein and the Syrian government.
In fact, the World Tribune is not published in the United Kingdom, nor is it, to be precise, a newspaper. It is a Web site produced, more or less as a hobby, in Falls Church, Virginia, and is dedicated to the notion, as its mission statement explains, that “there is a market for news of the world and not just news of the weird.” (Nonetheless, the site includes a prominent feature, Cosmic Tribune, with an extraterrestrial focus, and it links to a Mafia journal called Gang Land News.) Its editor and publisher, Robert Morton, is an assistant managing editor at the Washington Times and a former “corporate editor” for News World Communications, the Times’ owner and the publishing arm of the Unification Church, led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. (Morton and his wife, Choon Boon, are themselves followers of the Reverend Moon.) Among the World Tribune’s other recent half-ignored scoops are that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for last month’s blackout and that a North Korean defector stressed, during a meeting in July with White House officials, the need for a preëmptive military strike against Kim Jong Il.
Morton said last week via e-mail that he founded the site as an experiment, back in 1998, while serving as a media fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. “I didn’t expect World Tribune.com to last for more than a few months,” Morton wrote, but now, despite having no dedicated staff (“Everyone involved with World Tribune.com has a day job”), the site receives more than a million page views per month. And, unlike the Washington Times, which has lost at least a billion dollars in its twenty-one-year existence, World Tribune.com, in concert with the subscription-driven weekly intelligence briefing Geostrategy-Direct.com (a partner site), has paid for itself.
The secret of its success seems to involve well-placed informants (“Over the years I have developed an informal, international network of sources and writers I can trust,” Morton said) and an emphasis on immediacy. Although Morton said, “We emphasize newspaper standards to counter the half-baked, unfiltered content on some online sites,” World Tribune.com more fairly qualifies as something between a newspaper and a rumor-mongering blog. Call it “blews.” In this sense, it is part of a loose network of mostly conservative sites—WorldNetDaily, Dr. Koontz’s National Security Message Board, debka File (produced by a pair of Jerusalem-based journalists thought to have moles in Israeli intelligence)—whose dispatches sometimes serve as the journalistic equivalent of trial balloons: a story may not be based on knowable facts, but it nevertheless may occasionally turn out to be right. (Much of the time, of course, it more closely resembles a Bat Boy update in the Weekly World News.)
Take the Lebanon story. National- security buffs may have recalled hearing similar reports as far back as late December (beginning with an accusation from Ariel Sharon), and cropping up again in the spring (via debka). The story never quite stuck, however, and as of the end of last week no major newspaper had seen fit to tell it. Bill Gertz, the Washington Times’ best-known reporter, is a columnist and contributing editor for Geostrategy-Direct.com and a member of the World Tribune advisory board. A few days after the Tribune’s Lebanon lead, Gertz allowed that he, too, had been hearing the reports for months but hadn’t written anything about it for the paper. “I’ve never been able to nail it down myself,” he said. He would presumably have encountered similar difficulties with the story, available at Cosmic Tribune, of the increase in observed U.F.O. activity as Mars neared.