Take the 24-hour news cycle, throw in the "instantaneity" of the blogosphere, add one rumor, a dash of innuendo and a twentysomething intern and you've got a ... yawn.
The nano-episode of Sen. John Kerry's alleged "intern" affair - begun as a rumor on the Drudge Report and quashed four days later by the alleged intern (who was never an intern) - was hardly a blip on the national radar before it was gone.
What intern, you say? What affair?
There wasn't one, at least not according to all those allegedly involved. No intern. No affair. No Kerry. Nada.
For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, I offer a few plausible explanations: (1) you're not an Internet surfer; (2) you get your news from mainstream newspapers and television; (3) you have a life.
The rumor first appeared last Thursday as an exclusive story on the Web site of gossip-czar Matt Drudge, who made his name by breaking The Other Intern story - about that woman, Monica Lewinsky. Within minutes, it was posted throughout the blogosphere, the electronic realm of insta-journalists who post thoughts, opinions and links to other "bloggers" on their personal Web sites.
Within hours the story found ink in the European press. By Friday morning, Kerry was forced to dignify the rumor by denying it on radio with talk-show host Don Imus.
"There's nothing to report," Kerry said. "There's nothing to talk about. I'm not worried about it. No. The answer is no."
By early Monday afternoon, Drudge was posting denials from both the young woman implicated in the rumor and her parents. It didn't happen apparently. And so goes the short unhappy life of a little rumor that couldn't quite make fact.
Keeping pace with the rumor's electronic wildfire, multiple theories blossomed about the origin of the story.
The VRWC? Not I, said Lucianne Goldberg, who wryly accepts the title of Mother of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Was it Karl Rove, trying to deflect the AWOL rumor against Bush? Nah, too soon went the consensus. He would have waited until after the nomination.
Gen. Wesley Clark, who, according to Drudge, told several reporters off the record that Kerry would implode over an intern issue? Unlikely given his endorsement of Kerry the next day. Or was it the Clintons, attempting to kill the Kerry candidacy so that Hillary could emerge and save the day?
Here's another one just for fun. How about Drudge? The story essentially was birthed and died on his Web site. Infer as you will.
As fake stories go, this one had a relatively short life. But what a life. And what an interesting commentary on the peculiar world we now inhabit. Reality by rumor. Anyone can say anything about a public person, the more celebrated the better, and, voila, it's instant fame. Or defamation.
The Rumorist is like the prosecutor who strategically injects an objectionable suggestion into court proceedings knowing he'll be overruled. A probable reprimand from the court is worth the risk. The seed is planted, an imprint on the brain is made.
Even if the judge instructs the jury to ignore the questionable remark, the attorney knows what we all "know": Even thin smoke suggests a little fire somewhere nearby.
We can attribute the short life of the Kerry rumor in part to the mainstream media's refusal to play along. A LexisNexis search showed that, as of Monday, only a handful of newspapers had mentioned the rumor. Television also seems to have ignored the tale.
The media's resistance is owing, of course, mostly to the fact that the story never advanced beyond a rumor. But another factor may have been what we might identify as the long-awaited Clinton legacy. Thanks to the national embarrassment of the Lewinsky saga, no one wants to go there again.
I got a clear sense of this Friday during lunch with a group of Ohio newspaper editors. When I brought up the story, the unanimous reaction was part moan, part yawn, followed by eye-rolling and head-shaking, as if to say, "not again." Even if the rumor were true, my sense was that everyone would prefer to ignore it.
Exhausted by Clinton-Lewinsky, disgusted by our own prurience and refocused by Sept. 11, America no doubt has matured a bit. Within the grown-up context of terrorism and war, a consensual affair between adults - rumored or otherwise - is the gnat on a bat's behind. And so is the Rumorist, whoever he be.