Matt Drudge Rules Their World: What Arch-Journamalists Mark Halperin and John Harris are reading this morning:
Mark Halperin and John Harris are the freak show. And so it is worth hoisting this from the archives from a decade ago:
Mark Halperin and John Harris: The Way to Win: "THE COLLECTION OF WINNERS on that Little Rock stage was the most striking image from the Clinton Library opening...
...But also in attendance, sitting in the crowd, was a pair of distinguished losers. Al Gore and John Kerry.... Neither Gore nor Kerry seemed to grasp the reasons for what both considered a cruel hoax of history.... If this were a book about all the reasons John Kerry lost the 2004 election, it would be too heavy to hold. John Kerry was beaten by John Kerry, who never overcame the limitations of his diffident personality. He was beaten by George W. Bush, who was by far the savvier politician. Deep thinkers might say Kerry was beaten by history, since Democrats for nearly forty years had been at a stark disadvantage when national security was the dominant issue in voters’ minds.
Here is another nominee for who beat John Forbes Kerry: Matthew Drudge. If you are reading this book, you probably know who Matt Drudge is. It is a guarantee that most of the reporters, editors, producers, and talk show bookers who serve up the daily national buffet of news recently have checked out his eponymous website, and that www.drudgereport.com is bookmarked on their computers. That is one reason Drudge is the single most influential purveyor of information about American politics. Drudge, with his droll Dickensian name, was not the only media or political agent whose actions led to John Kerry’s defeat. But his role placed him at the center of the game—a New Media World Order in which Drudge was the most potent player....
SOMETIMES THE QUESTION arrives with squeals of gossipy delight. Other times it is accompanied by groans of resentment and fear. Have you seen Drudge? In an instant these four words spread through newsrooms and campaign headquarters. The case study of John Kerry was about hijacking—the way political adversaries can exploit the media to take over a candidate’s public image. The chapter that followed was about incentives—the ways that campaign and media cultures are influenced by Freak Show values that reward attacks and personality-based politics. These twin phenomena merge in the single person of Matt Drudge. No one has facilitated more political hijackings than he has. No one has a better grasp of the economic, ideological, and psychological incentives that power the Freak Show.
Few journalists would count Drudge as a colleague. But in the past decade, he has contributed to the change in how American politics has been covered, and his impact will be a major factor in the 2008 presidential race. The root of his power lies in that four-word phrase. This chapter is about what happens after people ask, Have you seen Drudge? Every day, many people indeed see Drudge. According to Nielsen Net Ratings, he receives between 180 and 200 million page views a month, along with around three million unique visitors. Some scrutinize his page religiously, others glance at it occasionally. Many use his site as their home page. Such readers count on him to be a clearinghouse for the latest bizarre, or inflammatory, or salacious stories moving in the world of news or popular culture, and especially in politics.
Among those who regularly click on the page is Karl Rove. Vice President Cheney does not commonly surf the Internet, but his wife, Lynne Cheney, frequently checks the Drudge Report. When some intriguing item appears, she or one of their two daughters is likely to tell him about it. Television news producers read Drudge. So do newspaper editors. So do publishing executives, Hollywood hotshots, and public relations agents. Members of the Gang of 500—which according to the New Yorker includes “the campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern-day political establishment”—all read the Drudge Report. Gang members have the site bookmarked. Drudge may be omnipresent, but his power is oddly obscure. It often goes unacknowledged even by his most influential readers.
Many members of the press regard the Drudge Report as nothing serious—a good source of gossip and a mildly guilty pleasure, the professional equivalent of a cigarette break or an afternoon trip to Starbucks. Yet Drudge’s decisions (or carefree hunches) affect whether millions of people will know of one story or another. Drudge’s chief influence derives from the links he chooses to highlight on his site, although his own exclusives (however inaccurate they may be at times) certainly stir up conversation. If a political item is prominently displayed on the Drudge Report, it is guaranteed that the topic will be talked about by people who matter in modern campaigns. It will color the perceptions of journalists, and campaign strategists and even candidates. It will prompt questions at news conferences and White House briefings. All of this trickles down to the voters, many of whom habitually read the Drudge Report themselves.
If the greatest challenge of any person seeking the presidency is keeping control of his or her public image, and the great obstacle to this control is the Freak Show, then Matt Drudge is the gatekeeper. In this sense, he is the Walter Cronkite of his era. This is not to say that Drudge has anything like Cronkite’s audience. Drudge, to put it mildly, will never be known as “the most trusted man in America.” But over the past two presidential elections, no single organization or individual has exercised as much influence in shaping what Americans learn about their presidential candidates. In the fragmented, remote-control, click-on-this, did-you-hear? politico-media world in which we live, revered Uncle Walter has been replaced by odd Nephew Matt.
A few points must be clarified. Describing Drudge’s power is not the equivalent of celebrating it. What’s more, when we speak of Drudge, we are not referring to him as a symbol for the New Media generally. We do not invoke him as a universal metaphor for the way politics is now defined by sensation and scandal. We are talking about Drudge specifically—a clever and erratic man who made his fortune working from his computer in apartments in Los Angeles and Miami, a self-described “loner” and former slacker whose keen grasp of politics, pop culture, and media, and of how to exploit the vulnerabilities of all three, mark him as one of the biggest success stories of his generation.
Drudge’s power derives only in part from the colossal number of people who visit his site. Even the most devoted of his fans, hunched over basement computers or killing time at company expense, are sensible enough not to put full faith in his punchy communiqués. Drudge himself estimates that only 80 percent of the original material he posts is fully accurate, and he is being generous to himself. His power comes from his ability to shape the perception of other news media—Old and New alike. With the exception of the Associated Press, there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts. The AP, of course, is a sober, decades-old news enterprise that employs thousands of reporters and editors. Drudge is more or less what he was when he started: one oddball collecting provocative tips and posting weird, catchy news links from his personal computer.
One place in Washington where no one doubts Drudge’s clout is at 310 First Street SE, the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. Peddling items to the Drudge Report, according to several current and former RNC staff members, is an essential part of the party’s communications strategy. Drudge, in fact, is important enough that senior operatives devote time and expense to ensure that their avenue to his website remains open.
In early 2005, when RNC research director Tim Griffin left his job, he traveled to Florida with his replacement, Matt Rhodes, for a meeting with Drudge that marked an official baton passing. Griffin flew in from Arkansas, Rhodes from Washington, and Jim Dyke, the former Republican National Committee communications director, from Charlestown, South Carolina. They dined at the Forge, one of Miami Beach’s top steakhouses, described by one travel website as a “rococo Miami institution [that] celebrates the joys of living (and dining) large.” Drudge was a longtime fan of the place. Griffin had known Matt Drudge for years and considered him one of the most valuable “journalists” of his acquaintance. Drudge might have been a shadowy, distant presence for many of his readers and even for most of his tipsters, but not for Griffin, who had dealt with him face-to-face before. Both Griffin’s predecessor Barbara Comstock and Griffin himself believed that the RNC research department should not be staffed by a bunch of kids who just put newspaper clips together, but should employ sophisticated operatives with significant professional relationships in the real world and an understanding of how the press operated.
The RNC thought there was no more significant relationship to have than the one with Drudge. The point of the meeting was for Rhodes, who did not really know Drudge, to establish a personal tie with him, just the way an operative would court key Old Media journalists. It was a night of fun, a two-hour social dinner with little or no formal business discussed. Over steaks, seafood, salad, and wine, the four men reminisced about the 2004 campaign, talked about Miami culture, and chatted about life in general. When the shrimp arrived at the table, they were so gigantic that the men posed for photographs with the crustaceans. This pleasant Florida tableau vividly captured how an ostensibly anti-Establishment figure like Drudge, a man disparaged in polite journalistic and political circles, was in fact central to how principal Establishment operatives such as Dyke, Griffin, and Rhodes do their jobs and communicate in the modern media marketplace. In the Freak Show, old lines between reputable and disreputable are obsolete.
The Miami courtship has paid off, by all evidence. Throughout 2005 and 2006, a steady flow of negative items about people such as Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada have been highlighted on the Drudge Report. Many of the postings were direct products of RNC opposition research. Others, while originating from different sources, were brought to Drudge’s attention by RNC staff members. Ken Mehlman, the RNC chairman, said he values his party’s pipeline to the Drudge Report and the website’s ability to drive the editorial decisions of more conventional news organizations. “He puts something up and they have to cover it.”
There are three Trade Secrets suggested here. From a campaign’s perspective, there is a basic rule of twenty-first-century political communication: The conflicts between the Old Media and the New Media are less important than the linkages. Some may find it comforting to imagine that the New Media is reckless and will run with anything, while the Old Media is respectable and restrained. The New Media, however, does its part to directly influence the Old Media. Although he leans right, Drudge is not averse to linking to negative items about George W. Bush and other Republicans. A few savvy Democrats have established their own pipeline to Drudge to place research on his site. But they are exceptions. Drudge’s greatest impact occurs with his more frequent and more biting attacks on the politicians of the Left.
When it comes to Drudge, the table is not level, which leads to two more Trade Secrets:
A Republican politician will thrive in the 2008 presidential campaign by understanding the singular power of Drudge, and crafting a strategy to take advantage of this power.
No Democratic politician will survive in the 2008 presidential campaign without understanding the singular power of Drudge, and crafting a strategy to defend against this power.
Drudge also posts items about shark attacks, celebrity feuds, six-headed snakes, and gruesome small-town crimes that are interesting but generally don't create buzz in newsrooms the way his political items do. Here is what happens when people start asking, Have you seen Drudge? His scoop will be electronically copied off the Web, pasted into an e-mail, and sent to news organizations’ full internal distribution lists. Television producers and even anchors will call political journalists and ask, Do you know anything about this? Editors will wander across the newsroom to reporters and ask, perhaps sheepishly, What do you think we should do?
The overwhelming first impulse of Old Media agents is to respond defensively, Why should we take our cues from Drudge?
The overwhelming second impulse, however, is to say, Maybe we ought to make a few calls. Such conversations occur simultaneously all over Washington and New York whenever Drudge posts a provocative item, especially if it is accompanied by his trademark red siren graphic, and most of all when it asserts that one news organization or another is hot on the trail of the story. A dramatic Drudge posting sets off a competitive pulse because all journalists who see it know that they are not alone. So many media elites check the Drudge Report consistently that a reporter is aware his bosses, his competitors, his sources, his friends on Wall Street, lobbyists, White House officials, congressional aides, cousins, and everyone who is anyone have seen it, too. So those “few calls” get made. Within minutes, press secretaries and political operatives will feel their cell phones vibrating.
The calls will almost never be answered right away, because these people are all on the phone with their superiors asking, How the hell should we deal with this? Voice mail messages try to convey the right tone of nonchalance (You know I don’t actually take Drudge seriously) and urgency (I really, really need to hear back from you). The messages are not returned. New messages are left, no pretense of nonchalance this time. Where are you? We’ve got to decide soon what we are doing with this. Call me right away. More often than not, at Establishment institutions, the result of these conversations and phone calls and voice mails is nothing. Or a trifling item might appear in a gossip column. Perhaps something like this: “Trouble in paradise? Political circles are buzzing about Internet reports that John Kerry and wife Teresa Heinz Kerry are squabbling…”
But even if national Old Media outlets do nothing, the Drudge Report’s imprint will echo far and wide. Drudge’s choices inform the rip-and-read planning at local TV and radio news stations for all of their newscasts throughout the day. The ladies of The View, with their millions of daily viewers, rely on Drudge’s picks for their political story topics, though they almost never acknowledge his role. And should Old Media outlets ignore Drudge, his fellow travelers in the rightward organs of the New Media invariably do not. Drudge’s standards for sourcing and checking are dangerously low, but the standards of the talk radio show hosts and bloggers who parrot his message are lower still, because they have no idea how credible the original source of his information is, and do not care. Most of all, Drudge molds the mind-set throughout the national and local media—Old as well as New.
Once a Drudge entry has burned some narrative thread or character trait into the brains of his readers, it can have a lingering effect on coverage. That item Drudge first reported in the summer of 2004 about the bickering Democratic presidential candidate and his spouse was not widely reported at the time, but it was widely remembered by every journalist on the Kerry press plane and their editors back home. In this case, many reporters believed that there was probably something to it. Not long after the election, Newsweek made clear that it thought there definitely was something to it. The story of an irritable row between the Heinz-Kerrys was the most talked-about plum in its special election issue.
DRUDGE HAS BUILT up such a loyal following that he no longer needs to obsessively update the site. Sometimes, he appears to take weekends off, or sleep in. But he understands his audience well enough to know how often he has to freshen up the content to maintain his page hits. (Additionally, he is aware that the site’s unusual practice of automatically self-refreshing the page every few minutes allows him to record more hits and increase his Internet status.) Drudge also knows his economics. He did not get into the Internet gossip business to get rich, but that has been the result.
His site produces considerable income with virtually no expenses. He remains, relatively speaking, a one-man operation. The site draws plenty of advertising, including from large corporations and leading conservative politicians and causes, alongside more typical Internet patrons such as online mortgage brokerages and obscure universities. Drudge has hosted a Fox News cable television program and published a book, and has had a weekly nationally syndicated radio show since 1999. The Miami Herald quoted him in 2003 as saying he earned about $1.2 million a year, from the site and his radio program. Whatever the current figure, it is enough to afford frequent trips to Europe and a really nice car. But he reportedly has turned down many offers for partnership, marketing, and other deals that would have made him richer still. Drudge appears more inspired by noneconomic incentives.
The growing synergy between Old and New has been the most significant trend in the decade since Matt Drudge burst onto the public stage and computer screen. At the beginning, the commentary about his emergence put the emphasis on his anti-Establishment mission and values, and the Establishment’s dismissiveness of him. This emphasis was always a bit misleading. From the start, much of the Drudge Report was devoted to electronic links to material published in the Old Media. Even his original reporting frequently consisted then, as now, of leaks about projects on which Old Media news outlets were working, or disputes and embarrassments within those organizations. Sometimes, journalists have found themselves wondering: Does Drudge know something about our workplace that we don’t?
What has changed in recent years is the Old Media’s move away from its posture of proud disdain for Drudge. While some in the Old Media now decry Drudge’s influence, in the months following his role in the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky affair, his authority was feted, with major print profiles and network television appearances that increased his fame and validated his semi-legitimacy. Just over a year after NBC News invited Drudge to appear on Meet the Press on January 25, 1998, the show’s moderator, Tim Russert, told the Washington Post that several items Drudge posted about Russert’s news judgments and rumored ambitions for the New York governorship were false. “All three stories—they are just plain dead wrong,” Russert was quoted as saying. “And he never called me about them, never.”
Today, the Old Media’s attitude is one of public acquiescence, and, behind the scenes and away from polite company, an acceptance of the way the Drudge game is played. When publishers have a new book to promote, the Drudge Report often is the first stop in a publicity campaign. In 2005, a series of obviously orchestrated leaks touted months in advance the coming release of Edward Klein’s anti–Hillary Clinton book, The Truth About Hillary. Drudge’s initial report claimed, “‘The revelations in it should sink her [presidential] candidacy,’ a source close to Klein warns the DRUDGE REPORT.” The book, from Penguin’s Sentinel imprint, featured almost no new material about the Clintons except for a handful of lurid but weakly supported allegations. The book was uniformly lambasted by critics from all ends of the ideological spectrum. Even so, the drumbeat of Drudge-driven publicity, complemented by a few avowedly conservative websites, helped push Klein briefly onto the best-seller lists.
Others have learned the value of a Drudge publicity campaign as well. Publicists for glossy wide-circulation monthly magazines and television networks regularly plan early sanctioned “leaks” to him as part of their promotion of major stories. The situation at the New York Times may be most indicative of Drudge’s current status. On several occasions in the 1990s and 2000s, Times editors and reporters were enraged by Drudge’s ability to learn about stories in the process of being readied for publication. His sources apparently were comprised of the paper’s own sources, newsroom personnel, and story budgets, the outlined summaries sent to subscribers to the paper’s syndication service.
In September 2000, after the Drudge Report disclosed details of an upcoming piece about Hillary Clinton’s campaign contributors enjoying overnight visits to the White House, Drudge crowed raucously to the New York Observer: “This is just the first flare that I’m shooting up. It’s going to be a long, long protracted battle with the Times and what they do internally. I have only just begun. I have access to all their internals…. Budgets, communications, what reporters are working on.” This preening struck even Drudge as absurd. “‘Access to all their internals’—what an arrogant statement. Hee, hee, hee.” Responsible Timesmen were not amused. “I understand and appreciate that there’s an extraordinary interest in what The New York Times is doing, thinking and working on, and I appreciate that we operate in an extremely competitive environment,” said veteran reporter John M. Broder. “That said, The Drudge Report is so flawed, so fantasy-ridden and, at times, [so] destructive to our efforts at fairness that it’s disturbing. It’s infuriating at times, not to mention annoying in the extreme.”
In recent years, however, some Times executives have risen above their annoyance to recognize the marketing power Drudge possesses. Major Times stories are now flagged on Drudge in advance of their posting on the paper’s website. These promos do not look or feel like the work of enterprising Drudge reporting or disgruntled Times employees leaking material without authorization. Times executives have stopped complaining publicly.
Meanwhile, although there is no system for authorized leaks to the Drudge Report at the Washington Post, editors at the website and main newspaper are delighted when Drudge does link to stories at washingtonpost.com. Invariably, traffic to the site soars. And there is evident frustration when the Drudge Report does not acknowledge significant Washington Post pieces. Speaking of the Washington Post, one of its reporters had direct experience with Drudge’s astonishing power—both intoxicating and dangerous for those who come into contact with it. We will call this reporter “John Harris.”
In 2005, like Ed Klein, Harris was promoting a book on the Clintons. Harris’s volume, a history of the Clinton presidency, was by a wide margin less racy, if also less marketable, than Klein’s. On the other hand, Harris knew particular sections had the potential to draw publicity-driving buzz in the news media. He wanted that publicity. Two weeks before the official publication, he gave a series of talking points, along with an advance copy of the book itself, to a producer for a morning news program. The producer thanked him and wished him good luck, but told him that the book was not really up their alley.
Later, the day before the book’s publication, a friend with Harris’s permission gave a set of the talking points to Drudge. A total of perhaps twenty minutes elapsed between his e-mail to the friend, the friend’s e-mail to Drudge, and Drudge regurgitating the material into a banner headline and a dispatch in his own distinctive style. “Summer starts with a bang!” Drudge’s “exclusive” read. “Swearing, Screaming, Steaming—White House as Hot House.” Within five minutes of that posting, another producer from the same morning show called: Was Harris free to come on the next morning? As it happened, he was committed elsewhere. But Drudge was no small part of the book’s jump from 9,527 to 9 the next day on Amazon.com’s sales ranking.
MATT DRUDGE IS salacious, reckless, superficial, and unfair—an eccentric man perfectly in tune with the eccentricity that now pervades politics and journalism. “I go where the stink is,” he was fond of saying when he first shot to fame during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Skeptics would add that where he has gone the stink has followed. But Drudge is more than the impresario of the Freak Show. He is also a visionary, and deserves full credit for his perceptions. He arrived on the scene at the moment the Old Media was enjoying increasingly robust mass audiences.
Well before it became obvious to everyone, Drudge understood the frailty that lay just beneath the Old Media’s ostensible power. Drudge exploits the universal human hunger for private gossip about public people. He knows the appeal of gazing unfiltered behind the scenes of movie studios, newsrooms, and political campaigns, as well as the thrill of being the secret source of such information. Drudge’s insight was that this combination of institutional vulnerabilities and human appetites presented an enormous opportunity. Perhaps this does not seem like such an ingenious insight now, with a thousand websites offering daily photographic updates of Angelina Jolie or transcribed text messages from Bono. A decade ago, one strains to recall, e-mail and the Internet were still exotic technologies. Drudge was the first to recognize that someone sitting in his underwear at his living room computer could take control of the national news agenda. Across the spectrum of American life, this is a phase of history when the institution has yielded position to the entrepreneur. Matt Drudge counts as one of the most important entrepreneurs of his era.
DRUDGE DID NOT set out to be an entrepreneur. His attraction to the business of news and celebrity was more visceral, but for a while this interest was harnessed to no clear life purpose. He was raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, the most liberal suburb of Washington, D.C. By his own recollection, he was a weak student and a social misfit in high school. Like many misfits, however, he seemed to grow up with an acute awareness of status as it matters to a young person—the rigid divide between cool and uncool. And, like many ultimately successful people who start out on the losing side of this divide, he brooded on and nurtured his resentments until they flourished. When his 1984 graduating class prepared a mock last will and testament, Drudge’s entry was puckering: “I leave a penny for each day I’ve been here and cried here. A penny rich in worthless memories. For worthless memories is what I have endured.”
More than a decade later, after Drudge hit it big, and had the Establishment news media roiling over the implications of his skewed brand of online journalism, he was invited to discuss the topic in Washington at the National Press Club. He gave a speech at once coldly penetrating about the vulnerabilities of the modern news business and mawkishly self-revealing about his own ambitions and neuroses. As an “aimless teen,” he recalled, he used to walk the streets of Washington and gaze at doors he believed were closed to him. Those doors were not to Congress or the White House, but to the capital’s dominant news organizations. Journalism might fancy itself an egalitarian craft, but Drudge imagined its main institutions to be elitist redoubts. So he would “walk by ABC News over on DeSales, daydream; stare up at the Washington Post newsroom over on 15th Street, look up longingly, knowing I’d never get in,” he recalled. “Didn’t go to the right schools, never enjoyed any school, as a matter of fact, didn’t come from a well-known family.” With these sullen words, Drudge revealed a powerful psychic connection with one of the lodestars of modern conservatism: resentment against the power and cultural values of so-called mainstream media.
At the press club, Drudge even sounded a bit like Richard Nixon—another kid who grew up uncool and whose sense of outsiderness fueled a powerful drive to infiltrate and triumph over worlds that seemed closed to him. Drudge drifted into his twenties with no higher education and no life plan. With his interest in media and celebrity, he migrated to Hollywood, taking an apartment in a seedy section of town. One of his jobs was as a runner on the game show The Price Is Right. Eventually he landed as manager of the gift shop at CBS Studios. In such a setting he could at least feign intimacy with an industry that fascinated him, as he traded gossip with other people trying to eke out a living in the ambient light of Hollywood.
Back in Washington, his parents were understandably worried about their intelligent but directionless son. During one visit, Bob Drudge, a social worker, presented his son with a computer, hoping it would stir something more constructive. In 1995, the notion of an online community, where individuals could traffic in news, rumor, commentary, and self-revelation, was novel. Hooking his new toy up to a phone line, Drudge became one of the very first Information Age explorers. He soon quit his CBS job and began spending the bulk of most days in his apartment, bent over the keyboard. This could not have been exactly what Bob Drudge had in mind. (Drudge Père would become something of an Internet pioneer himself, creating refdesk.com, a website that touts itself thusly: “On the Internet since 1995, refdesk indexes and reviews quality, credible, and timely reference resources that are free and family-friendly.”) When Matt Drudge was in his late twenties, computer modem at the ready, his life at last seemed infused with purpose. In short order, a new publication was born.
In those days, the Drudge Report was sent to subscribers via e-mail for a $10 annual fee. In the exterior of his life, Drudge remained a peculiar and pasty-faced young man, exuding the unmistakable air of a washout. But on the computer, he was an instant success, a broker of fact and gossip in a rapidly growing online community of surfers who thrived on such insider information. Within a year or so of launching, he had a few thousand subscribers. He delivered to them a rapid succession of mid-1990s news breaks. He posted that the actor Jerry Seinfeld was demanding a million dollars per episode in contract negotiations for his television sitcom. He alerted readers that anchor Connie Chung was about to be fired by CBS, apparently before Chung herself heard the news. Every Saturday, he was the first to report the box office take for newly released movies from the night before. In contrast to the taut, exclamation-spiked style that would later become his signature, in those early days Drudge laced his reports with meandering personal commentary. “Nothing is sacred,” he wrote. “I was having my usual Sunday morning breakfast of blueberry pancakes at the Source restaurant on Sunset when my beeper went off. I think Rod McKuen was singing MacArthur Park on the restaurant’s sound system at the time…”
Even then, updates on the legal and personal travails of the first family were part of his stock-in-trade. “Is the WALL STREET JOURNAL about to land a clop in the chops to Hillary Rodham Clinton?” he teased. Some reports turned out to be wishful thinking, such as one 1995 dispatch in which he speculated on the “imminent indictment” of the first lady. If Drudge’s dispatches were not always accurate, they were very often at least in the neighborhood of the truth. His “Exclusives!” could be faulty in detail but right in signaling that something was afoot. Even this loose standard raised a vexing question: Where was he getting this stuff? Drudge’s work reflected a basic insight. For all their exterior power, the institutions and people who fascinated him and provided his copy had two abiding weaknesses.
First, people at the top of these businesses cared desperately about what was written about them. Once people learned that Drudge’s small audience included relatively large numbers of people who counted as cultural and journalistic tastemakers, Drudge had all the leverage he needed.
The second great weakness is that people are malicious. They want to destroy someone’s reputation, settle a score against a grumpy boss, or just stir some chaos for sheer enjoyment. Drudge claimed he even had some gold-plated sources, such as studio chiefs. But much of what he did was report on reporters. Cannily, he tried to find out early what traditional news organizations were about to report—or were debating whether to report. He elevated his newsroom snooping to a matter of high principle. He was knocking down editorial filters, which in his mind were instruments of elitism and even oppression. If journalists knew tantalizing things about celebrities and public officials—even if the items were not yet fully checked out—who were they to keep that information to themselves?
Thanks to his delving inside news organizations, he said, “We get to see the kinds of cuts that are made for all kinds of reasons; endless layers of editors with endless agendas changing bits and pieces, so by the time the newspaper hits your welcome mat, it has no meaning.” What the prissy inhabitants of the Old Media regarded as anarchy looked to Drudge like freedom: “Now, with a modem, anyone can follow the world and report on the world—no middle man, no Big Brother.” It would be these kinds of revelations—scooping reporters on their own scoops—that would first rocket Drudge to fame during the Clinton presidency.
The impresario of the Freak Show had found the ideal content-provider...