So much so that while his erstwhile competitors still think of him as useful from time to time, they no longer regard him as a major force. When Politico first launched in early 2007, its top editors—including John Harris—made a concerted effort to get Drudge to link to their stories. Now, according to Politico insiders, those efforts to grab Drudge’s attention have mostly stopped. When The Huffington Post first launched, I heard Mark Green, the former New York City public advocate and a writer for the site, describe it as an effort by the left to challenge Drudge. So I asked Nico Pitney, HuffPo’s national editor, if he considered Drudge a competitor. “I don’t think people at the site think that way at all,” he said, noting that The Huffington Post is trying to do more original reporting, and has hired veteran reporters like Tom Edsall and Dan Froomkin. “That’s just not Drudge’s thing. We’ve got a dozen articles a day and he does, maybe, one article a week.”
Pitney’s indifference to Drudge is telling. After all, around the same time that Drudge was trumpeting Rather meaningless page-view counts, Pitney was captivating the media world with his Twitter-based coverage of the unrest in Iran. Pitney’s approach to that story, which depended on input from readers all over the world, is the sort of thing that Drudge’s site simply lacks the capacity—and apparently the will—to do.
Obama’s inauguration may have been the turning point. Not one story that originated on Drudge’s site since then has had much staying power in the news cycle—and his sense for what drives that cycle seems to have failed him. Immediately following Obama’s Cairo speech, for instance, Drudge focused on the speech’s length: 6,000 WORDS! read the headline. The Cairo speech was a major media event, generating an enormous amount of coverage and commentary. Drudge’s complaint hardly registered. His influence was also conspicuously absent six weeks later, during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. On July 15, the third day of the hearings, Drudge focused on Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Obama’s appearance at the baseball All-Star game the night before. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, jumped on a vaguely offensive clip of Senator Tom Coburn addressing Sotomayor in the manner of I Love Lucy’s Ricky Ricardo (Coburn seems to have assumed that Sotomayor needed to be talked to in the voice of a fellow Latin American). Within minutes, the clip was blowing up on cable news and the blogs. It was exactly the sort of contrived news story that used to be Drudge’s bread and butter. But because it relied on obsessing over and disseminating an instantly edited news clip—which isn’t what Drudge does—and because it showed a Republican senator to be a buffoon, HuffPo beat him at his own game.
It could simply be that with the GOP out of power, Drudge’s star has dimmed as well. But his decline feels more fundamental. Drudge is increasingly out of step with the times and the nation. Brian Williams of NBC once referred to Drudge’s site as “America’s bulletin board,” but these days Drudge seems an unlikely host. An academic study, released in July by Kalev Leetaru of the University of Illinois, found that Drudge’s site was less active than normal during the crucial early months of the Iraq war. That was a different time and different set of issues, but it suggests an interesting parallel to the Drudge Report’s current fecklessness. Drudge’s influence, and his role in the media landscape, seems to shrink when the stakes are high and the stories complex. Drudge has never run a tabloid; his goal isn’t to be an alluring distraction (think Gawker). Rather, he purposely takes an unserious attitude toward politics. But at the moment, politics is very serious and the consequences dire.
It would probably be too much to expect Drudge to grapple seriously with the ways in which George W. Bush’s administration damaged conservatism, but even the civil war that has engulfed the GOP since Bush left office has, for he most part, been ignored by Drudge. Instead, he reheats old conservative arguments, as if the Bush presidency had never happened. Take his undying complaints about “liberal media bias.” This past June, Drudge worked himself into a lather when ABC News nestled inside the Obama White House to shoot an evening special. In Drudge’s world, the special was another example of the too-close-for-comfort relationship between the White House and the press tasked with covering it. While it is an issue worth raising, the ABC special barely registered on the national radar. When it aired, it was the lowest-rated network program of the night. Drudge had directed his ire against a target no one much cared about.