Drudge Has Lost His Touch

Technology, the competition, and the times have passed him
September 9, 2009

If you visited the Drudge Report on July 1, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed. A BILLION THANKS FOR MAKING JUNE 2009—TOP JUNE IN DRUDGE REPORT’S 14 YEAR HISTORY!? PAGE HIT 675,406,735 VIEWS FROM 129,922,878 VISITS . . . TRAFFIC ROSE 21% FOR MONTH OVER YEAR AGO blared the headline on the right of the home page. Matt Drudge’s Web site appeared to be chugging along, sinking its teeth into the news cycle just like it used to.

In the aftermath of Bush v. Kerry in 2004, Drudge’s place in journalism had no parallel. Mark Halperin and John Harris, two major machers of the Washington, D.C., press corps, jointly declared: “Matt Drudge rules our world.” Over the course of a decade, Drudge’s no-frills approach—his original delivery method was e-mail, and some of his early content was gleaned from the trash cans at CBS News—had turned his Web site into a world-beater. In 1998, his exposure of a spiked Newsweek piece on Monica Lewinsky nearly knocked down the Clinton presidency, and six years later, by amplifying the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, he helped torpedo John Kerry’s candidacy.

Drudge was the right’s one-man wrecking crew, feared by liberals and respected by bookers and editors around the country.

It’s easy to look back now and laugh at the hyperbolic quality of Harris and Halperin’s claim, but here’s the thing: at the time, it was strikingly close to the truth.

Since then, though, a number of things have changed in ways that have diminished Drudge’s power. The field of online news has welcomed several explosive upstarts, such as Politico and The Huffington Post (Talking Points Memo, which launched in 2000, has also expanded rapidly since 2004). Such sites have built on the promise of Drudge, mixing hard news and chatter into a stew that generates enormous traffic and an ability to shape the conversation. Meanwhile, the Republicans, to whom Drudge hitched his star, have fallen into disarray, and the mood of the country shifted dramatically with the election of Barack Obama and the onset of the financial crisis.

One sign that Drudge’s influence is on the wane is that he goes to such great lengths to deny it. Take his July 1 boast about page views, which sounds impressive—for a moment. Page-view counts aren’t taken seriously when a site automatically and completely refreshes between fifteen and twenty times an hour, as Drudge’s does—a practice that artificially inflates page-view counts. Moreover, unlike unique visitors, page views are not an accurate reflection of engaged eyeballs, which is what advertisers look for above all else. In fact, if you go strictly by the numbers, Drudge is now a middle-of-the-pack niche product. As of this writing, Alexa, Amazon’s Web site counter, lists Drudge as the 704th most popular site on the Internet. (Politico is 2,078 and The Huffington Post is 331.) Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic over time, tells a fuller story: in June of 2008, all three sites had around two million unique visitors. Since then, The Huffington Post’s numbers have soared, reaching 6.7 million in June. Drudge and Politico have both seen their traffic rise slightly, yet remain under the three million mark monthly.

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As his competition has grown and become more dynamic, Drudge’s formula has remained essentially unchanged. There are the links to stories that affirm his brand of conservatism, with its focus on the tyranny of taxation, the media’s liberal bias, and the weakness of Democratic politicians, especially on matters of foreign policy. There are the links to stories that reflect his idiosyncratic tastes—JAPAN ROBOTS ON MOON BY 2020! screamed the site on April 3. The Drudge Report is stubbornly invulnerable to user participation—no one blogs, no one comments. The Huffington Post and Politico, meanwhile, host large and loyal armies of readers who interact with one another and with the site’s writers. (And TPM’S readers famously helped the site drive the U.S. attorneys scandal in 2007, for which TPM won a Polk Award.) In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, community building is the name of the game. But not at the Drudge Report, which remains Drudge’s private kingdom.

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.

To the extent there has been a meaningful critique of Obama from the right, it has come from a smattering of other Web sites, like Instapundit and Michelle Malkin, as well as from Rush Limbaugh. Significantly, all three engage with their audience in some way. Drudge’s doesn’t reply to e-mail. There is a blank space on his Web site, through which you can submit news tips. (I’ve tried to get in touch with him this way, to no avail.)

Meanwhile, a new right, nascent and based online, has begun to emerge. Pajamas Media has launched an ambitious television project, predicated on the kind of technological advancements that Drudge has shunned. And the struggle over the future of American conservatism is playing out on sites like David Frum’s New Majority. Even National Review, an outpost for traditional conservatives, recently hired the iconoclastic Reihan Salam in an effort to adapt. Thus far, the relationship between this new right and Drudge might best be understood as one of missed opportunity. The “Tea Party” protests that broke out in April took aim at two of Drudge’s favorite targets: the Obama administration and the ballooning federal deficit. Granted, Drudge was the protestors’ loyal cheerleader, turning their every move into a headline on his site. But being a cheerleader means being on the sidelines—precisely where Drudge now finds himself.

“Drudge gets so worked up every day about such petty stuff,” one New York newspaper editor told me. “That’s appropriate for carnival/campaign season, but it doesn’t as effectively fit the mood in a country that is serious about sober governing.” A nation beset by financial crisis at home and besieged around the world, in other words, has more on its mind than the length of a presidential speech or an unwatched ABC special, let alone the threat of Japanese robots. Yet it’s worth noting that this editor declined to put his comments on the record. Mark Halperin and John Harris, once among Drudge’s most prominent validators, also chose not to comment for this piece. The implication is clear: down the road, Matt Drudge could re-emerge. “He’s on a bit of a sabbatical,” explained a friend of Drudge’s. “He doesn’t care” that his influence isn’t what it used to be.

Perhaps. But the short- or long-term prospects of the Drudge Report recapturing its place at the center of our political media are bleak. Even if Drudge were to hire a blogger, open a comments section, and adopt a more substantive approach to news, it’s unlikely that he’d ever match his previous level of influence. Drudge is in part a victim of his own success. He spawned imitators and emulators, who in turn have only further splintered the media world. If there is an agenda to be set, no one outlet or editor has the power to set it. It’s simply too rapid and unknowable a thing to harness. While The Fix, put together by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, and Playbook, put together by Politico’s Mike Allen, are often referred to as Drudge’s heirs, neither has the influence that Drudge once had, nor do they display the kind of naked ideological bias that was Drudge’s hallmark. Of course, their existence is a testament to Drudge’s legacy as a trailblazer in the field of Internet newsgathering and gossip mongering. But increasingly, a legacy is all the Drudge Report has to offer.

Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.