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Think Again: The Mainstream Media Needs to Break Its Addiction to the Drudge Report

SOURCE: AP/Brian K. Diggs

Internet writer Matt Drudge meets reporters outside federal court in Washington on March 11, 1998, after a preliminary hearing on a $30 million defamation suit filed against him by former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

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In a recent column called “Matt Drudge was right,” Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza recalls a speech that Matt Drudge, publisher of the Drudge Report, gave at the National Press Club 15 years ago in which, as Cillizza observed, the early Internet phenom “outlined his vision of the future of journalism.” I personally think Drudge could not have been more wrong in most of the things he said that day, but Cillizza has a point. Drudge was the future, and now we are living it.

Though I did not go see Drudge’s speech, I was on C-SPAN’s show “Washington Journal” with Brian Lamb the previous day, and I recall politely chastising Lamb for broadcasting Drudge’s speech and equally politely criticizing the Press Club for hosting him. I argued that Drudge-ism was a virus to be condemned and resisted. Later that night at a Washington soiree, Drudge confronted me and demanded to know if I still thought him undeserving of a platform now that he had given what he considered to be a triumphant address. I replied that I sure did. And I still do.

In his recent article, Cillizza writes, “Turns out, Drudge was right about where journalism was heading. ‘We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices,’ he said in the speech. ‘Every citizen can be a reporter.’” Indeed, as the Drudge Report so impressively demonstrates, even a low-tech site with little more than links to unverified stories and sensational headlines can indeed garner 1 billion viewers—or at least can claim to do so. Drudge went on to say that, “The Net gives as much voice to a 13 year old computer geek like me as to a CEO or Speaker of the House. We all become equal. And you would be amazed what the ordinary guy knows.”

The problem is that an awful lot of what the ordinary guy thinks he knows and puts on the Internet turns out be untrue, whether he is a teenage geek or Matt Drudge—indeed, especially if he is Matt Drudge. Too many journalists take items from the Drudge Report as truth and turn them into stories for their own legitimate news outlets. It is far from clear whether over the past 15 years, as his influence has grown and grown, Drudge has come to care one bit about this sad future he predicted and has enabled.

Back to 1998: Drudge was introduced by Press Club President and Businessweek Washington Editor Doug Harbrecht, who apparently had his own misgivings about the invitation. He compared Drudge to “a channel catfish, he mucks through the hoaxes, conspiracies and half-truths posted on-line in pursuit of fodder for his website.” He went on to note that Drudge was “on the cutting edge of a revolution in our business and everyone in our business knows it. And like it or not, he’s a newsmaker.”

In the meantime, Drudge would soon be named one of Newsweek’s new media stars and one of People’s 25 Most Intriguing People. American Journalism Review ran a cover story titled “Journalism in the Era of Drudge and [Larry] Flynt,” and the Columbia Journalism Review even cited his outing of the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998 as one of the 10 key dates in the entire media history of the 20th century.

Moreover, as Harbrecht noted, “while many of his colleagues are loathe to admit it, The Drudge Report has become a tip sheet for journalists.” Harbrecht noted that at the time of the speech, Drudge was being sued for $30 million by former Clinton administration official and ex-journalist Sidney Blumenthal after Drudge published allegations that, according to Harbrecht, “appear to have no basis in fact and won’t be repeated here. (Laughter.) Drudge apologized and claimed the tip on Blumenthal was given him by politically motivated GOP operatives.”

In the Press Club speech, titled “Anyone With A Modem Can Report On The World,” Drudge mocked Blumenthal, crowing that he now had 6 million monthly visitors, thanks to the well-publicized lawsuit. Drudge had posted a malicious lie that Blumenthal had “a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up,” replete with “court records of Blumenthal’s violence against his wife.” As it turns out, Drudge libeled an innocent man. But even this did not seem to hurt his reputation. Blumenthal was later forced to drop the litigation owing to its financial cost and to pay Drudge’s traveling costs, and alas, a decision was never rendered.

Drudge joked around that time that, “the body of [his] work” was “80 percent accurate.” I cannot say for sure, but Drudge’s estimate sounds awfully high to me. As Michael Roston noted back in 2010, “the Drudge Report’s exclusives are often completely false.” Drudge just recently “fell hard” for a fake, Onion-like story about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg being denied seconds at a pizza parlor. Drudge’s many hits a day are one kind of indictment of our public discourse. But again, why should consumers shun Drudge when professional journalists take him as seriously as they do those without his track record of carelessness, bias, and mindless sensationalism?

One can find countless examples of this, but one of my favorites occurred during the doldrums of the 2012 election, as I noted in a lengthy analysis of mainstream media coverage of the election in November 2012:

Remember Condoleezza Rice’s vice presidential candidacy? It was based on nothing more than an anonymous item appearing on the Drudge Report, transparently designed to change the subject from Romney’s refusal to divulge decades of his tax returns. Once again, it was an obvious nonstory from the start: Rice has never run for office, disagrees fundamentally with her party on any number of nonnegotiable issues, including reproductive choice, and insisted that she has no interest in the job under any circumstance whatsoever. And yet, merely because of a late, unsourced Thursday-afternoon Drudge dump, my Google search for the terms “Rice, vice president, Romney” yielded more than 5 million results. (This was before Rice’s appearance at an event with Paul Ryan drove that figure up to 91.5 million.) This phony-baloney media bait was covered in all the major newspapers and network news programs, garnering responses from Sarah Palin, Peggy Noonan, Paul Ryan, etc. Fox News wasted time and money on a poll that found Rice to be “the top choice for Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate among both American voters overall as well as among Republicans,” shortly before the story died of its own stupidity.

Recall that Harbrecht termed the rest of the journalists in the room at the time of Drudge’s speech to be his “colleagues.” This is perhaps more true today than it was 15 years ago, and American journalism is definitely the worse for it.

Winston Churchill once observed that, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Thanks not merely to Matt Drudge but also to the fact that so many journalists continue to use him as a de-facto assignment editor, American politics are infected with a great many more lies today than 15 years ago. And that is nothing to celebrate.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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