Don't count Matt Drudge out.

Media criticism.
Nov. 10 2008 6:51 PM

Don't Count Drudge Out

His demise is overreported once again.

Matt Drudge. Click image to expand.
Matt Drudge

At the beginning of the summer, the press considered the Drudge Report so influential that its proprietor, Matt Drudge, was thought to be in position to determine the fall election's results.

Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith of Politico wrote that he had "an uncanny ability to drive the national conversation" and quoted Mitt Romney's press secretary saying that Drudge "serves as an assignment editor for the national press corps." In a piece titled "How Matt Drudge Rules the (Political) World,"Washingtonpost.com reporter Chris Cillizza wrote that Drudge and his site "sit at the junction of politics and journalism in the modern media age." Cillizza pointed to both the Politico story and the 2006 book by John F. Harris and Mark Halperin, The Way To Win: Taking the White House in 2008, which anointed Drudge as "the single most influential purveyor of information about American politics." Harris and Halperin also credited Drudge as a major reason for John Kerry's2004 defeat.

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By the fall, Drudge had lost it, the press surmised. "Does Matt Drudge, an unabashed conservative, still have huge clout in shaping the media's coverage?" the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz asked on Sept. 18."Or is his influence overstated by those seeking a simple explanation for why MSM types do what they do?" Kurtz cited TPM's Greg Sargent, who had just chronicled the decline of Drudge's influence over cable news. By late October, Media Matters' Eric Boehlert was calling the Drudge Report "unplugged down the stretch." Cillizza expanded on Boehlert's theme in his blog on Oct. 30, quoting a series of wishful headlines on the Drudge Report hinting at a possible upset of Barack Obama by John McCain.

This isn't the first Drudge collapse to be recorded by the press. The media gravediggers have been sharpening their spades for him ever since he broke onto the national media scene in 1998 by previewing the Monica Lewinsky story Newsweek was reporting. In December 1999, New York Times columnist Frank Rich declared Drudge's demise as he left his weekly Fox News Channel show, noting that Drudge's Web site had dropped from the 228th most popular to the 636th. Drudge's "brief reign as national press mascot" was over, Rich asserted.

Not to take anything away from Drudge, but he was never as important as his promoters made him out to be. Time embarrassed itself by calling him one the world's 100 most influential people in 2006! He's recorded ups and downs, hits and misses, scoops and errors, but he's never approached the irrelevance his detractors would wish upon him.

That Drudge touted a dubious McCain comeback or that his influence over cable may have waned misses the fact that 12 years after its founding, no greater media punch can be found in a smaller Web package than the Drudge Report, reportedly just a two-person operation. According to comScore Media Metrix, the Drudge Report's number of unique visitors rose 70 percent from September 2007 to September 2008, impressive even in a year that most Web sites covering the campaign have attracted plumper audiences.

What's most remarkable about the Drudge Report after all these years is how efficient and useful it remains in the age of podcasts, Web video, RSS feeds, animations, interactive charts, interactive maps, slide shows, Digg buttons, Facebook widgets, comment pages, change-text-size buttons, print options, and all the rest. Drudge's idea of sexing up his one-page-fits-all-sizes site is adding a plain-wrap version for mobile devices. Maybe the Drudge Report derives its efficiency and usefulness from its lack of podcasts, Web video, RSS feeds, animations, interactive charts, interactive maps, slideshows, Digg buttons, Facebook widgets, comment pages, change-text-size buttons, and print options!

If you could access only one home page for breaking news and chose Washingtonpost.com or CNN.com over the Drudge Report, you'd be a blockhead. His newswire-meets-tabloid sense of story—hysterical and playful at the same time—links to both what you need to know and what you want to know, and he updates more frequently than conventional media sites do. Sure, Drudge breaks stories of his own now and again, but that's not his big draw. "The dirty little secret about Drudge," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the Los Angeles Times, "is that he's a gateway for conventional journalism."

It's astonishing that this late into the Web era no major media site has followed Drudge's lead and established a news fix with attitude that points to great headlines on the rest of the Web. The site is so simple that anybody could do it—but nobody has for very long, or at least not successfully. Newser tries to deliver a free-range news feed, but it's so hopelessly overloaded with technology, user options, and typography that you just want to click away when you land there. Plus, its "grid" design gives no indication of what's most important or most interesting: You might as well visit the more Drudge-esque Google News.

Drudge has his critics, and he deserves them. For starters, here's FiveThirtyEight's recent takedown on Drudge's use of polls and EW.com's Josh Wolk on the Chris Rock "Oscar" blowup. He also fell for the "Attacked and Mutilated" McCain-volunteer hoax (but give him credit for correcting the record). He made entirely too big a deal about the mysterious John Kerry affair that wasn't and got overexcited about the "clues" of an Obama-Bayh ticket.

Although he hates the left, as Philip Weiss reported in New Yorkmagazine in the summer of 2007, he's not the right-wing attack machine that some think he is. "Republicans can't count on Drudge. He praises Rosie O'Donnell and Michael Moore for their independence and fight, and seems to despise Giuliani and McCain," Weiss wrote. Drudge's brand of iconoclasm is so elastic that he found a way to accept the Hillary Clinton camp's advances even before the primaries, peppering his page with positive news about her campaign. Such resourcefulness will serve him well in the Obama administration.

Drudge endures, while imitators and newly minted Web stars fade, for a variety of reasons. He works incredibly hard. He cares about his site. He appears to have no interest in working for somebody else, and his entrepreneurial vigor makes the site come alive. And also because he appreciates something about readers they might not even know themselves: They want an information site that would rather err on the side of recklessness once in a while than be right all the time.

******

When Slate launched in the summer of 1996, Editor Michael Kinsley tried to hire Drudge. He politely declined. I reviewed Drudge Manifesto for the Wall Street Journal in 2000, where I called for "More Drudgism! … But maybe a little less Drudge." Instead, we've gotten more of both. In 1998, following the debut of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal, I wrote a feature for the New York Times Magazine about Drudgephobia in the press. I think it holds up. Let me know what you think at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray,"Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Drudge in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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