May 19 was a fairly typical day in the recent life of the Drudge Report.
There was a breathtaking picture of Senator Barack Obama’s rally in Portland, Ore., framed by the words “AS FAR AS CAMERA'S EYE CAN SEE… THE OBAMA MASS.”
And there was thinly veiled mockery of two other candidates: “Clinton Sits Through Sermon About Adultery,” was one headline. “State GOP chair: McCain ‘kind of like Jesus,’” was another, closely followed by “McCain’s national finance co-chair exits over lobbyist ties…”
The day, and the weeks before and since, capture what may be the most striking new feature of the 2008 media landscape. Matt Drudge has upended the conventional wisdom that he and his powerful online vehicle are stalwarts of the conservative message machine.
After skewering Al Gore and lampooning John Kerry, he’s emerged as an unreliable ally for the GOP, while trumpeting Obama’s victories and overlooking his scandals.
“It’s clear to us that Barack Obama has won the Drudge Primary, and its one of the most important primaries in this process,” conceded a senior Clinton aide, who also acknowledged that Drudge’s treatment of Obama could also make the Illinois senator more electable in November.
Now, as Obama and Senator John McCain look toward the fall, Drudge has emerged unexpectedly as more of a threat to the Republican than to the Democrat. This, combined with the rise of left-leaning sites such as Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post—both of which have proven effective in promoting and amplifying a Democratic message—reflects a major shift from the last two presidential elections, a matter of open alarm to Republican strategists and surprised satisfaction to Democrats.
“The MSM is already sending love letters to Obama,” said a GOP operative who worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election. “That’s something that has traditionally been countered on the Republican side with talk radio, blogs to a lesser degree but especially Drudge. If those tools are not part of the Republican vehicle for message delivery that’s crippling.”
The Drudge Report is no ordinary compendium of news stories. It is a heavily-trafficked gateway to all corners of the Internet, a portal composed of links largely to breaking news from traditional media like the New York Times (as well as newer entrants like Politico). Most of the content is without any obvious ideological attachment, But operatives of both parties have long believed that his choice of links — along with occasional posts of Drudge's own reporting — have reflected a rightward tilt, and they assumed a preference for Republican candidates.
Drudge himself is reviled by many on the left, but his news instincts are undeniable—and he has an uncanny ability to drive the national conversation with what he chooses to highlight on his site.
Now, while his links tend to stress the energy and scale of the Obama phenomenon, he has emphasized a particularly damaging aspect of McCain’s candidacy: His age.
Age and health are common features on the Drudge Report – everything from Hillary Clinton’s coughing (“Health Scare!”) to people with obscure diseases gets a headline – and McCain has fallen victim to this obsession. In April of last year, Drudge featured an image of a dark spot on the head of the Republican candidate, who had previously been treated for skin cancer, spurring a round of media inquiries and speculation on a possible recurrence.
The campaign later said McCain had hit his head on a plane.
Last week, Drudge excerpted just one portion of McCain’s speech on nuclear weapons, but only to dwell on McCain’s discussion of America as a “young country.”
And then there are the images themselves.
“He has a endency to include photos – he understands the power of visuals,” observed a GOP strategist and close Drudge-watcher. “And his photos often played into the worst stereotypes of McCain: Cranky, old or nuts – or all three in some.”
To Obama, meanwhile, Drudge has been admiring at times, featuring the tear-stained faces of Obama supporters with the headline, “Screams and Tears of Delight.”
More important have been the dogs that didn’t bark: Drudge showed comparatively little interest in the controversy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, ignoring his “God Damn America!” sermon for a day after the story of it broke, then linking only to the news that he’d left Obama’s campaign. Among Drudge’s next scattered forays was the story of a McCain aide was suspended for promoting the story. Then, with more fanfare, he posted an image of Wright with…Bill Clinton.
When Obama addressed the story in a major speech, Drudge – uncharacteristically – simply posted Obama’s words in full.
He’s similarly shown little interest in the trial of former Obama patron Tony Rezko on corruption charges: Again, his first recognition of the story, this January 25, came when he posted a photo of Rezko and Clinton that political sources were circulating. He also paid far less attention to Obama’s “bitter” comments than others on the right and most in the mainline media.
Obama’s description of his grandmother’s racial bias as that of a “typical white person” – which might have been classic fodder for a site that relishes the controversial statements and rhetorical stubbed toes of politicians – never made the Drudge Report.
Explanations vary for Drudge’s apparent embrace of Obama and coolness to McCain – as do answers to the question of whether Drudge has changed, or whether he’s simply responding to a changed landscape and a new set of candidates.
Some Drudge watchers note an ideological element, even if they can’t agree on the direction. Drudge’s public statements have long suggested that he has strong libertarian streak, often linking stories detailing the latest developments in video surveillance or encroachments on speech. McCain is no libertarian, and indeed regulating political speech – campaign finance reform – is one of his signature crusades.
“A big part of Drudge is libertarian and First Amendment and McCain’s not all there,” said a top Republican strategist.
Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post is sometimes cast as a liberal alternative to Drudge, views it through a different lens.
“He does have a great grasp of the zeitgeist and the zeitgeist has shifted,” said Huffington, “what used to be left wing positions are now solidly mainstream and supported by the majority of the American people.”
Others who know Drudge say Obama benefits from the site’s bias for a good story, and above all for the Next Big Thing.
“I think he is fatigued by Clinton, I think he is invigorated by Obama,” said one person who knows Drudge. “He would say that the Obama story is new. If you’re somebody who does what he does, you get really sick of the same stories.”
“He’s interested in what brings people to the site – and Obama is a great box office,” said Jim Dyke, the communications director for the Republican National Committee in 2004. Asked if McCain could fix his Drudge problem, Dyke replied, “I don’t think there is very much you can do.”
After beginning to fashion something of a public profile after his Lewinsky-era debut – writing a book, hosting a TV and radio show, appearing regularly on C-SPAN – Drudge has gone mostly underground, letting his site speak for itself.
Drudge-watcers noted that his traffic is increasingly international, bringing him an audience for whom a young charismatic and cosmopolitan Democrat who defies ethnicity is a fascination – unlike his opponent, just another white Republican male.
Drudge, who in keeping up his Salinger-like air of mystery declined to comment for this story, was quick to tout his trans-national appeal in a rare interview with the British Sky News late last year.
“It’s become sort of a international clearing ground of news –- not just American news, not just British news, not just European news -- anywhere news,” he said. “This to me is the future, no boundaries.”
Chris Lehane, who was Al Gore’s spokesman in 2000, analyzed Drudge’s mindset in those business terms.
“Drudge can count,” he said. The campaign, Lehane noted, is an opportunity for the site “to position itself as less of a partisan and more as an equal opportunity muckraker…. [The site] may not be able to afford to be seen as explicitly partisan for its long-term growth purposes - especially given the potential electoral re-alignment the country may very well be going through.”
What nobody who follows the daily cut and thrust of American politics questions is Drudge’s continuing power to drive the stories and shape the narratives that define presidential politics. His site grew notorious in the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, and in 2000, he tortured Gore, and helped solidify the perception that the Vice President was a serial exaggerator.
In 2004, he was such a regular source of damaging stories about Senator John Kerry that Kerry’s research director, Michael Gehrke, set his computer’s instant messenger to respond, automatically, to all incoming messages: “Yes, I’ve seen Drudge.”
Drudge is the homepage as well as the first and final web stop of the day for many conservative opinion elites. The site can be seen automatically refreshing just over Rush Limbaugh’s shoulder on the talk show host’s “ditto-cam” and is also the chief news hub which local and regional talkers take their cues from to chat about from coast to coast.
But it’s not just in the right-wing world where Drudge reigns supreme.
“He serves as an assignment editor for the national press corps. If he has a story up, you know the cable networks are going to cover it all day,” said Kevin Madden, who was Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign press secretary during the GOP primary.
“Print reporters would call up and ask, ‘did you see this on Drudge?’” Madden recounted. “I can’t tell you how many calls I got that were prefaced with that explanation.”
The primary provided repeated demonstrations of Drudge’s power, and also of his new respect in the liberal, pro-Obama political precincts.
At 6:51 a.m. on February 25, Drudge posted an old image of Obama in African clothes, with the claim that Clinton staffers “circulated” the photo, and a quote from “one campaign staffer, in an e-mail obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT.”
The Obama campaign embraced Drudge’s report of a dastardly smear, and the story burned for days in the mainstream media and liberal and conservative blogs alike, cementing the perception that the Clintons would do anything to stop Obama.
"I find it interesting that in a room of such esteemed journalists that Mr. Drudge has become your respected assignment editor," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer later lectured reporters.
More recently, Drudge almost single-handedly elevated Clinton’s reference to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination into a campaign crisis and helped fuel her demise by leading with a YouTube link of the declaration by NBC’s Tim Russert following the Indiana and North Carolina primaries that the Democraticnominee had been chosen.
The Clinton campaign at one time attempted to establish a relationship with Drudge, to little avail. The site has been energetically ushering her offstage and even Clinton's victory in Puerto Rico Sunday won only another gloomy headline: "THE END."
For its part, the McCain campaign has brought in Matthew McDonald, a veteran of the Bush-Cheney war-room, to help bolster the communications operation. Part of that job means trying, if possible, to shape the Drudge Report's coverage of the campaign or, if not, to soften the negative impact among conservative media outlets.
McCain aides are still sore over the cancer scare Drudge briefly sparked last year and also recall the tempest the online newshound provoked in December when he posted as his lead an original item reporting that McCain’s campaign was trying to spike the New York Times story that the Times eventually ran about the senator’s relationship with a telecom lobbyist.
Still, those in McCain’s orbit are clear-eyed about the power Drudge commands and are loathe to cross him.
Asked about their rocky relationship with Drudge, a McCain aide -- at once voicing hope, recognizing the need to improve the rapport and displaying an appreciation of Drudge’s disdain for public talk of his source relationships -- would only say: “The way to appeal to him I believe is not commenting on him in the press.”