The Drudge Effect

Sometimes the biggest forces at work are the unseen, invisible ones.

Take gravity, for example. Big deal. You know, apples and Isaac Newton and all that. Something that scientists and high-wire performers struggle with every day.

Then there's the Drudge Report. Also a big deal. Not entirely unseen – it gets loads of hits – but its effect extends far beyond mere eyeballs. Media professionals and political operatives deal with it every day.

I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten a call from a TV or radio producer wanting to have me discuss a certain topic, catching me unaware, and have them say "It's up on Drudge. Check it out."

Then yesterday, there was an extremely fascinating take on the Drudge Effect in the New York Times indicating that the Hillary Clinton campaign was providing carefully-timed leaks to the Drudge Report team, to both gain widespread notice and divert attention from Barack Obama events.

That people in Mrs. Clinton's campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. But it also speaks to the enduring power of the Drudge Report, which mixes original reporting with links to newspaper, Internet or television reports far and wide.

The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge's targets of choice — some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times.

Aides in both parties acknowledge working harder than ever to get favorable coverage for their candidates — or unfavorable coverage of competitors — onto the Drudge Report's home page, knowing that television producers, radio talk show hosts and newspaper reporters view it as a bulletin board for the latest news and gossip.

I think that, to most observers, the Drudge Report is a website that runs political and cultural scuttlebutt. But it very clearly doesn't end there. (Here's another great anecdote from earlier this year, from the liberally-inclined TalkingPointsMemo.) So what is the Drudge Effect? How much does it ripple throughout MediaLand, and reverberate? I am but one modest media soul, so I decided to tug the ears of some media insiders.

According to Patrick Gavin, of both the DC Examiner and Fishbowl DC:

The most interesting part about Drudge's reach is how it speaks to the laziness of many reporters and cable television, in particular. You can rest assured that, once a story is linked to on Drudge, it will be on MSNBC, Fox, CNN and the rest.

Drudge has excellent sources and a keen eye for interesting stories, but journalists ought to step away from the echo chamber and advance other stories as well.

Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford pointed me to his book "Attack the Messenger" where he wrote:
The secret of Drudge's phenomenal success is that he is a highly skilled news editor. ... The strength of his work is in the reliability of his website for a quick and constantly updated read of interesting items with links to the original stories.
And, just as the New York Times article noted that "few are willing to attach their names to any specific statements about Mr. Drudge or descriptions of their strategies in dealing with him, fearing that they might alienate him," a Washington political writer passed along an e-mail response, on the condition of anonymity:
Drudge has an enormous effect on political media – primarily on the shallower variety, like cable TV and some daily newspapers. To some extent it's just because he (and his helpers) obsessively scan the wires and other media, plus he has a million tipsters, so he's often the first to have some good new story. So people check him a lot because he's often the first to bring something small but important to a larger audience and that's a valid service. But there's also some completely irrational way in which he's driven media coverage—again, especially cable TV—which I really think to some degree has to do with the psychological effect of his big screaming tabloid headlines.

Generally I think it's usually good tabloid fun but he is sometimes the conduit for stupid non-stories and disgusting smears to circulate at a higher level and that's really bad. Although I credit him for his very uncharacteristic decision not to run with the John Edwards "affair" story, maybe he's turning over a new leaf.

TVNewser's Chris Ariens responded to my question with this:
I think Matt Drudge has tremendous influence inside and outside the media. It's no secret that his site is monitored in network newsrooms. What he includes, how he writes his headlines, and the stories he links to, can affect what shows up on the air. And the campaigns know it. The strategists see the value of getting a story on Drudge, which can then end up on cable or broadcast news shows.
Then I reached out to Tim Graham at the Media Research Center, who offered up this:
There is no doubt that Drudge has become a force in news-media decision-making. In my experience, many talk-show hosts – including Rush – often read from Drudge on the air, making it a national bulletin board. I'm guessing that media titans now see a story splashed across Drudge as a story that will be harder to ignore, a story that's going to be "water-cooler buzz," although few have water coolers they stand around. Stories that are "blessed" by Drudge are more likely to be noticed by major media.

But I'd hardly say the media are carbon-copying Drudge. Sometimes the media prepare a defense brief for politicians they like, an oppo squad against Drudge. Drudge is used as a quick indicator of a story's visibility, and that is calculated into news judgment. But I doubt anyone says "Drudge has it! We must run with it!"

On the other side of the political fence, Eric Boehlert at Media Matters for America had this to say about Drudge:
I think that sadly yes, Drudge still carries a lot of influence among the mainstream press. Witness the page-one piece in the Times along with a recent lengthy feature in New York magazine, as well as a long profile in Los Angeles Times. It amazes me ten years after Drudge first made headlines, newsrooms still follow the guy around, scampering after his crumbs.

What's really annoying is how the press, while dutifully noting how powerful Drudge is, rarely details all the stuff he simply makes up. Like earlier this year when he posted an anonymous item about how CNN's Baghdad reporter Michael Ware had heckled Sen. John McCain during a press conference held in Iraq. The right-wing bloggers jumped all over it and smeared Ware for being unprofessional and treasonous, even though video of the press conference quickly showed that Drudge's allegation was completely false. Yet Drudge never posted a retraction, few in the press noted the false claim, and editors/producers/reporters still allow him to help set the news agenda.

And David Folkenflik of NPR had this to say:
It used to be that politicians were advised not to do anything in public or private lives they wouldn't want to read about on the front page of the Washington Post. Nowadays, they should envision the headline on the Drudge Report.

Major political players clearly play defense by refusing to wait for him to find out about things, instead sending leaks to him all the time. Their fingerprints are often pretty visible. Media figures do the same thing – sending him tempting scraps about soon-to-be published books or blockbuster interviews for example, so he can say he has an exclusive advance look and promote the book/interview/scoop on his site—and drive traffic to theirs. Besides, whatever one thinks of his editorial choices or tone, people who pick fights with Drudge end up spending years reading unflattering headlines about themselves on his site..

He has an idiosyncratic take on politics. His selections seemed to be pretty anti-Clinton during the mid-to-late 1990s but, as the New York Times wrote this week, he seems to have softened a bit on Senator Clinton. (In that, he's not unique among conservative media outlets – so has Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.) And that may reflect a pragmatism that, as things currently stands, she has a decent shot at not only next year's Democratic presidential nomination but the White House itself.

As with the butterfly effect -- where it's theorized that a butterfly's wings flapping can contribute to a hurricane -- it's clear that one simple mouse-click inside the Drudge Report can incite a storm in MediaLand.