|April 19, 2006|
I Nudged, He Nudged
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
I’ve always had a soft spot for Matt Drudge. I know he’s on the right and cops attitudes galore in that annoying high-pitched voice of his. But he has developed an internationally renowned news aggregator website out of his apartment that has been going strong for a decade. If we can believe his overworked web counter, as of late, the site receives nearly 11 million hits every 24 hours. Business 2.0 estimated that Drudge's website pulled in $3,500 a day in advertising revenues in April 2003.
I have a bad case of website envy.
His monomaniacal obsession with news assemblage and entrepreneurial energy has given him a one-man-against-the-big-news-world reputation that he seems to revel in. He is pictured as the outsider who seemingly loves to embarrass and outrage insiders. In that sense, he is a news exhibitionist whose method is sometimes offered up as a window into his media madness.
As the Times of London explained:
Along the way he started making news, building his own mystique and celebrity status in a culture that lives for and off of prominent “names.” There is still only one Drudge.
Rather than being at odds with the media establishment, a colleague of mine sees him more like a cyber Gail Wynand, the media tycoon in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. Motivated solely by what sells, rather than, say, what might be good for society, his work is an asset to the powers-that-be, not a challenge.
Even though he positioned himself as a one-man news machine with an oppositional style in an age of media conglomerates, his story was quickly showered with praise by the mainstream media, winning him a talk radio show and endless guest appearances. In his 40’s style fedora hat, and with his quirky mannerisms, he was regarded as more of a treat than a threat. He now has 4,180,000 entries on Google.
He was hardly qualified for the position of news broker he assumed — if that means anything anymore. There was no journalism school for him. He had been a night counterman at a 7-Eleven convenience store, a Time/Life books phone salesman, and sales assistant at a New York City grocery store. In 1989, he moved to LA where, legend has it, many top agents start in the mailroom. He started in the gift shop of CBS studios. It was there that he was apparently privy to some inside gossip, part of his inspiration for founding the Drudge Report.
Blowing small stories up into big scandals was to become a DRUDGE specialty. At times, he seemed to be bent in turning the mainstream into a mud stream.
Predictably, he began to piss people off across the spectrum. Democrats still hold a Drudge-grudge over his role in breaking and exploiting the Monica Lewinsky affair. Straight-laced corporatist Republicans often find him weird because he comes off as an outrageous individualist beyond party discipline and a legitimate career path.
Today there are blogs built around bashing him and others monitoring his every movement. He has not endeared himself to folks on the left and for good reason. At bottom, he masks his right-wing conservatism with libertarianism. He provides an echo chamber for the powerful, and is hardly their nemesis. He wants to make headlines, not fill heads with analysis.
BuzzFlash, a site that took his aggregation-link-out-to-other-outlets approach, and veered it leftwards, denounced him in an editorial a few years back:
Many gay community groups have claimed him as one of their own, but he has been coy about his preferences. Relating to people of any persuasion does not appear to be his strength.
And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of chilly condemnations that challenge his editorial selections. I have even seen him called a “bullshit artist extraordinaire.”
Is he a media maverick or simply a corporate media marketer? One MediaChannel.org colleague sees him as even more insidious.“He's an amplifier (aggregator) of corporate media. He makes consuming corporate news easier. Do you think Rupert Murdoch / The Bush Admin sees him as a threat or an asset? He's an amplifier for business worshipping, pro-war viewpoints.”
I wrote to him recently because Hustler, which profiled me a while back, asked me to interview him for $1 a word. (They did an interview with me for nothing, so I hustled them back for an assignment.) Eventually, they said yes: “Do Drudge.” Since my own words probably cost me that amount or more in uncompensated time spent and energy invested, I jumped at the chance. I e-mailed him at the Drudge Report…No response. I tried again…No response.
The $1500 bucks I expected to make was already spent in my mind. It was quickly slipping away. I called a friend at a TV network. Surely she could get me his number. She was (where else?) in LA, the Drudgemeister’s hometown. She didn’t have it.
Her assistant then emailed the network’s PR maven. Within minutes, she got a reply. Bingo. His unlisted, hard-to-find number was in their contact database. Of course, it was.
I then assumed I was within two degrees of separation. But as they say in the networks, assumption is the mother of misunderstanding.
There was a note that accompanied the number: “He never answers the machine. He will ignore the call unless he wants something. I have only actually spoken to him, five times in eight years—when he calls me. But here it is: XXX-XXXX – if he hasn't changed it.”
That didn’t sound too promising. I called anyway. One ring, two rings, three rings… Just as I was about to hang up, he picked up.
Amazingly he remembered me and was very cordial. At the beginning of his rise to Internet fame, I had dropped him a note praising his chutzpah. I was surprised that all these years later he recalled my e-missive and had a nice word or two to say — about me, not my request.
”I have already done Penthouse,” he said.
“No, No, Matt, not Penthouse. Hustler. Hustler! (It’s hard not to feel like one when you are free-lancing for a magazine with that name.) It didn’t seem to matter. He just cut me off.
“I am not doing any interviews. Haven’t in years. Don’t need the publicity.”
He sounded pretty definitive. I had come all this way, had tracked him down, had him on the line, but was suddenly stopped in my tracks.
I told him about MediaChannel.org and our interest in media issues, and reassured him that I didn’t have any exposé intent.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said. “I am just not doing any interviews. I have done so many.”
I then shifted to my intended focus: trying to elicit his views on the media scene. He wouldn’t bite.
“Look if it was Elisabeth [Bumiller] at the NY Times calling, “I would be more abrupt. You have been there from the beginning. Glad to talk you, but no interview. Nothing personal. When I feel the need to get into deeper thoughts I cleanse my soul once a year with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN. That’s enough. I don’t have to go into the details of what I do.”
There was no budging (or drudging) him. So I told him that I am giving a talk that C-SPAN is shooting next week in NYC, about my new book on the media and the Iraq war, and asked if he’d be interested? He said, “Sure. Keep sending me emails. I will read them.”
Matt, a man of many links, at that point became a man of few words.
I had told him I liked the Smoking Gun memo he had just published on Dick Cheney’s protocol for hotel rooms when he travels. One of his requirements: they must have Fox News (his master’s voice?) on all the TV sets all the time.
He then told me he just got a new memo in from a source at ABC, but didn’t tell me what it was. It was up within an hour of our call:
Really? Do they — or do they reveal the frustrations and attitudes of most journalists that cover the Bush White House? The Washington Post later reported: “It is widely believed at ABC News that the e-mails were leaked by a former employee who has a vendetta against Green.”
After two of his emails were published, one by Drudge, a second by the New York Post, Green was punished with a suspension and later “apologized” to the White House and his colleagues for “embarrassing” ABC. An ABC News spokesman reiterated that Green’s personal feelings do not influence their programming that is “fair and balanced and straight down the middle.”
For many years, conservatives have denounced the “liberal media” because many journalists vote Democratic. Those preferences do not translate into news programs with really critical approach. The same can’t be said for Drudge.
I told him that I’ve been writing a lot about citizen journalism and the way the media is changing, which I discuss in my new manifesto, "The Death of Media." How does he feel about that movement? After all, he is perceived as one of its pioneers in the sense that practitioners believe anyone can become a journalist.
Matt had no response, and even as I raised the issue, I recognized then that empowering the people or changing the media was never his mission. He is defined by commerce, not consciousness. He is more a businessman than a newsman.
I am, of course, on the other side of that equation, and not really partial to scandal mongers or gossip promoters. That tabloid genre used to be called yellow journalism, which is sometimes the color that the Drudge Report often sports.
While I am still fighting for the right to have a say, Matt’s priority is to make his pay. And pay it does. He has never sold out because when it comes to journalism that speaks truth to power, he never bought in.
“Matt you are proof that the power of one can survive in this media jungle,” I said in one last weasely attempt to get him to change his mind and talk to me before we said goodbye. He chuckled.
“This power of one,” he replied, “is trying to figure out what to lead with today.” Click.
Hustler wanted a more conventional slugfest of an interview. When I couldn’t produce one, they killed it. You can tell me if you found this of value.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He is the
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