Drudge At 10: Now He's Fun

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005

On Sunday morning, April 17, Time magazine sent Matt Drudge an early copy of its controversial cover story on Ann Coulter, which he splashed on his gossipy Web site.

The transaction was a far cry from the morning in 1998 when he used a spiked Newsweek story to tell the world about Monica Lewinsky, sparking a fierce debate over whether he was corrupting the news business.

"For some reason the media elites aren't as hostile to me," Drudge says. "It makes the job easier. In some ways it makes it less controversial."

As he approaches his 10th anniversary as an online clearinghouse for forthcoming news stories, unreleased books, tabloid yarns, Hollywood chatter and unconfirmed, sometimes bogus, rumors, Drudge, 38, is now treated more as an amusing diversion than a threat to journalistic integrity. The white-hot debate these days is over the role of bloggers, whom Drudge says dismissively he doesn't bother reading.

Has the quirky kid from Takoma Park become an appendage of the media establishment he once tormented, a '90s relic eclipsed by smarter and more provocative online writers?

Drudge complains about new sites that are "all glib, all mockery." He grumbles about "the hideous pace" of Internet news and says "the big boys" -- the big newspapers whose scoops he used to pilfer -- are "becoming more competitive" with faster online reports. And, he admits, "I probably am taking myself more seriously than 10 years ago."

The Drudge Report is still capable of eye-catching, even outrageous, behavior, such as running only a partially blurred photo of the teenager accusing Michael Jackson of sexual abuse and several pictures of the boy's mother. "These people are marching into court making allegations," Drudge says. "I don't think they should be shielded." But, he adds, "I just see it as a way to get attention, of course, to offer something not being delivered elsewhere."

While Drudge says he zings both political parties -- and that the Bush White House won't deal with him -- the conservative gossip aims far more often at liberal targets. In a recent hyperventilation on "The Truth About Hillary," a book by Edward Klein due out this fall, Drudge quoted "a source close to Klein" as saying: "The revelations in it should sink her candidacy." No details, just a blanket prediction.

Drudge also acts as a shadowy entrance ramp to the mainstream highway. During last year's campaign, he billboarded a false rumor that John Kerry was having an affair with a young woman, which was picked by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the Web sites of National Review and the Wall Street Journal, forcing Kerry to deny it and the rest of the press to cover it.

Drudge says that while he "got some facts wrong," the charge was "very valid" because "the media were chasing that story. I know my critics say that's a very sneaky way of having it both ways. I never said it was true." Plus, he says, he carried the woman's denials: "One thing about this medium, it's three seconds to a new headline. You can call that reckless. I call it updating."

He employed the same rationale in trumping up a 1999 story: "WHITE HOUSE HIT WITH NEW DNA TERROR; TEEN TESTED FOR CLINTON PATERNITY." Although the genetic test disproved an Arkansas woman's claim of having carried Bill Clinton's child, Drudge says it was true that the teenage boy was taking the test.

He also claimed that year that Bill and Hillary Clinton were beginning a "trial separation." Earlier, he retracted a phony wife-beating allegation against then-White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, which led to a lawsuit settled years later.

Whatever his mistakes and excesses, Drudge was the first entrepreneur to exploit the Internet's speed in ways we now take for granted. During a phone conversation last week from London, he suddenly realized something was happening in Rome, and within seconds a red siren and headline appeared: "Bells Ringing Signaling Election of a Pope." This was followed moments later by "Ratzinger," then "Benedict," and later a shot of the tabloid headline in Britain's Sun: "From Hitler Youth to . . . PAPA RATZI."

Starting with an e-mailed newsletter in 1995, when he lived in a one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, Drudge rode his Monica-induced fame to a Fox News Channel show (which he later quit) and a weekly radio show (still on nearly 300 stations). And while his lifestyle has changed (he lives in what he calls a Miami Beach "mansion"), his loner status has not.

"I'm in my own little world," Drudge says. He doesn't own a cell phone, doing his reporting by e-mail and instant messaging. And he deflects questions about his personal life, though he told London's Sunday Times he's not gay and once almost got married. "I don't feel like volunteering anything," he says.

Nielsen Net Ratings says his site, which attracts corporate advertisers, draws 3 million unique visitors a month, and Drudge says he had 247 million page views in March. Drudge's biggest traffic day followed Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. "Why? Because I showed the boob, breaking through the PC crowd," he says.

If Drudge is doing less original writing, as he admits, and news outlets are spoon-feeding him advances, is he just another cog in the publicity machine? "Yeah, I'm being used, for a buzz-hype agenda," he says. "Do I feel like I'm being co-opted? I still decide whether to run it."

What Drudge provides, by constantly trolling for tidbits and titillation, is one man's idiosyncratic take on the news, feverishly updated so that people keep clicking back. "There so much freaking information out there," he says. "There's clutter danger, no doubt about it." He says he's not bored but understands he's no longer a novelty.

"At some point you still become old. People may grow tired of the Drudge sensibility."

Footnote : Drudge later zinged Time by quoting his friend Coulter as saying her cover photo -- in which her legs took up half the page -- was distorted. But Executive Editor Priscilla Painton says Coulter went through the photographer's portfolio in advance: "She has great looks. She has great legs. She has great ankles. All of that was on full display on the cover. Lots of women would kill for that kind of display."

Albom's Return

The Detroit Free Press has decided to allow star sportswriter Mitch Albom to resume his column after taking disciplinary action against him and four others.

Albom was suspended after writing about a Final Four basketball game before it happened, which produced a torrent of negative publicity when two players whom Albom reported were at the game did not show up. Albom apologized and the Free Press launched an investigation.

The paper did not name the staffers involved or describe what punishment they or Albom received. Albom's critics predicted he would get off easy because he is a best-selling author, radio host and ESPN commentator -- Publisher Carole Leigh Hutton killed a negative review of Albom's latest book in 2003 -- while others said the case would have drawn little attention if not for Albom's fame.

In a letter to readers, Hutton said: "We took into account many factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the importance of our credibility, the history of those involved and Albom's 20 stellar years at the Free Press."

Firing Offense?

Eric Slater, who was canned by the Los Angeles Times last week over a badly botched assignment, is the first to admit he was guilty of "sloppy reporting. . . . It was the worst story I've written in my life."

But he says the punishment was too harsh and there was no way he made anything up. "I believe the L.A. Times thought I was Jayson Blair," Slater says, referring to the serial fabricator at the New York Times.

In a March 29 piece on fraternity hazing at California State University, Chico, Slater said a pledge at a nearby college died of alcohol poisoning; he did not die but was hospitalized. Slater got Chico's population wrong and quoted the university president, although Slater did not speak to him and was citing previously published interviews.

In dismissing the 11-year veteran, the Times said an editor had gone to Chico and concluded that "the quotations from anonymous sources and from two named sources, a Mike Rodriguez and a Paul Greene, could not be verified."

"I got lazy," Slater says, adding that he conducted the interviews in bars and did not have phone numbers for Rodriguez and Greene. He says he could not prove he was in Chico because he slept 30 miles away on a side trip to pick up a BMW motorcycle. He also says the story "morphed, evolved and devolved" during a torturous editing process but that he takes "full responsibility" for the mistakes.

"Should I have been reprimanded or demoted? Yes," says Slater, who won an award for his coverage of Afghanistan. But he argued the mistakes "didn't warrant my dismissal."

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