There's a lot of irony in Matt Drudge accusing someone else of overly hyping a threat for political purposes.
"The deplorables," he wrote, referring to supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, "are starting to wonder if [the government] has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate."
The tweet (and a similarly dismissive article on his site the Drudge Report) was quickly lambasted as irresponsible: Suggesting that the storm wasn't that dangerous might convince people that there was no need to evacuate, leaving them at risk from the storm's effects.
But the political conspiracy at the heart of the idea is also worth calling out. Drudge, like the presidential candidate he supports, is prone to assuming that there's a broad conspiracy of political actors working to hide the truth from the American people.
In this case Drudge's idea (offered in another tweet) is that meteorologists and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center were producing exaggerated data to make the threat of climate change seem worse. That data includes things like wind-speed measurements from sensors all over the Caribbean and on the Florida coast. The data look like this, and are made publicly available for analysis. Those measurements help provide future predictions and estimates, like this one. The predictions on Thursday were for high-speed gusts, not sustained winds; Florida so far seems to have gotten lucky, in that the eyewall — where winds are fastest — has remained offshore.
It's natural that Drudge's assumption would be that someone was hyping a threat for political purposes. That's what Drudge does nearly every day. Between September 2013 and June 2014, for example, he promoted stories about the "knockout game" 19 times, according to Drudge Report Archives. The "knockout game" was a purported trend in which young men (mostly black) were dared to go punch someone (often white) without provocation. There was no basis to the suggestion that this was a broad trend, and the subtext behind the weird media frenzy was hard to miss.
More regularly, Drudge hypes stories about undocumented immigrants ("Illegal Alien in Phoenix Deadly Crash Drank 12 Beers and Used Cocaine..."), the Islamic State ("ISIS to send 'serial killers' to the West in bloody new terror tactic") and crime ("Murder Rates Soar In 25 Largest Cities..."). His relationship with Trump is symbiotic, however unintentionally: He hypes the purported danger, and Trump promises to fix it.
The difference between Drudge's hype and the warnings of the weather forecasters, of course, is that there actually is a massive hurricane on Florida's coast. It actually is an immediate risk to life and property. Drudge criticizing forecasters for basing warnings on worst-case scenarios is the flip side to Drudge constantly hyping one-off polls that show Trump with significant leads in the presidential race. He's cherry-picking the best-case scenario to reassure his readers; the scientists are isolating the worst case to potentially save lives.
It's also worth noting that there may be a link between climate change and more powerful hurricanes. The Washington Post's Chris Mooney interviewed a researcher Thursday who explained how a warmer climate may have helped power Matthew. Hurricanes have occurred for millennia, of course, but more atmospheric warmth (or, put another way, energy), warmer, higher seas and more atmospheric moisture can help create bigger, more powerful storms when they happen, scientists say. "These storm traits aren’t proof of anything, of course," Mooney writes of Matthew. "They’re merely consistent with the notion of warming making storms worse."
Conservatives, though, are much less likely to accept the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring, much less that it's caused by human activity and greenhouse gas emissions. In a recent Pew Research survey, only 11 percent of conservative Republicans said that they felt that scientists understood what was causing the Earth to warm, and only 15 percent said they trusted scientists to give accurate information about the causes. Conservative Republicans were also the most likely to say that the news media was exaggerating the threat climate change poses.
Drudge takes advantage of that skepticism — on climate change, yes, but also more broadly. There's no higher-profile member of the media who's been more effective at sowing distrust of the media overall. In this case, the distrust that Drudge sowed held real risks for readers. But his habit of doing precisely what he was criticizing — hyping outliers and worst-case scenario to score political points — is why he's got so many fans, and helps explain a lot about American politics in 2016.