The Fight for Eyeballs

John Sutherland reports on the Drudge Report

In the week beginning 7 September, a member of the White House security staff – who else could it have been? – sent Matt Drudge, cyber muckraker, a CCTV clip, ‘on condition that its origin and owner not be disclosed’. The tape showed the President returning from his morning jog in August 1993 accompanied by a troupe of bodyguards and young staffers. In the blunt words of a pseudonymous commentator on one of the e-mail chat-sites which cling barnacle-like to the Drudge Report, it showed a post-run young female ‘jiggling her tits’ and ‘tenderly’ wiping the Presidential brow. Finally, after the others were dismissed, Ms Jiggler adjourned with the President into the windowless hallway off the Oval Office, later to be made famous by the Starr report. Over his shoulder the President enquired how much time he had before his next appointment. Enough, it seemed.

There are miles of such security tapes generated every day in Federal Government buildings. To have been kept for five years and located immediately, this particular extract must have been clipboarded as a matter of clandestine ribaldry by White House underlings (‘Some people ought to have mutes for servants in Vanity Fair – mutes who cannot write,’ Thackeray advised). The Vehmgericht of staffers had obviously drawn their own conclusions about what went on in Mr Clinton’s nooky hole.

Drudge has a regular feature on Fox News. The cheesiest of the cable channels, Fox has embraced the ‘hard copy’ school of ‘sleazoid’ newscasting. Fox ran the tape (with Ms Jiggler’s face blurred) as an exclusive on their Saturday and Sunday (12, 13 September) evening programmes. The three networks and CNN were embargoed from using it and it is unlikely that they would have wanted to handle what was arguably, at this point, stolen property.

The British tabloids on Sunday and Monday had no such compunction. It was front page in the News of the World (‘Clinton leads Girl into White House Love-Lounge’), the Star (‘Bill’s Spot of Horizontal Jogging’), the Sun (‘Let’s Go Oval’), the Mirror (‘Is this Monica II?’) and the Mail (‘Clinton’s Video Girl Mystery’). The American TV networks and quality newspapers on Monday picked up the story as ‘Fleet Street Goes Wild’, reproducing (as examples of British ‘gutter journalism’) the front pages with their conveniently huge and legible headlines. The story had been laundered and was now in the public domain. By way of explanation, clips and stills from Fox’s now decontaminated video were shown. Permission fees were doubtless paid.

Alerted by the routine ‘Have you any comment?’ enquiry, the White House released its retaliatory cover story a few hours before the first transmission by Fox. Ms Jiggler was an ‘old family friend from Arkansas’. Mr Clinton wanted to chat with her about family matters. The White House declined to identify her. By Tuesday the ‘Monica II’ story was as stale as Bill’s cigar. The public had sucked it dry and wanted something new. It was waste-material for cartoonists and late-night talk shows, scooping up the droppings from the front pages. Meanwhile, the e-mail chatterers had identified the woman. ‘The butt is a dead giveaway,’ one noted; another had run the computer-blurred features through two polarising filters, producing an allegedly recognisable face (see www.freerepublic.com). Matt Drudge had again produced what he calls a ‘news cycle’: a concoction of video, Internet, cable TV, tabloid journalism and a bootlegger’s callous indifference to copyright law and journalistic ethics. It is a sombre thought that ‘responsible’ (as they would like to think) British papers were jumping to the call of a paranoid mischief-maker living in a $600-a-month apartment at the grungy end of Hollywood Boulevard with three television sets, the blinds drawn, and a cat for company. Matt Drudge drives a Metro Geo, the LA equivalent of Del Boy’s Robin Reliant. But this is the age of the hermit terrorist. Like Osama Bin Ladin in his cave, Drudge had made the White House quake. A Tomahawk missile, for all its famous pinpoint accuracy, was not an available option.

What is most striking is the fruit-fly rapidity of the news cycle. This is what Matt Drudge likes to call ‘hyper-instant news’. It is instructive to compare Drudge’s Monica II event with ‘Deep Throat’ in Watergate, muffled up like a bedouin in a sandstorm, croaking out: ‘Follow the money.’ Bernstein and Woodward’s subsequent story took months to run its course, requiring as it did double-sourcing, deep analysis, painstaking consultation with lawyers as to publishability, judicious interplay between ‘reporting’ and ‘editorialising’.

What has made the change, of course, is the computer. Forecasts about how IT would change the world and predictions as to its evolution have been consistently wrong, from IBM’s original estimate that America could make do with six vast machines (which they would build) to Al Gore’s utopian Information Superhighway, the electronic equivalent of Roosevelt’s ‘chicken in every pot’. What Honest Al didn’t foresee, as Drudge gleefully notes, is American schoolkids downloading the Starr report and Penthouse’s free photo-set of ‘Paula Jones – Nude!’ for their civics classes.

The press were no exception: they, too, got the computer revolution all wrong. Over the last three years leading British and American newspapers (Times, Telegraph, LA Times) have invested heavily in ‘electronic editions’. Initially these were offered free on the Net. Once readers were ‘hooked’, appropriate charges would be levied. The theory was that the Internet was just an alternative, and complementary, form of printing. Exactly the same error was made by Gutenberg, who assumed that printing was just a way of producing a superior kind of illustrated manuscript, doing what the scribe did more efficiently, the print room hardly different from a scriptorium. Gutenberg was wrong.

What the publishers of Net editions have discovered, to their cost, is that readers do not want electronic facsimiles of today’s printed paper. You can’t give them away, let alone sell them. Nor do Net-users want sagacious, responsible, thoughtful, or even accurate journalism. Drudge claims no more than 80 per cent accuracy in his reporting. Net news, as he puts it, is a ‘fight for eyeballs’. And what wins the eyeball is fast news (CNN or AP’s ‘on the hour’ breaking news transmissions) and ‘pirate news’ – stories that flout constraints. They don’t have to be sleazy, but it helps. Free helps as well. On the other hand, it’s not a Darwinian fight for survival between old and new journalism. As in the Monica II story, synergies between the Net and traditional information outlets can be mutually beneficial. Drudge believes that as TV ultimately saved the movies, ‘the Internet will save the news business.’ But ‘save’ does not mean ‘preserve’. It will not be the same news business post-Drudge.

Matt Drudge has come to play a vital part in the new conjunctions of news creation and distribution. Like everything associated with him (including, one may predict, his imminent disappearance from the scene), it has happened very fast. He is 31 years old, and has been in full-time business three years. He was born in Washington DC, the offspring of ‘liberal’ parents: his father, as Matt recalls, was ‘one of those guys who wore Nixon masks in parades’. His mother campaigned for Clinton during the Primaries, although now she listens to Rush Limbaugh. Drudge himself is conservative: he voted for Bush and Dole. He has an agenda.

Drudge skipped college and, like other young men, went west to LA, where he found work in ‘the industry’ as a runner at CBS. He graduated to managing the network’s gift shop, which he did for seven years. It was not arduous work. Over the years, he picked up back-lot gossip and found interesting material (‘information gold’, he nostalgically calls it) in the xerox trash containers – principally top secret material about TV ratings. When, in the early Nineties, young people with institutional affiliations moved into e-mail to cut down on their phone bills, Drudge began exchanging his little ‘tidbits’ among a network of correspondents. His e-mailing list grew from a handful to a crowd. He began receiving items, which he recycled together with things he had picked up from newspapers and TV. In 1995 the Drudge Report became his full-time occupation.

What distinguishes Drudge from other high-achieving cyber journalists is that he has retained the hand-to-mouth style of his early days. His equipment is defiantly bottom of the line (he still had a 486 long after everyone else had gone into Pentium) and his reports are typographically crude. His hypertext linking is risibly primitive but effective. Drudge loathes the ‘pretty boy and colours’ school of Net news. He has no staff. His main expense is his subscription to 35 newspapers and cable fees for his three TVs, which run 24 hours a day.

The Drudge Report carries no ads and has no sponsors (unlike its Clinton-favoured rival, Salonmagazine.com). It charges its hundred thousand or so subscribers no fees. Drudge suggests a ‘voluntary fee’ of $10 but not many subscribers stump up. ‘I haven’t made a penny out of the Drudge Report,’ he claims. He had a syndication arrangement with Wired magazine that seems to have gone very sour and has a new arrangement with Fox which seems to be holding (although they may well drop him if his forthcoming legal problem – read on – turns ugly). These, presumably, pay his overheads. Like Ralph Nader, Matt Drudge’s hermit lifestyle validates his bona fides. Romantically he likes to pose for publicity photographs in battered fedora and trenchcoat, like a Thirties city desk news hound. If he has a role model in traditional journalism it seems to be Walter Winchell. Personally Matt Drudge gives the impression of being paranoid, vindictive and unpleasant. So did Winchell.

The Drudge Report takes the form of his latest ‘scoop’, accompanied by a gateway-link service to a hundred or so other proprietary news services and syndicated columnists. What most visitors do is click their Drudge bookmark, scan his text of the day, and then go off to their regular supplier. What the Drudge Report offers is ‘hot news, right on the edge’. With this hot news still tingling in your mind, you can look for ‘coverage’ and ‘in depth’ material from the usual places, using Drudge’s website as a stepping stone. He claims six million hits a month and as many as a million a day when a really hot and edgy story (like ‘Monica II’) is fresh. He has monitored up to three thousand hits in one day from the White House – which has a staff of a thousand.

Despite the trenchcoat and fedora, Matt Drudge is neither a ‘reporter’ nor an ‘editor’, as they are traditionally defined. He is something akin to a ‘service provider’. The service he principally provides is legitimation. During the Clinton scandals, Drudge has consistently been out in front with all the news that is (not yet) ‘fit to print’. The Drudge Report broke the story about the stained blue dress, the cigar, and Monica’s servicing the President while he was blithely making business calls to Congressmen. It is clear that these leaks must have been planted (with or without sanction) by members of the Starr investigation team, aiming to put heat on the Clinton defence team. Once Drudge had ‘published’ the stories, they were in the public domain – ‘clean’ (legally clean, that is). They could be reported by the mainstream press, as quoted ‘allegations’. Word of mouth, Jay Leno and the cartoonists would do the rest.

When (as he has recently been doing rather often) Matt Drudge addresses journalists’ conventions he likes to strike a crusading pose. He foresees, as he told the National Press Conference of 2 June, ‘an era vibrating with the din of small voices … I envision a future where there will be 300 million reporters.’ The implication is that his ‘scoops’ are harvested from the thousand e-mails he receives every day from ‘little people’. In fact – despite the McLuhanesque rhetoric – it is clear as day that his biggest stories have arrived as lettres de cachet from insiders and lobbyists using the protective anonymity of e-mail and Drudge’s lack of scruple to get their stories out.

Matt Drudge attracted media attention when he named Jack Kemp as Dole’s running mate before the papers got it. And since his CBS days, he has always had a strong line in entertainment industry items. He was first with the Kathleen Willey story (which set off a strong little news cycle). But the making of the Drudge Report has been Monica Lewinsky – the first true ‘Internet-driven story’ in the history of American journalism, as Drudge claims. The story first came to him via e-mail in November 1997. He insists (although one may doubt it) that he went and ‘knocked on her door’ for verification. She wouldn’t talk to him. In January, Newsweek was going to run the Lewinsky story, under the by-line of staff reporter Michael Isikoff. At the last minute the editors decided to spike the story as unworthy ‘gossip’. They had lost their nerve. The ensuing Newsweek office battles were leaked (by an e-mail snitch) to Drudge, who promptly made it the subject of his next Report.

Drudge’s website clocked up a record number of hits in the last week of January and triggered a feeding frenzy in the American press. Newsweek tried to get back in on the act by releasing extracts from the Tripp tapes on their website. They also got a record number of hits. The sequence that had been set in motion would climax with the publication of the Starr report, where the news cycle had started, on the Net. In the process an obscure White House intern became world famous and so did Matt Drudge. He was the ‘little guy’, the intrepid freelance reporter, ‘taking on the most powerful man in the world from a Hollywood apartment’. His ‘equaliser’ was the Internet. The White House’s attack dogs and spinmeisters called it ‘garbage’ and ‘sleaze’. Drudge (who has a nice turn of phrase) called it ‘unspin’.

Clinton and his aides had been uneasily aware of the dangers posed by Drudge for some time. As the Starr report records, in mid-July 1997 Clinton told Lewinsky that ‘Sludge’ had turned up something on Kathleen Willey. He reassured Monica that of course it was untrue (with the gentlemanly comment about Ms Willey’s breasts being too small for his taste). According to analysis in the LA Times (16 September), it was at this point that the President resolved to terminate his dangerous liaison, instructing Lewinsky to warn her friend Tripp to keep quiet. This had the undesired effect of setting off the whole taping business. Sludge/Drudge was no longer just reporting the news, he was making it happen.

Drudge’s principal protection against counter-attack from the powerful enemies he has made is that the Report is too small to swat. He has no property, no organisation, no reputation to lose. ‘What is Mike McCurry going to do, call my boss?’ he taunts. (McCurry is the White House Press Secretary.) It’s a good protection, but not good enough. Drudge’s main weakness is that, as he admits, 20 per cent of what he puts out is ‘inaccurate’. Any legitimate newspaper or magazine peddling that volume of error (and bragging about it) would be destroyed by libel suits. Legitimate journals check their sources. Drudge doesn’t believe in that kind of drudgery.

It looks as if Drudge, like Osama Bin Ladin, may have underrated the ability of his foe to reach out and hit back. The White House has retaliated in its familiar two-prong style. Hillary has delivered thoughtful First Lady speeches, ruminating about the ‘irresponsible’ freedoms of Internet communications and the sad lack of ‘gateway-keepers’ – something must be done about all that paedophile porn and political slander. Meanwhile the White House Rottweilers have gone for the jugular. It has to be said that Drudge has made their work easy. In August 1997 he was fed, by the usual clandestine e-mail delivery, a story to the effect that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal had a ‘spousal abuse past’, which had been ‘covered up’. Blumenthal is the White House hard cop to McCurry’s soft cop. His Net nickname is ‘Sid Vicious’. He is not, however, a wife-beater and there was no history to cover up.

Matt Drudge ran the story as he typically does without checking. It turned out to be a set-up. The ‘spousal abuse’ canard was planted, as Drudge now suspects, by a Republican operative keen to take the unpopular Blumenthal down a peg or two. Matt Drudge was Matt Stooge. He had been suckered. He retracted the story and apologised within 24 hours. Too late. Blumenthal and his wife Jacqueline had launched a $30 million lawsuit not just against the Drudge Report but against America Online, Drudge’s Internet service provider. It’s as if Robert Maxwell had gone for W.H.Smith in his vendetta against Private Eye. The discovery phase of the suit is due to be completed by mid-October. Both Clinton and Gore are reported to be cheering on Blumenthal’s action.

One would not expect Matt Drudge to find friends in the White House. More surprisingly, very few of the journalists who have gorged off his scoops have stood up to defend him. Despite all those millions of visitors he is friendless. His line of defence, as far as one can discern, is unconvincing. He points out that even ‘real’ journalists get things wrong. Tom Brokaw was forced to retract over the Richard Jewell Atlanta Olympics bombing report. The security guard was innocent. It was network reporters, not Matt Drudge, who slanderously claimed that the Pentagon had dropped nerve gas on American troops. It would be more persuasive, of course, if he hadn’t been so insouciant about getting 20 per cent of his stories wrong.

Even less convincing is Drudge’s complaint that it’s not a fair fight. The White House is beating up on him, the little guy, he complains, and ‘Nixon didn’t authorise suits against reporters’; Drudge makes no secret of the fact that he believes it’s personal between him and Clinton. Least convincing and most damaging to his image is his last line of defence: that, despite the trenchcoat and fedora, he’s not a reporter at all – he’s just the ‘newstand’ through which the news flows. As well sue the trees in the forest that make the paper that carries the libel. And for all his personal austerity Matt Drudge may find – if America Online decides not to stand by him – that he does, after all, have something to lose: his access to the Net. Without that, he does not exist. Few will lament the destruction of Matt Drudge and his tacky report, if that’s what it comes to. But, like it or not, the new school of Drudge journalism will be there so long as the Net offers its Barbary Coast facilities to any pirate newscaster.