Twenty years ago, Matt Drudge’s reports on the Lewinsky affair nearly brought down Bill Clinton. He was seen as the wellspring of a new, hyper-aggressive American conservatism – but has he been outflanked by his imitators?
At precisely 9.32pm and two seconds by his Californian clock, Matt Drudge hit the send button on his home computer and changed the world. It was Saturday 17 January 1998, beyond midnight in Washington where President Clinton had no idea what was about to hit him.
“NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN; BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT”
The headline was posted in such small print that, were it not for the capital letters, a reader might have mistaken it for a dispatch on corn prices rather than an avalanche that would propel Bill Clinton all the way to impeachment. But then, Drudge never has run with the typographical crowd.
Two hours later, he followed up with a longer post in which he elaborated that Newsweek had spiked a story from its then investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. Had it been published, Drudge said, the story would have revealed that a young, still anonymous female intern had been a “frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office” where she developed a sexual relationship with the president.
The storm unleashed that Saturday night was all the more potent for coming from a single individual operating out of a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood where he lived with a cat named Cat, three TVs, three computers, a satellite dish and a police scanner. Not long before, he had been selling T-shirts in a gift shop at CBS Studios.
Twenty years later, we can now see that Drudge, 51, sparked a revolution – a double one at that. Politically, his Lewinsky scoops heralded a new kind of American conservatism that was devil-may-care, iconoclastic, hyper-aggressive and populist. If that sounds familiar, given the fireworks bursting daily out of today’s White House, then that is no coincidence.
“Looking back, he was the beginning of a cultural revolution which we are still in the midst of right now,” says David Horowitz, a conservative writer who helped to bail out Drudge shortly before the Lewinsky affair broke. At the time Drudge was fighting a $30m lawsuit against the Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, whom he had falsely accused of abusing his wife – one of the earliest examples in the internet age of rightwing fake news.
The second revolution Drudge sparked was within the media. By exposing not just the president’s tryst with an intern, but the decision by Newsweek to hold off on the story, he planted a bomb under both the presidency and the mainstream media. “Matt Drudge broke the fraternity of the guardians of the culture,” Horowitz says.
The “fraternity” was aghast at Drudge’s rise. CBS’s Face the Nation refused to sully itself by having Drudge on air. When NBC did extend an invitation, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, scoffed: “The notion of a cyber gossip sitting on Meet the Press would have been unthinkable!” Drudge lapped up the opprobrium, trolling his critics with the comment: “I’m not a journalist, I’m a kangaroo.”
Despite the brickbats, Drudge rapidly attracted a large readership with his gregarious mix of aggregated Beltway and Hollywood gossip, news stories drawn from outlets spanning the political range, and headlines that were clickbait before the term had been coined. “There’s a new sex droid in town”, was one of his recent headlines.
Where readers flocked, news editors followed with tails between legs. A skim of the Drudge headlines became an essential start to any TV, press or radio editors’ day, helping to define what was shaping up to be the 24-hour news cycle. And with no legacy overheads and a lean staff, Drudge was soon raking in the money, the proceeds of which he enjoys today in his 10-acre property outside Miami where he moved in the wake of the Lewinsky furore.
While the readership has always leaned heavily male and conservative, his devoted fans include unexpected figures, such as feminist intellectual Camille Paglia. She was one of the first established voices to break ranks and endorse the site at a time when it was still being almost universally derided.
“I saw in Matt Drudge the triumph of the populist tabloids,” says Paglia. “It’s amazing how no one, in all these decades, has been able to imitate, displace, or supplant Drudge – because he is a true American original.”
Paglia is right: it is amazing that the Drudge Report continues to enjoy the influence it does. The point-size of its banner headline has crept up a bit, but otherwise the layout of the site is virtually unchanged from the original design, as though it were stuck in time.
According to analytics company comScore, the Drudge Report had 2.5 million unique visitors in November. That reach is amplified when you consider the strong engagement of readers who tend to return frequently, producing a total 292m page views that month.
While the Drudge Report is a rightwing site true to the libertarian, small government, anti-abortion, climate change-denying world view of its creator, its impact is felt much more widely. When the Guardian – not a natural Drudge ally – broke the story of Steve Bannon’s incendiary remarks in Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury this month, fully a quarter of the vast traffic it generated came through Drudge.
Over the past 20 years, the rightwing megaphone has grown far more sophisticated. Savage Nation (1994), Fox News (1996), InfoWars (1999) and Breitbart (2005) – which was started by Drudge’s first assistant, Andrew Breitbart – have all matured in line with the Drudge Report (1995). But instead of threatening his supremacy, they have provided political ballast to his idiosyncrasies.
Drudge is “the wellspring for the conservative media ecosystem”, wrote the Republican strategist Rick Wilson in the Daily Beast.
The threat to the Drudge Report has come, paradoxically, not so much from rightwing competitors but from the very source of his own success – individualised news born of the internet. When he sent out his first newsletter via email to friends, he issued a genuinely personal take on current affairs, an independent act of defiance that appealed to his libertarian values.
That act has spawned countless imitators, but instead of being truly individualised, they are corralled through the modern monoliths Facebook and Twitter. The development has left Drudge baffled and bemused, judging from recent remarks of this increasingly reclusive man.
In October 2015, Drudge, who now rarely allows himself to be seen or heard in public and who did not respond to a Guardian request for interview, turned up unexpectedly in the Austin, Texas studios of Alex Jones’s InfoWars. He remained unseen and behind camera, but did speak passionately for several minutes.
“Twenty years. I’ve had a hell of a run,” Drudge said to Jones from the shadows, clearly feeling nostalgic. Then he got down to business.
“I don’t do the socials,” he said with a telling linguistic awkwardness. “I’m not on Facebook. I’ve got the Twitter thing, but even that’s disgusting.”
The shift has been stealthy but seismic. The Drudge Report’s legendary ability to dictate the news cycle has been stolen by Twitter, where editors – instead of having to rely on Drudge’s judgment – can exercise their own. “You used to see something go up on Drudge and hear it on cable news an hour later – now it’s all moved over to the Twittersphere,” Wilson says.
That trend was temporarily abated during 2016 when the site enjoyed a revival as cheerleader-in-chief for Donald Trump. As Politico put it, Drudge went “all in on Trump”. He reserved his banner headlines for Trump-friendly subjects such as immigration and trade, while running attack stories on contesting Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz. After Trump won his party’s nomination, Drudge provided the same service in the general election, mocking Hillary Clinton as a “brain in a jar” and accusing the rest of the media of covering-up her hypothyroidism.
Much as a Trump victory was palpably desired by Drudge, you have to wonder whether he will come to regret the outcome, in the manner of Frankenstein and his monster.