By Anneke Foster
It was midnight and Lucianne Goldberg was frustrated. She had proof the President of the United States had lied under oath, but no one would listen.
Until Matt Drudge called.
The next morning, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, not from news magazines or network stations but from a Radio Shack computer in the two-room, West-Hollywood apartment of a media underdog.
“At the last minute, Newsweek magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!” read the first paragraph on the Drudge Report. With a lead, namedrops and the word sex, Matthew Drudge began the biggest media frenzy of the decade.
It wasn’t a career-first for Drudge, but for many Internet followers, it was the first time Drudge became a pivotal figure in online news.
Having gained the respect and trust of insider sources, Drudge continued to break astonishing details in the Lewinsky story.
Goldberg, Linda Tripp’s book agent, had met with Michael Isikoff of Newsweek Magazine four months prior to the story breaking. Isikoff listened to the tapes of the exchanges between Tripp and Lewinsky and knew it was the kind of information that could bring down the President.
Newsweek sat on the story for four months before definitively deciding not to run it. “They were going to write about it and they didn’t, they got afraid,” Goldberg said in a phone interview from her home in New York.
Following the Drudge break, the mainstream media had to respond, even if they didn’t want to.
“I think it probably would have taken another week [for the story to come out] but it would have been a more controlled story. Controlled by the mainstream media. As it was with Drudge breaking it, we had control of the story because we wouldn’t talk to the mainstream media after that,” Goldberg says. And with that, the mainstream media was effectively cut out of the deal and would spend the next eight months catching up.
Everyday Drudge released a steady stream of further details, naming the young intern, disclosing the existence of a semen-stained dress and tapes of recorded confessions. In plain black font and asterisks to indicate importance, Drudge uninhibitedly reported the most sensitive news of the day. Drudge had newfound fame, empowered sources and the beginning of a new precedent in online reporting. All from a man whose most prestigious job up to that point was managing a CBS News gift shop.
It was more out of fear than hope that Robert Drudge bought his son his first computer in 1994. Matthew had graduated from high school ten years earlier 341st out of 355 students and hadn’t done much since. Drudge worked unglamorous jobs in the Washington, D.C. area at McDonalds, 7-11 and a grocery store before moving to Hollywood in 1989 and starting a retail job at CBS. Five years later, the Packard-Bell computer arrived as a gift and unleashed in Drudge the beginnings of a powerful era.
As the gift shop manager, Drudge quietly observed the gossipy world of journalists. He listened discreetly to their stories and, unbeknownst to them, started writing them down.
Simultaneously, the Internet was born and people like Andrew Breitbart were discovering the limitless bounds of another universe.
For years, Breitbart and Drudge had lived in a world of waywardness. Listening to the nihilistic indulgences of Kurt Cobain and others, Breitbart was beginning to feel hopeless. He had resigned himself to misery in the professional world and assumed that all of humanity felt the same listlessness and dread that he experienced 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Until five megabytes of space on the World Wide Web convinced him otherwise.
In its debut, the Drudge Report was very similar to its current form, with the exception of location. Drudge distributed most of his content through an email list to family and friends and on various external-hosting sites. In 1994, Breitbart happened upon Drudge and was hooked.
“He was just such a unique voice as I was just getting used to the online environment myself- to find somebody who was writing about this cross-section of political, entertainment from a behind-the-scenes business standpoint- that intrigued me. That there was this independent guy out there that was seeing things somewhat similarly to the way I was seeing things — seeing that the entertainment news nexus was fundamentally corrupt,” Breitbart says.
Breitbart emailed Drudge and within the minute, heard back. Four years later, Breitbart was happily employed and Drudge had an assistant.
On June 2, 1998, Matthew Drudge delivered a speech before the powerful journalism elites at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.. For Drudge, it was the ultimate high school reunion. Returning to his roots to face the very industry that had laughed in his feeble face a decade earlier, now armed with the control so many of them craved.
When the President of the National Press Club Doug Harbrecht stood to deliver his scornful introduction, Drudge was already miles ahead of him- already anticipating his questions, already plotting answers that would prove he knew far more than his interviewer ever expected. Matt Drudge, just like his site, was already anticipating what was coming next.
“So, Matt, know this: You may be, as the New York Times recently dubbed you, the nation’s reigning mischief-maker; you may get it first sometimes, you may even get it right sometimes, your story of success is certainly compelling. But there aren’t many in this hollowed room who consider you a journalist. Real journalists live, pride themselves on getting it first AND right; they get to the bottom of the story, they bend over backwards to get the other side. Journalism means being painstakingly thorough, even-handed, and fair. Now, in the interests of good journalism, let’s hear Matt Drudge’s side of the story. Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Drudge.”
Any other person might have left then. Refusing to give precious time to such narrow-mindedness. Not Drudge. He stood to applause and comically responded, “Applause for Matt Drudge in Washington at the Press Club? Now there’s a scandal.” The poise with which he delivered his opening statement continued throughout the remainder of his speech and the subsequent questioning by Harbrecht.
Drudge spoke of meandering through prominent Washington streets, gazing up longingly at the ABC studios and the Washington Post newsroom. He knew he would never belong there and now, standing before the giants of the industry he was supposedly tainting, belonging didn’t seem to matter anymore.
In the year since he had published the Lewinsky scandal, Drudge had learned the dark secrets of the journalism elites: the White House Deputy Press Secretary that threatened Susan Estrich, a liberal journalist who had written a favorable article on Drudge, the First Lady who was attempting to stop the spread of the Internet for fear of a world without aligned editors who would censor harmful information, the “free” press that protected and catered to their political compatriots. Suddenly the vast buildings and the prestigious newsrooms were nothing more than thick walls that Drudge was slowly breaking down.
Years after megabytes were replaced with gigabytes and the Internet became a staple instead of an accessory, the Drudge Report’s influence was still gaining powerful momentum.
In August 2006, Senator Joe Lieberman’s server crashed when the Drudge Report linked to it during the Connecticut Senate Primary. The last major server collapse due to high-traffic numbers was on Sept. 11, 2001. Drudge had an undeniable following and the Doug Harbrecht’s of the media were no longer sneering. They were terrified.
Like many members of the mainstream press, Joel Sappell, former online editor for the Los Angeles Times, began following the Drudge Report during the Lewinsky scandal and quickly realized old media was losing ground. Sources were disillusioned, the public was frustrated and suddenly, seemingly without knowing it, Drudge had been dealt the upper hand.
“I think Drudge’s real impact on the media is in two places, in the traffic he generates for individual websites and his ability to drive a news agenda on any particular day. He can drive a story’s visibility,” Sappell says. And while the L.A. Times may not write stories with Drudge in mind, it won’t hesitate to forward him an interesting story in hopes of getting that powerful link.
As Drudge developed, his numbers continued to increase. He became not just an alternative to the mainstream press, but a tool for juxtaposing news stories and highlighting inaccuracies journalism ‘professionals’ are certain don’t exist.
“If you looked at the Drudge Report and saw what it was, it was what it was, but if you only saw the Drudge report through the way that the press characterized it, you’d think it was something completely different. Once that engine [The Clintons] stopped, you had an entire media infrastructure that was book-marking it and using it as its homepage,” Breitbart says.
Things had changed for the Drudge Report but very little had changed for Matt Drudge. He had moved to a Miami high-rise and may have even upgraded his equipment, but aside from that, the Drudge Report was still a one-man show with an assistant in California, who presumably allowed Drudge time to sleep.
“He doesn’t have a boss. He’s totally a cowboy. He’s the lone-ranger. He can do what he wants to do as long as he doesn’t say something libelous. He got into that little scrape with Sidney Blumenthal, but I think he learned a good lesson from that,” Goldberg says.
That ‘little scrape’ was a $30 million lawsuit in which one of President Clinton’s top aids, Sidney Blumenthal, sued Drudge for publishing a report that he beat his wife. The 1997 suit enraged the White House and numerous mainstream journalists who didn’t believe in press freedom that could harm powerful people.
“Drudge isn’t a reporter. He’s your next-door neighbor gossiping over the electronic fence,” Joan Konner, head of the Columbia School of Journalism told the Christian Science Monitor.
And yet, he was being sued like one. When he refused to name his sources, Blumenthal held him to the same standards of a professional journalist, the very standards Drudge was tirelessly trying to defy.
Matt Drudge was single-handedly liberating news from ‘standards’ that attempted to censor and codes of ethics that were codes for control. Simultaneously, billions of people caught on.
On May 1, 2001, Blumenthal dropped the charges and agreed to pay legal fees to Drudge’s attorneys.
“It was a Clinton-approved lawsuit, which was filed by Clinton’s right-hand man, being heard before a Clinton-appointed judge. But all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t bring the Drudge Report to an untimely end!” Drudge declared on his site.
Still, some reporters are not convinced of Drudge’s purpose.
“How much is he really doing? He’s really not producing much content himself, maybe in the way he writes a headline or the stories he selects, but he’s still reliant on the work of others. He can only be as good as the sources that he taps,” says Sappell.
The real question is: how good is the press without Matt Drudge?
“I was walking the streets of Washington, the streets I grew up in, last night,” says Drudge. “I found myself in front of the Washington Post building again, looking up, this time not longingly. This time I laughed. Let the future begin.”