This essay was originally published at Electronic Newsstand in 1997.
The Drudge Retort
Matt Drudge, singing and dancing, trading staccato one-liners with, say, Cameron Diaz, in a remake of Wake Up and Live, Walter Winchell's 1937 box office bonanza? Sure, why not? The man behind the Internet's most successful scandal sheet - the loose-lipped, fast-quipping, Drudge Report - is on a roll these days. After recent coverage from Time, Newsweek, and People, amongst others, anything seems possible for the 30-year-old Drudge, a self-styled throwback to gossip's glory days who appeared out of nowhere in 1995 and soon began scooping journalists everywhere with his self-published, "word-of-mouse" mix of Hollywood hearsay and political spintrigue.
But while the pallid provocateur certainly enjoys the limelight, if not the L.A. sunshine he hides out from in his Hollywood apartment, talk of his celluloid future is premature. At the moment, Drudge's goals are slightly more modest; he simply dreams of one million Drudge Report readers. Which is approximately 940,000 more than he currently has, but he's only been at it for a little over two years now. Even his hero Winchell, who at the height of his popularity claimed 50 million followers, didn't start out that quickly. Indeed, it took him five years of writing for vaudeville trade journals before he even reached a general audience.
Drudge, on the other hand, is moving rapidly up the media food chain. Whereas he once relied mostly on newspapers, magazines, and TV news for his material, the vast network of touts, whistleblowers, and nosy janitors who now send him over a thousand emails a day help him break original stories on a regular basis - he was the first to name Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's running mate, the first to announce Connie Chung's departure from CBS, the first with Seinfeld's million dollar contract. As a consequence, his column has become a frequent source for stories in mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Times.
But with the higher profile comes higher expectations. The earliest news stories on Drudge generally cast him as a harmless new media curiosity, a blabbermouth and his modem, feverishly channeling Winchell in a '90s approximation of the Stork Club: his own cluttered living room, equipped with 3 TVs, three computers, a police scanner, a radio, and one of the most-used telephones in L.A., which, of course, is no small feat in a city renown for its telephone usage. Recent Drudge profiles have taken on a scolding tone, however. Howard Kurtz, writing for the Washington Post, noted Drudge's lack of journalistic training and experience and his cavalier attitude regarding the accuracy of the items he publishes. On Entertainment Tonight, Drudge appeared amidst footage about the unreliability of Internet-distributed information; when he suggested with debonair surliness that he was ready and waiting to publish whatever dirty secrets his network of whisperers might bring to him, the show's host responded with facial expression number three in her repertoire: shocked distaste.
Drudge thrives on such reactions; he knows that he embodies all the old media fears about the Internet, and he knows that such fear equates to coverage. In every interview he does, Drudge goes out of his way to emphasize his lack of credentials - he's untrained and unregulated, he crows, with a resume that would seem more likely to get him a nametag at McDonald's than a press pass: 325th out of 350 in his high school class, a D average, no college degree. His last full-time job was as the manager of the CBS gift shop; he's a poor speller whose prose clunks awkwardly from sentence to sentence with little assistance from Strunk & White. But the contrivance of this sadsack litany is obvious - it doesn't encompass any of Drudge's considerable savvy or his palpable ambition. Are we really supposed to believe that the man who dreams of marrying ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses was really just hanging out all those years between high school and the advent of the Drudge Report, satisfied with selling Murphy Brown baseball caps to sunburned Studio City tourists?
The press prefers overnight sensations to diligent strivers, however, and Drudge knows enough about spin to twist his story in the right direction. His success, he often implies, just sort of happened - there wasn't much forethought to it, nor did he have any great aspirations for his enterprise. And yet, in the UseNet newsgroups, where Drudge got his online start, of all the pop culture junkies obsessively chain-posting to rec.arts.tv and rec.arts.movies, only he had the prescient audacity to dateline his contributions and elevate their status to official-sounding "reports." Even when he was a nobody, he had a well-honed knack for sounding like a Somebody…
Most of all, however, Drudge has a talent for making his pronouncements, media regurgitations, and acerbic annotations sound like NEWS. The all-caps urgency of his missives may be somewhat hokey, and the distinctions between his FINALS, BREAKS, FLASHES, CODE REDS, BULLETS, EXTRAS, and SNEAKS are not always apparent, but the underlying message is clear: here's the stuff you want to know now! And while his prose style often seems closer to the clumsy hyperbole of a make-money-fast spam than it does to the crisper, more verbally inventive declarations of Winchell, Drudge's tone perfectly captures the mood of the Net. He's conspiratorial, conversational, irreverent, and obsessively in the know, a wry, sometimes-cynical, sometimes-sentimental insider spinning superficial stories not when some corporate, big media programming schedule demands it, but rather, "when circumstances warrant."
The Drudge Report is just-in-time media for the restless, bulletin-bored, Internet masses, and if it's not always accurate, well, so what? Or is that really what Drudge believes? Drudge likes to play fast and loose with the fact that he plays fast and lose with the facts: he admitted to Kurtz that he often runs dubious material that eventually "blows up in [his] face"; he boasted to Joshua Quittner of Time that his accuracy rate was a less-than-boastful 80%. Old media gatekeepers, fearful of losing their power to untrained, wired barbarians, lap this stuff up and Drudge knows it. In addition, he understands that in an age of newzak, where the stories never stop and readers are more interested in provocation that probability, no one cares too much - or even notices - when bold declarations are eventually proven wrong. Corrections are quick and easy to make in a virtual medium; in fact, an error's just a way to generate more content.
Of more significance than Drudge's accuracy, however, is his relative freedom from editorial interference. Drudge asks his readers for a voluntary $10 annual subscription; enough of them pay it to keep him from getting too dependent on additional revenue sources. (Drudge does have syndication deals with Wired News and AOL.) With an audience of 60,000 and no advertisers, corporate conglomerates, or even editors to influence him, Drudge is a rarity in today's incestuous mediascape - an independent journalist of consequence. As such, he delights in pointing out the manipulations that the media monopolists perpetrate. Questioning the propriety of CNN's tendency toward silver screen cameos, chastising Time-Warner for its practice of using its news properties to promote its entertainment properties, Drudge is already a thorn in the side of such companies - and what if his audience does indeed grow to a million? Maybe that movie deal will come sooner than expected - best to get in him into the fold before he can do too much damage.
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