It's been a noteworthy springtime for news here in my hometown of Philadelphia -- a mayoral election, a fast start for the Phillies while the Flyers imploded in the NHL playoffs, the gruesome murder of a 9-year-old girl. Yet through all of this, there has been one story that has remained the long-term No. 1 most read story on Philly.com, the website of the Inquirer and Daily News. The headline: "City's black residents now top all groups."
There's no doubt that Philadelphia readers have long taken an interest in racial matters, but that's not the main reason the article drew so much traffic online. It was largely because the story got a coveted and prominent link from the Drudge Report, the once-pioneering news website that remains a major driver of Internet news traffic despite rapidly evolving ways that people consume news on the Web.
Actually, the story about Philadelphia's black population was just one of a number of outstanding stories in both the Inquirer and the Daily News using the new Census data showing how key neighborhoods have changed over time -- but none of those other stories seemed to intrigue online news impresario Matt Drudge. Conversely, it might not be clear to some why Drudge's global audience would care all that much about what feels like a local story for readers in one large U.S. city. Not clear unless you understand the Drudge formula of recent years -- appealing heavily to one political class, a segment that is terrified about social change and race and the idea that in a generation or two whites will be an American minority, as they have already become within the city of Philadelphia.
Drudge has been in the spotlight for what seems like an eternity in cyber-years, ever since early 1998 when a lot of us were just starting to use the Internet and his site “broke” (it really depends on what your definition of the word “broke” is) the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. But with the 2012 campaign dawning, he's been getting a new spate of publicity -- first for hiring conservative journalists (although what they do there is still unclear) and then for a report by Pew that suggests that Drudge is still a huge driver of Web traffic to other news sites, bigger than trendier and newer sites like Facebook.
That in turn inspired a piece in yesterday's New York Times by their popular (especially on Twitter) media columnist David Carr, headlined "How Drudge Has Stayed on Top." To Carr, the answer is a mix of Drudge's incredible news instincts, the simplicity of his scheme (a clean layout, simple links to other stories as opposed to the Russian-nesting-doll technique that many news sites use to keep you from leaving and to increase their pageviews), and Drudge's popularity with influential producers, editors, etc. To attest to Drudge's brilliance, Carr even trots out his former website cohort Andrew Breitbart -- without mentioning how Breitbart destroyed his own credibility on any subject by deliberately smearing USDA official Shirley Sherrod (over race, of course) and by hyping the ethically challenged videos of right-wing attack dog James O'Keefe.
Carr even breezily dismisses what should be a central issue here: Drudge's right-wing world view. He writes:
Yes, Mr. Drudge is a conservative ideologue whose site also serves as a crib sheet for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. But if you believe that his huge traffic numbers are a byproduct of an ideologically motivated readership, consider that 15 percent of the traffic at WashingtonPost.com, which is not exactly a hotbed of Tea Party foment, comes from The Drudge Report.
The point here isn't to take down David Carr; I'm a fan of most of his work and will continue to be. But even good writers miss the boat sometimes, and here Carr is still standing on the dock while the S.S. Drudge is several miles out to sea.
Narrowly, let's look at the point about Drudge and traffic to the Washington Post, and let's put aside the fact that the Post itself came out today and said it's overstated. Carr knows that on the Drudge Report, readers click on provocative headlines without knowing where they're going, so why wouldn't conservatives click on a link to the “liberal” Washington Post when they have no clue that's the publication. (Also, the Washington Post isn't even liberal, but we'll deal with that some other day.) Anyway, that anecdote does nothing to dismiss that Drudge's main appeal these days is to the right.
But more importantly, I think Carr gets it wrong on the big picture -- that is, I think exactly that “his huge traffic numbers” -- which some are disputing -- “are a byproduct of an ideological motivated readership.” It wasn't always 100 percent that way. In the early days of the Internet, Drudge's conservative ideology -- while a factor, no doubt, in his pimping of Clinton sex scandals -- was less important than his skill at doing what stuck-up traditional news sites didn't do, which was playing up all the “Holy (Bleep)!” headlines and ignoring the boring-but-you-need-to-know-this stock-in-trade of the 1990s newspaper.
But in recent years other news aggregators have come along -- the popular Huffington Post is Exhibit A -- and so in order to “stay on top,” as Carr headlines it, Drudge has refined his editorial skills, and what he does best now is cleverly promote stories that dovetail with the right-wing media barricade erected by his pal Rush Limbaugh, other radio talkers, the Fox News Channel that went from 0 to 60 during the Drudge years, and nascent political groups like the Tea Party or Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project (all of whom keep Drudge's traffic high by talking up what they read there.)
A five-minute spin through the Drudge Report these days is a paranoid journey through a world where Michelle Obama is always downing junk food on the same day she talk against obesity, where Al Gore is always fat, where conferences on global warming are always cancelled by blizzards, and where most of his conservative readers think the name of the Homeland Security secretary isn't “Janet Napolitano” but “Big Sis.” Of all those things, the non-stop hectoring of the First Lady is most emblematic of what Drudge has become since the moment in 2008 when it dawned on people that America was electing a president with Clinton's center-left politics who happened to be black. Since then, Drudge has failed to miss an opportunity to not only remind his readers of the president's skin color but to link Barack or Michelle Obama to rap artists or to crimes committed by black perps in his hometown now called “Chicagoland,” to to using his talent in jumbling links to intersperse stories about bad poll numbers for the president or going after the President's bid to bring the OIympics to the U.S. by hyping random murders in Chicago's inner city.
Matt Drudge “staying on top” means taking small local police blotter items and making them into a national cause celebre because it involves black-on-white crime. To me, “the secret of Drudge's success” is wrapped up in his layout on Sept. 15, 2009, a day that he and Limbaugh played an ugly game of tag team over a fight involving black and white kids on a Belleville, Ill., school bus, which wasn't really that big a deal (cops briefly said it was racial, then said it wasn't) but became the lead story on Drudge and was instantly picked up by El Rushbo as somehow emblematic of “Obama's America,” before he asking his listeners if “Obama's brother still lives in a hut in Kenya" (no, seriously, he tied that all together.)
That day, I looked at the Drudge formula in the Obama era:
No matter -- let's not let history interfere with Drudge's “Blacks Gone Wild” narrative for the day, his layout of stories and photos that might seem willy-nilly but in fact usually has all the deliberate care of a $10,000 wedding planner. Thus, right below the screen shot of punching black students, we see the headline "POLITICO: So far, Obama's failing miserably," which is in fact an opinion piece, which it would have to be since the actual news of the day (not linked on Drudge) is that the president's approval rating is climbing again. But as you ponder Obama's alleged failure, it is the photo of rampaging young blacks that you see.
On the left. we have medley that includes a campus rape(the suspects are black), mixed in with a story about a principal in trouble for not showing Obama's speech, leading up to a photoof a black man, Kanye West, disrespecting a white woman, Taylor Swift, brought full circle by Obama again calling West "a jackass" (which he in fact was...).
Drift back to the center for a series of increasingly hysterical headlines about the ACORN scandal, which involves a few rotten employees of a community organizing group (Obama was a community organizer, remember?) caught giving tax-cheating scam advice -- did I mention the ACORN workers were predominantly black? Do you remember all the fuss in the right-wing media about million-dollar white collar tax-cheating advice-givers at banks like UBS? Me neither.) Clearly, today's Drudge Report is a narrative, and that narrative is all about race, and a social fabric that Drudge and his readers are convinced (based, of course, on a series of scare headlines) is coming apart.
The Drudge narrative is one I would become very familiar with over the next year, as I crossed the country for Tea Party events and rallies to report my book The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. It was a storyline etched in fear that whites and Christians were fast becoming a minority in the United States, coinciding with our eclipse by China and other rivals as a world power. But on its gut level it was a story about The Other, about how Muslim terrorists, undocumented immigrants and the first black president with the funny name and the bogus questions about his birth certificate were all one in the same. It was a story that nobody told better, and with more pizazz, than the fedora-topped Matt Drudge.
And so there would be further outrages, like the time that Drudge headlined his report “Obama Goes Street” or his typical hectoring of Al Gore after a blizzard or just the other day when he inexplicably tied a story about the killing of Osama bin Laden to a picture of President Obama wearing Somali garb on a trip to Africa, or the increasing number of links to conspiracy whack jobs like 9-11 “truther” Alex Jones. You can find that kind of stuff on his site anytime. Yesterday's the swearing in of Rahm Emanuel as Chicago mayor was billed for some reason as “Godfather Sworn.” All of this makes Matt Drudge a great spinner of a story and that's what keeps him “on top.” It's not clear, though, whether it can still fairly be called a news site.
Nor is it clear whether Drudge's indisputable role in driving traffic to traditional news sites like the Washington Post or Philly.com is truly indicative of vast influence. Indeed, there's evidence that Drudge's audience comes back a lot and clicks on a lot of links, but isn't really all that diverse. In other words, it may just be Limbaugh dittoheads and assorted Tes Party types trapped in the right-wing media bubble.
Unique vistors, the sign of a broad audience for Drudge, aren't really there:
For additional perspective, Drudge's 1,612,000 unique visitors for April leaves him off the list of top 25 news sites. Drudge Report would place around 40th in the list of top news sites, well below FoxNews.com with its 24,020,000 uniques and below TheBlaze.com, with its 2,034,000 uniques.
We should by all means talk about Matt Drudge, but we need to be honest about who he is, who he influences and how -- and that is a far uglier picture that the one that New York Times readers got yesterday. Of all the exaggerated, half-bogus story lines that have been spun on the Drudge Report, none have been more successful or more enduring than the legend of Matt Drudge himself.