If you turn on a computer and open the web browser within a 50 mile radius of Capitol Hill, there’s a pretty decent chance that the first page that pops up on the screen is DrudgeReport, Matt Drudge’s news aggregation powerhouse. Drudge, a reclusive journalist who pores over hundreds of news sources to cull the most interesting and salacious from the world of politics and beyond, essentially has 100% discretion over which headlines are featured on his site. And with upward 150,000 visits a day, that makes Drudge pretty powerful.
The impact of the DrudgeReport in the political world can not be underestimated. Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said, “Whenever Drudge breaks a story, phones start ringing.” And it’s true: a story isn’t a story until Matt Drudge covers it. Accordingly, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006. In his book The Way to Win, Mark Halperin- one of the nation’s most prominent political strategists- called Drudge, “the Walter Cronkite of his era.”
Drudge makes no pretenses about his own political leanings: he’s conservative, and he lets his site show his ideological slant. Fortune magazine editor Richard Siklos called Drudge, “a conservative bullhorn.” Nonetheless, his site has become a frequent stop for those on the left as well on the right, not only because of Drudge’s influence, but also because of his uncanny ability to remain at the forefront of breaking news.
But there is a difference between slanting news (a la Huffington Post, where a reader is fully aware that the news he or she receives is given from a liberal standpoint) and outright misleading your audience with ethically questionable tactics.
During the Democratic primary, Drudge frequently ran pro-Obama news stories at the top of his page. The reason, of course, was entirely his opponent: Hillary Rodham Clinton, effectively the most prominent conservative archenemy still in politics today. And through most of the general election campaign, Drudge has remained more or less fair (if not just slightly favorable to the GOP- he trumpeted the selection of Sarah Palin as the saving grace of the Republican ticket).
But in the last several weeks, Drudge has ratcheted up his conservative agenda, perhaps in response to John McCain’s dire straits in the 2008 presidential campaign. In the past 24 hours alone, Drudge had posted the following headlines:
1. “Ready for Comeback” beneath a photograph of a confident looking John McCain.
2. “McCain-Obama Gap Narrows” above two national tracking polls that showed Obama leading by five points.
3. “Obama goes door-to-door to drum up votes,” beneath a photograph of Obama kissing the cheek of a white woman.
To show just how blatant Drudge’s bias really is, take a look at these one by one. First of all, nothing in the past weeks has suggested a resurgence on the part of McCain. Last week, he got slaughtered in the second presidential debate (and while every major news network was pointing to the incredible disparity in the two debate performances, Drudge downplayed the entire event with a one-word headline beneath a photograph of the two candidates on the stage: “BORING”). In the meantime, his polling numbers have tanked, and states that have been among the most reliable Republican states in the Union- like South Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Virginia, and North Carolina- have shifted hard toward Obama. What was a bad electoral outlook two weeks ago is far worse today.
Secondly, Drudge’s selection of the “narrowing polls” is among the worst cherry-picking I’ve ever seen. In choosing the two polls he chose, he passed up several others that showed an overwhelmingly increasing trend in favor of the Democrat, including: (a) a Gallup poll showing an 8 point Obama lead; (b) an ABC News poll showing a 10 point Obama lead; (c) a Battleground poll showing an 8 point Obama lead; and (d) a Hotline poll showing a 6 point Obama lead. Beyond those, a five point buffer hardly suggests a “narrowing” gap- in fact, those numbers would be right within the national average over the past several weeks.
It’s the third example listed above that really raises eyebrows. Back in 2006, then-candidate for US Senate in Tennessee Bob Corker took a lot of heat for airing a commercial that ended with a plea from an attractive blonde white woman for Corker’s opponent, African American Congressman Harold Ford, to call her. Media and political analysts alike jumped on Corker immediately for the ad, which they said played on the racist tendencies of those who were still uncomfortable with the notion of interracial dating. It was labeled as “despicable,” even among independent viewers. Drudge was among the news outlets that covered the story. But Drudge himself became guilty of the same offense.
The picture Drudge featured on his site is no different. His photograph of Obama kissing the cheek of a blonde white woman will undoubtedly rouse some emotion in those same voters. Moreover, it was not the photograph used in the article linked below the picture. That means Drudge chose that picture himself. And especially at a time when McCain and Palin are being accused of stoking racial tensions as well, one has to ask: why that photo?
That’s not the first time Drudge has used implicit, almost subliminal, references to draw on deeply-held emotions, ostensibly to influence voters. In the past two weeks, Drudge made stories out of two pro-Obama YouTube videos. One was young children singing a song dedicated to Obama. Drudge linked to the video with a suggestive headline: “Obama Kids Sing for Dear Leader.” The “dear leader” part of that line is nowhere in the video. Drudge came up with that on his own. Two other historical figures have made use of the endearing title of “dear leader”: one is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The other is Benito Mussolini. The other video featured young African American teenagers wearing matching Obama shirts and army pants marching together, alternately announcing how Obama’s candidacy has inspired them. Drudge called them the “Obama Youth,” a reference to the “Hitler Youth” of 1930s Germany.
In the meantime, the one article unfavorable to Republicans received none of the star treatment the positive stories did. Early Saturday morning, Drudge posted the headline, “Report Stings Palin Over Troopergate,” in response to the harsh critique of Palin’s “abuse of power” to emerge from the State of Alaska’s investigation into the scandal. But far from the top-of-the-fold, bold/underlined/italicized headlines that seemed to offer bad news for the Obama camp, this one was buried on the left-hand side, about two-thirds of the way down the page. By 2:41 on Sunday morning, the story was completely erased from the site.
Then again, the website’s online advertising company estimates that more than 60% of Drudge’s visitors are self-identified Republicans. During the second presidential debate, an online Drudge poll of more than 10,000 viewers found that a whopping 75% of them thought that McCain had won- a full half hour before the debate had even ended.
Still, Matt Drudge is a smart guy. He doesn’t pick photos or headlines randomly. What he does, however, is not jounralism. It’s journalism with the explicit intent of forming, influencing, or modifying public perception- in a word, propaganda. And from the historical perspective of which Drudge seems to be so fond, that’s a skill both Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes perfected.