By Stump Connolly

The bloom is off the rose, if ever there was one. The Drudge Report–– started by the garbage-sniffing Matt Drudge and made famous by its revelation of a semen stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress––celebrates its 17th year on the Internet this year with the claim it has one billion page views a month. But enough is enough.

Drudge’s aggregation of headlines from around the world –– “Zombie Bees Invade Seattle” –– has outlived its fun factor. Its encyclopedic reach to obscure news sources has spawned more reliable imitators, and its coverage of the presidential campaign this year has been the most malicious, insidious and misleading of anything available on the Internet.

This would not be an issue if The Drudge Report were not so widely read. There are any number of malicious, insidious and misleading sites you can go to on the Internet, but the latest eBiz rating of political site viewers shows that Matt Drudge’s little ego trip still attracts 14 million unique visitors a month. That places it second in the politics category behind The Huffington Post (54 million, aided by its AOL affiliation) and well ahead of third place Politico (5 million). But does it serve any useful purpose?

New media coverage of the campaign has shifted dramatically in just the last four years. The mainstream media––notably The Washington Post and New York Times––have moved into the digital space so thoroughly no one still disparagingly defines it as “The Blogosphere.” A solid TweetDeck of political reporters is a better guide to the political landscape than the old aggregator sites. It can even be argued that the social network created on Twitter by reporters, political operatives and the candidates themselves is so dominant it chews up and spits out breaking news stories before they hit the Evening News, much less the front page of the next day’s newspapers.

Cute But Irrelevant

In this environment, Drudge is an anachronism. Drudge came to journalism through a grab bag of odd jobs that included being a counterman at 7-11, telemarketer for Time-Life Books, McDonald’s manager, and, at the age of 24, manager of the gift shop at CBS studios in Los Angeles. In that capacity, he showed a rare propensity for collecting gossip, scooping ratings out of trash cans, and posting up both on a Usenet site and in an email to friends he called The Drudge Report.

By 1997, his email list had 85,000 subscribers and The Drudge Report migrated over to the Internet. His first big political scoop was that Jack Kemp would be Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996; his second, the 1998 revelation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that took his readership from a couple hundred thousand to a couple million a month.

Drudge’s image is shaped around a fedora-topped muckracker who drove around Los Angeles in a Chevrolet Geo churning out “exclusives” with his ever present assistant Bret Breitbart, a conservative ideologue who gave the Drudge Report a decidedly conservative bent. Those days are long gone. Breitbart left Drudge (amiably) in 2005 to start his own political site––he was the first to publish the story that Rep. Antony Weiner was sending naked pictures of himself to other women––and was a fixture on the Tea Party circuit until last March when he died suddenly of a heart attack while walking his dog.

Drudge, meanwhile, moved his operation to a $1 million condominium high atop the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami where, surrounded by a bank of TV’s and only a few assistants, he practices the puppetry of determining the news of the day. The quality of his own reportage has always been suspect. Keith Oberman called him “an idiot with a modem” and Frank Rich early on dubbed him “the devil of journalism incarnate.” But when Drudge was the only game in town, legitimate newspaper editors welcomed a link from his homepage. A mention in The Drudge Report could drive hundreds of thousands of visitors to a story.

Diminished Impact

Drudge’s impact on politics is sharply diminished this year. One reason is the abundance of competing and more well-financed political sites; another is that his penchant for skewing The Drudge Report to his pet causes is catching up with him.

Two recent examples:

The first was a photo of President Obama with a pirate in the Oval Office accompanying the headline: BUT NO TIME FOR NETANYAHU. The headline linked to a story about the President not meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister at the UN general assembly this week, but the picture––far from being current––was a gag photo Obama’s staff shot on “Talk Like a Pirate Day” in 2009 for a spoof video at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The second example came only a few days ago when Politico released a poll showing President Obama is beating Mitt Romney 50-47 among likely voters. What was the Drudge headline? “Obama down 14 percent among middle class.”

The Politico poll tracked with nearly all the major polls out this week. (Real Clear Politics average of all polls shows a 4-point Obama lead.) In an effort to dig deeper into the numbers, however, Politico asked Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas to analyze the findings. Goeas found a small silver-lining for Romney in the results, arguing that Romney seems to be holding his own with middle-class voters, even if Democrats have won the messaging war.  Overall, the race is tied at 48 percent among those who describe themselves as part of the middle class — which is three in four voters, Goeas said. But Romney leads by 14 percent among ‘middle-class families,’ defined as “households with either a married couple and/or kids still at home.”

In Drudge’s headline version of the poll, however, the Obama lead over all didn’t matter, the 48-48 split among people describing themselves as middle class didn’t matter. Somehow, the only salient fact Drudge could find in the poll was Romney’s 14 percent point lead among ‘middle class families”–– a finding that couldn’t have been based on more than a few hundred respondents.

In the Tank for Romney

Drudge’s bias against the Obamas can be seen almost daily in unflattering photos, skewed poll numbers, dire economic predictions if he is re-elected, and inflated accounts of his missteps. That’s nothing new, but the vituperation was enough this summer to prompt HBO’s Bill Maher and Joan Walsh of Salon, speaking on MSNBC, to complain it borders on racism.

Yesterday’s Drudge Report makes Drudge’s biases abundantly clear. Just look at the headlines:

“Solution to Michelle Obama’s new school lunch menu: SNACK!”

“Sebelius to hit campaign trail again – after breaking election law . . .”

“Romney pays tax rate ‘higher than what 97% of Americans pay’ . . .”

“Banks scrapping free checking accounts due to govt. regs . . .”

“MOSCOW TIMES: Why Putin wants Obama to win . . .”

“FED “Virtually Funding the Entire US Debt . . .”

That’s not journalism. That’s propaganda. But Obama is not the only ones suffering from Drudge’s skewed perspective.

For more than a year now, Drudge has been using his site to quash any candidate not named Romney, and reporters widely believe this is based on his long standing friendship with Matt Rhodes, Romney’s campaign manager. This became apparent just hours after Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary. Drudge unleashed a barrage of disparaging stories against Gingrich until he was safely out of the picture, then turned his wrath on the hapless Rick Santorum as soon as he emerged as the next Romney threat.

Rhodes’ influence on Drudge was apparent again as late as last week when, in the middle of the brouhaha over a clandestined Romney video recorded at a Florida fundraiser, Drudge posted up an audio excerpt from a symposium at Loyola University in 1998 where Obama allegedly revealed his “redistributionist” tendencies. The audio clip had all the earmarks of an over-active oppositional research team, especially when a fuller transcript showed Obama saying income redistribution was only a part of a larger competitive strategy to build the middle class. Drudge’s post, nonetheless, instantly drew 2.4 million listeners.

The Coarsening of Politics

Make no mistake about it. The influence of The Drudge Report is not as great as Matt Drudge would have you believe. It is also not as great as he wants it to be. It is worth noting, however, that the rise of The Drudge Report coincides closely with the coarsening of American politics over the last decade. In many ways, the Internet this year has produced a resurgence of responsible political reporting: fact-checking websites, links to transcripts of major speeches, mainstream columnists tweeting out their latest opinions, even the candidate slip-ups captured on ubiquitous camcorders add a valuable dimension to the political dialog. At the same time, Drudge has battled to take the coverage in another direction. He caters to his right wing followers with right wing facts, and taunts his left wing targets with combative headlines.

I will be surprised if The Drudge Report is still around four years from now when the next presidential race rolls around. No matter who wins the presidency this year, the problems facing the country are too great, and the need to come together around solutions too imperative, to give credence to the kind of journalism Drudge practices. He’s made his mark on American journalism–Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006–and it’s a black mark on a profession I know and love.

We’ll never be able to erase that smudge. But we can let it go. It’s time now for Matt Drudge to bug off.

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