- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2019

From the airwaves of Fox News to talk radio to the right-wing blogosphere, conservative voices across the nation are asking: What happened to Matt Drudge?

No right-tilting media outlet wields more influence than the Drudge Report, the widely read news-aggregation site launched in 1996. But those who follow the site closely say a sudden anti-Trump pivot is unmistakeable.

“Lately he has been absolutely terrible toward President Trump,” said conservative podcaster Josh Bernstein in a Nov. 8 show, dubbing the site “the Sludge Report.”

Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft pleaded, “Dear Matt Drudge — Please come home,” while Fox’s Jesse Watters took notice of a series of anti-Trump headlines, saying, “it just seems like the website has recently played up Trump gaffes and downplayed his successes.”

And they’re not wrong, according to B.J. Rudell, associate director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, who pinpoints the U-turn to the first week of August.

“There is a deliberateness to this, in my opinion,” said Mr. Rudell, a longtime Drudge-watcher. “It’s been happening for over 100 days straight. There’s no sign of it changing, and so the question then becomes for me, why?”

Reading the Drudge tea leaves is more art than science, given the fedora-wearing media mogul’s notorious reclusiveness, but several observers have made the point that Mr. Drudge isn’t just about promoting a conservative agenda. He also wants to lead the news cycle.

A source who asked not to be identified described it this way: “Drudge needs conflict to thrive.”

“Drudge does appear to have turned on Trump, but remember, first and foremost, he’s an entertainer, like Sean Hannity or Alex Jones,” the source said. “There’s an old saying in the news business: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Matt lives for conflict — his site depends on it. Sometimes, just for fun, he’ll make the conflict himself.”

That analysis appeared to support comments made by Fox’s Howard Kurtz and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who’s friendly with Mr. Drudge. During his Aug. 22 show, Mr. Limbaugh attributed any change of tone to a desire to mix things up.

“My email inbox [says] every day, “What’s happening to Drudge, Rush? What’s going on with Drudge?’” Mr. Limbaugh said. “And I tell people, ‘Have you ever heard of clicks?’ Matt Drudge has always, has always sought to have his page be unpredictable and not uniform.”

On “Watters World,” Mr. Kurtz said that “people on the right who think that he is only going to be a cheerleader for the president don’t quite understand how he sees his mission.”

“Look, I have covered Matt Drudge since he was an unknown blogger, and at this point in his career, he’s primary interested in clicks and riding the media wave, and the media wave you may have noticed, Jesse, has been largely anti-Trump, really for a long time,” Mr. Kurtz said on the Nov. 9 show.

‘Drudge hasn’t changed’

This isn’t the first time prominent conservatives have taken issue with the Drudge Report. During the 2016 presidential primary campaign, PolitiChicks’ Brooke McGowan said she was “sick and tired of Drudge” — because he was too pro-Trump.

Certainly no Republican wants to lose Drudge’s support. The website garners about 25 million visits per day, challenging legacy media like the New York Times, although Mr. Rudell said the Drudge Report’s anti-Trump tone hasn’t transferred to other conservatives.

“If you look at the page, outside of Trump, there is a strong conservative bent,” Mr. Rudell said. “Anything about Trump, he hits really hard, but he doesn’t hit other conservatives hard.”

Another theory is that Mr. Drudge simply can’t resist fueling the impeachment narrative, given that he rose to prominence during the 1998 Clinton impeachment. But Mr. Rudell said the shift came the weekend of Aug. 3-4, before the start of the House Democrats’ inquiry.

The biggest stories of that weekend were the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, which may or may not have had anything to do with the website’s change in tenor.

“I realized in August he had not posted anything positive about Trump in about a week. In the first couple of days, I didn’t think much of it, and I started going back and looking at old Drudge Report screenshots,” Mr. Rudell said.

He found that “it was an immediate pivot. And again, I don’t know if it was causal or correlative, but I thought that was fascinating that in the days leading up to the shooting, it was only positive from Drudge, and in the days following, it was only negative.”

Mr. Rudell isn’t a conservative — he worked previously for Democrats — but he pointed out that he wrote a Sept. 28 op-ed for The Hill in favor of Republicans abandoning Mr. Trump in 2020 for Vice President Mike Pence — and the Drudge Report linked it.

“I feel very strongly that Drudge hasn’t changed, but he feels that the president either is not engaging forcefully enough in advancing conservative values,” Mr. Rudell said. “Or he has been weakened to a point where Drudge feels that someone may be better equipped to take the mantel as the leading conservative figure in the country.”

Examples include the Drudge Report’s top Oct. 24 headline, “We’re Building a Wall in Colorado” after Mr. Trump mistakenly said “Colorado” instead of “California,” as well as headlines juicing the impeachment story and any low Trump poll numbers.

Of course, the Drudge Report also has a mischievous streak, sometimes seeking to build up prominent Democrats before giving them a push over the side.

“When Beto O’Rourke was running against Sen. Ted Cruz for a Texas Senate seat, Drudge appeared to build up the young JFK,” the source said. “Then, Beto crashed, and Drudge took great glee in O’Rourke’s loss. He built Beto up just to heighten the fall.”

Mr. Drudge famously broke the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair story in 1998 after Newsweek declined to run it, but his focus in recent years has been linking to articles, a business model that has made him rich. His estimated net worth is $150 million.

The Drudge Report has been credited with helping conservative websites gain prominence, but SimilarWeb found that the top destination sites for Drudge links in October 2019 were The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, Bloomberg and The Hill.

The Drudge Report did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times. 

“He used to find the conservative news out there — in the days when that news was hard to find on mainstream media — and link it,” the source said. “Now, he’s down to linking The New York Times and The Washington Post and Yahoo! and ABC News and The Associated Press, all liberal sites. Maybe he has just gone mainstream. And maybe he is just more into cashing hefty checks than providing the service he once did.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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