The Drudge Report had a hot day Tuesday. While Americans went to the polls, Matt Drudge posted election-result predictions based on leaked exit-poll numbers that were embargoed by the rest of the media. A lot of the information was meaningless, but Drudge's Web traffic was huge -- you couldn't get through to his server most of the time.
Drudge has made a successful career out of publishing stuff that other media outlets are too cautious or too punctilious to distribute. This has made the Web-based gossip hound a target for the contemptuous clucking of journalistic traditionalists -- and, on the evidence of "Drudge Manifesto," his new book, it has also given him a bit of a swelled head.
The refrain of "Manifesto" is that Drudge, a "nobody," is now a "player" in medialand. And though the book strains to emphasize that how Drudge became a player is what matters -- you know, the Internet revolution and all that -- what comes through more powerfully is Drudge's sheer excitement at having obtained entree to the circles in which the news is ostensibly made.
The kind of name-dropping that the "Manifesto" indulges in -- to prove Drudge's "player"-ness, I suppose -- makes for fairly unpalatable reading. Still, there is one moment in the book when Drudge becomes almost likable. He has been smuggled into a White House press briefing by a pal from ABC, and after it's all over, touring the premises, he peers in on the Associated Press' Terence Hunt and swoons at the sight of Hunt's computer:
"I'm face to face with the most powerful computer in the info-universe, the AP Machine at eop.gov. This machine starts the cycles. All things White House begin here. The copy I receive in my built-by-Radio-Shack Hollywood newsroom is written here. By this man. In this cubbyhole. When he hits the ENTER button hundreds of outlets feel it."
Drudge's reverence for this AP computer might seem strangely retro for a champion of the hierarchy-leveling, little-guy-empowering Internet. But there's a kind of old-fashioned geeky enthusiasm in Drudge's epiphany that will endear him, at least momentarily, to any reader who shares his fascination with the machinery of news dissemination.
That pretty much exhausts the charm of "Drudge Manifesto" -- a disorganized mélange of shrill media criticism, incoherent diary entries, aimless notebook dumps, Beat-style streams of consciousness and rap rhymes, and the inevitable column reprints. Drudge has often boasted that his brand of "publish first, check later" journalism does away with the need for editors, but this book makes a poor case for the abolition of that honorable profession.
It's hardly a surprise that Drudge, confronted with the task of assembling prose at book length, stutters and chokes. The Web nugget of gossip is his format of choice, and as for hardcover books, well, as Drudge puts it, "Print's impotent, Jack."
Oh, and TV is hopeless, too. Power lies with the Internet. "The Internet supersedes every mode of communication ever invented," writes Drudge. With the arrival of the Net -- and, more specifically, from that moment Drudge keeps replaying in his mind, the instant that he let the world know about a certain White House intern -- "news was no longer controlled, and never would be again."
All hail the omnipotent Net! Now, Drudge exults, "Anyone from anywhere can cover anything. And send it out to everyone." It's a familiar war cry, and to some extent an accurate vision of the Internet's impact on the media world.
But there are some problems with Drudge's notion of just what constitutes "covering" a story. He boasts that as his site traffic grew, "I [became] a player, consistently able to break big stories." In Drudge's world, "breaking a story" means mentioning it on your Web site before anyone else does. While that kind of tipsterism certainly has its place in the media food chain, it is a very different thing from actually covering a story -- picking up the phone, tracking down facts and people, driving to their offices and homes to interview them, painstakingly asking questions until you get some answers that make sense.
Reporting is hard, expensive, sometimes unrewarding work; why bother doing it when you can sit back and wait for the anonymous e-mails to flow in? Of course, without someone pounding the pavement and actually covering stories, Drudge wouldn't have much to do all day; if Newsweek hadn't assigned the Monica Lewinsky story in the first place and paid a reporter to dig into it, Drudge would never have been able to tell the world that it had been "spiked."
Drudge's love-hate relationship with what he calls "LegacyMedia" snakes through his "Manifesto" from start to finish. On the one hand, he declares that old media is worthless and dead; on the other, the foibles and follies of old media's pooh-bahs constitute his most persistent obsession.
One page of the book is blank except for the phrases "Print is dead. Movies are dead. TV is dead." If so, the corpses are evidently mesmerizing. If you want to know the latest dirt on the people who run the newspapers and the movie studios and the TV stations, Drudge aims to deliver it to you first. (If you want to know the dirt on Drudge's own short-lived Fox TV show, though, forget it -- as he explains, "The legal terms of my separation with [the Fox] Network insist that I not disparage it." So much for breaking the rules.)
After slogging through all the chest thumping about the Internet's triumph over the dinosaurs in the first half of "Drudge Manifesto," you will be rewarded with an astonishing dramatic reversal in the book's second half, as Drudge commences a barely intelligible rant about the concentration of power in the hands of Big Corporate Media. The dinosaurs, it seems, aren't extinct -- they're stronger than ever, and apparently quite capable of squashing the fragile little Internet. "In today's environment," Drudge complains, he might never have been able to get his site going in the first place. He ends his "Manifesto" with the plea, "Don't let them do to the Internet what they did to all the rest."
Huh? Wasn't it the Internet that was empowering "nobodies" like Drudge and putting the big boys out of business? Or is expecting any kind of logical consistency between the first and last pages of "Drudge Manifesto" simply futile?
What finally makes "Drudge Manifesto" feel not only unreadable but irrelevant is its author's apparent lack of connection with the Internet to which he attributes his success. The Internet may have made Drudge, but Drudge seems supremely uninterested in exploring the medium beyond its ability to pipe him tips from the corridors of power. If your only knowledge of the Net came from "Drudge Manifesto," you'd probably come away thinking that there wasn't a whole lot happening online beyond Drudge himself. In a diary-style entry dated 1997, he writes, "I continue to be the only individual on the Net making a name for himself."
Anyone who could imagine that to be true -- no matter how plugged in he may be to the wire services and the Washington dishmongers -- is either phenomenally conceited or remarkably blinkered. The final irony about Matt Drudge is that, for all his scoops, he doesn't seem to be very networked at all.