Salon Radio: Eric Boehlert on Drudge's decline

Is the right-wing gossipmonger finally losing his sway over campaign reporters?

Published October 22, 2008 5:11PM (EDT)

(updated below w/transcript - Update II)

Media Matters' Eric Boehlert yesterday wrote an article arguing that Matt Drudge's ability to shape media coverage of the election has "collapsed" over the last two months; that "the Drudge Report [has been] completely neutered by current events"; and that "Drudge has mostly been shooting blanks and remains unrecognizable from the 2004 campaign, when his site was central in pushing President Bush's re-election."

On Salon Radio today, I talk to Boehlert about whether there has been a serious and long-lasting reduction in Drudge's influence; the on-going reverence which most campaign reporters continue to harbor for him and their abject fear of criticizing him (as illustrated by this worshipful paean from The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza); and, more generally, the media treatment in this election cycle of the two parties as contrasted with 2000 and 2004. 

The discussion is roughly 25 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript will be posted shortly.


UPDATE:  The transcript is now here.


UPDATE II:  The improved podcast system that we intended to begin using has not, for several reasons,  worked out, which means we are still using the original system that produces sound quality that is erratic (sometimes it's quite good and other times it isn't).  If you're truly an expert in these matters and are interested in helping find the best way to do this, please email me.

On a different note, the ACLU has had an online symposium the past several days relating to voter fraud and voter suppression issues, which begins here and here (and here is an important Digby post from today on one of the main reasons that issue matters so much).

To listen to this discussion, click PLAY on the recorder below.

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters, and also the author of the 2006 book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. Eric, how are you doing? Thanks for joining me.

Eric Boehlert: Oh, my pleasure.

GG: I wanted to begin by asking you about a piece that you wrote for Media Matters yesterday on what you claim is the waning influence - you actually call it a collapse of influence -- of Matt Drudge in this year's election cycle in terms of his ability to shape media coverage and the election narrative. Describe why you think it is that his influence has collapsed, meaning: what do you think are the pieces of evidence that demonstrate that?

EB: Folks over the years, including me, have wishfully, I think, hoped that his influence would recede, but it remained pretty steady for almost 10 years. But I think we can almost point to the day, which was September 15th, the weekend of September 13th, 14th, and then Monday the 15th, which is when the whole Wall St. meltdown and the credit crisis really exploded. That not only changed the tenor of the presidential campaign; it changed the whole news landscape. I think it put everyone on a different footing.

Suddenly, what Drudge does, these sort of partisan gotcha links on the behalf of the GOP - they weren't really resonating, because this economic meltdown had become such a huge serious and sobering story that people didn't really have time or really the interest in the kind of stuff that Drudge peddles on a daily basis. I wish his influence had collapsed years ago, but I don't think it really happened until the last six weeks.

I mean, if you look at the presidential campaign, where it is now, and where it was five or six weeks ago, if you just look at the daily tracking polls, there's been a 13 point swing. I mean, this race is unrecognizable from where it was the second week in September. And the Drudge Report has had absolutely nothing to do with that huge swing in the campaign, and in fact, he's been working furiously on behalf of Republicans, and he's just sort of firing blanks. So that's why I think, this is one of the first times in the last 10 years we can take a step back. Particularly during presidential campaigns, Drudge has become sort of irrelevant.

GG: Okay. Let me ask you about that theory. I think it's unquestionably true that Drudge's ability to shape the media narrative has been substantially diminished this election cycle. I don't think there's any doubt about that. But I want to challenge a little bit both the reasons why in terms of what you cited, as well as the time frame.

First of all, I don't think it's entirely true, as I think you're suggesting, that ever since the economic melt-down, that our election coverage has become focused on really weighty and substantive matters at the expense of kind of horse race and gossipy items in which Drudge traffics. For a few days, when it looked like we might fall off the precipice of economic stability, that was the case, but over the last, say, 10 days, two weeks, and certainly even before that -- when there's a perception that things have at least settled down, that economic doom doesn't lurk right around the corner -- I think the media coverage has largely focused on the kind of horse race chatter that typically dominates, and that's certainly been what Drudge has attempting to influence the most.

As you point out, his efforts have been devoted -- kind of pathetically -- to manufacturing this narrative that McCain is involved in a comeback, that polls are showing that the race is substantially tightening, that Obama's lead is slipping away, and that just never resonated at all. But not because the Mike Allens and Politicos and Mark Halperins of the world are focused on analysing debt swapping proposals, but because, for whatever reason, it's just impacting what it is that they're doing. Why isn't he having a greater effect, even on the kind of petty chatter that our media stars love to traffic in?

EB: That's a good question, and I think you're right in that I don't think the last five weeks have been sort of the re-emergence of the golden age of campaign journalism. It's still tactics, tactics, tactics. It's still polls; we went through the debate chatter, which was sort of theater criticism. So I think you're right, campaign journalism -- it's still what it always is, which is sort of entertainment and tactics. But, that said, there has been a reluctance to grab on to this bait that Drudge throws out there. He went huge into the ACORN story -- just a constant barrage of headlines, about voter fraud, and things like that. And the press, in these cases, both with ACORN and with the comeback, the facts just weren't there to substantiate any larger controversy. I think the press looked at the polling, I think the press looked at ACORN -- some did better jobs than others -- but there just wasn't anything there to manufacture a controversy.

I just think, probably what also happened is that Obama did open such a wide lead that that probably has also helped build up his defense in terms of what the press is willing to do in terms of Drudge stuff, in terms of GOP set attacks. John Kerry never had that benefit in 2004, and I think there was still sort of the whiff of a loser around John Kerry, and I think that drives a lot of what the press does. There's certainly none of that around Obama, so there's reluctance, I think, to fall for this GOP attack.

But you're right, journalism itself is still quite shallow, campaign journalism. But Drudge has been unable to turn any of the narratives the way he did. Look, it's amazing -- 2004, he almost single-handedly, I think, drove the Swiftboat story into the mainstream, and absolutely dominated that narrative for weeks. And if you look at 2008, he's sort of been reduced to a sideline role.

GG: Right. But here's one of the things I don't understand about that dynamic, and you actually make this point in your piece in a way that hasn't quite occurred to me before, which is, you point out, even now, the way that journalists, campaign journalists, speak about Matt Drudge, they speak about him with a reverence and a fear of saying anything critical unlike anything we've seen since the way that they talked about George Bush in 2003 and 2004. Even now, as you point out, Politico reporters -- Drudge Central, the Church of Drudge -- credit him for things like pushing stories into the media narrative that actually he was very late in getting to and that several other outlets were pushing for a lot longer. They just instinctively credit him as sort of their North Star, as the god of their world.

EB: I'll just give you a quick example. During the final presidential debate, when John McCain kept talking about Joe the Plumber. I mean, Jon Martin at Politico was live-blogging, and he says, "oh, Joe the Plumber's a big star now thanks to Matt Drudge, he can thank Matt Drudge for McCain picking up on Joe the Plumber story," but if one went back and looked, McCain started talking about Joe the Plumber Monday of that week, and Drudge didn't touch it until Wednesday.

But it's so deeply seeded in their minds that, of course, Matt Drudge is responsible for this story, when in fact he had nothing to do with that anecdote. The McCain campaign picked up Joe the Plumber and Drudge followed. But in the minds of Politico, Drudge is sort of all-powerful, so of course he was the one pulling the strings behind the scenes.

GG: One article that you pointed to, that I found one of the most repellent articles written in the last couple of months, and that was by Chris Cillizza, who wrote a just definitely worshipful item about the influence of Matt Drudge several weeks ago, and essentially defended Drudge from claims that he's nothing more than a right-wing hack and a partisan, and depicted him as this sort of Everyman fighting against the awful liberal bias in the media, and that his attempt to launch pro-McCain anti-Obama story lines is nothing more than a desire to battle against the inherent bias in the mainstream press, and not any right-wing agenda. Just absolutely backwards and absurd in ingratiating himself to Drudge, whom he acknowledged he actually studies and reveres.

EB: Drudgeologist.

GG: Yeah, Drudgeologist, as he proudly proclaimed himself to be. Given that this reverence that most of these campaign journalists continue quite openly to have for Matt Drudge, clearly his influence in their world has not waned in any permanent or even substantive way, is it just a matter that Drudge just hasn't found the right story lines to feed them, or that the right story lines haven't been fed to Drudge in the last few weeks? Or do you think something more substantial, something longer lasting is at play, that explains why he's having so little effect, beyond just the economic crisis.

EB: Yeah, I'd like to think it's more long-term, but I'm not sure it is. Right now, it does seem to be very much tied to this story, this campaign, McCain's campaign, which is, all the polls tell us is doing quite poorly, and it's hard for anyone to prop that up in a way that Drudge would want to. So, I'm not suggesting that this is sort of a long-lasting effect. It's possible. You know, look, the Drudge Report is very -- even conservatives criticize it. It's very much stuck in 1996. It just does headlines; there's no community; there's no interactivity. It doesn't build anything, it's just these headlines. Whereas on the left; look what Huffington Post is. It's absolutely brimming with this enthusiasm, activity, community voices, headlines; Drudge is still very much in the 1996 model.

So, it's possible that he is facing a long term problem in terms of influence just because he's simply refused to change for the last 10 years. But as you say, the loyalty within the DC press corps remains strong, and as I pointed out in my piece, you're certainly not going to find many people within the Beltway acknowledging what I've written, that Drudge for the last five or six weeks has been completely irrelevant.

The links he provides these reporters -- you can't overstate their importance. In a newsroom, Politico, Washington Post, when they get linked from Drudge, that is a huge deal for the new organization, for the reporter, for the editors, and they get traffic unlike any other kind of traffic. So there's a career incentive to tall about how wonderful and powerful Drudge is, and there's a career disincentive to talk about, publicly, maybe he's lost his fast ball. So, we're not going to hear from the Beltway, we're not going to see this acknowledgement yet, but it'll be interesting, as we go beyond the election, if Drudge is able to regroup in terms of this partisan politics, and if he's able to reestablish any sort of influence.

GG: One of the things that struck me, that strikes me to this day, is Matt Drudge actually revels in rubbing in the faces of these journalists how craven and abased they are in terms of their willingness to praise him in exchange for attention from him in links. I recall when Mark Halperin and John Harris's book was released, and it was filled with the brim with the most cringe-inducing, Christ-worthy praise of Matt Drudge, and he highlighted the praise -- Drudge rules our world, and he's the Walter Cronkite of our era, and when out of his way to say, okay, in exchange for this good behavior, here's your link, here's your book promotion that you now get.

Don't you find it striking that there seems to be less personal pride among journalists than any other profession that you find, that even when he rubs in their faces the fact that they praise him, and adhere to his dictates because they get benefits from him, sort of like a dog sitting when you tell it to, because it knows it's going to get a biscuit, that they continue with that behavior completely unchanged. Like, it doesn't produce any negative backlash for Drudge, any desire to criticize him just to show some independence. It just really reflects the pitiful herd mentality that characterizes our establishment press corps, especially the ones that cover campaigns. Does that cease to surprise you at some point? Because it doesn't really cease to surprise me.

EB: No, it doesn't really, just because it doesn't and this notion that, if you go back to the 2006 book, The Way to Win from Halperin and Harris, the way they so openly talked about how Drudge rules the world, and the way journalist continue to talk about... I mean, it would be one thing if Drudge represented this sort of serious insightful, influential entity, and that's the way they were going to talk about it, but the fact that they talk about the Drudge Report, which is completely unserious, gossip-filled innuendo nonsense, the fact that they still talk about it in those reverent terms, as you mentioned, they don't see the irony in tying their industry to this laughable outlet.

And we haven't even talked about his quote-unquote "exclusives," which are still treated seriously by the press. These are always those anonymous sources that provide those quotes, they're just a little too good to be true, that are almost never backed up by any additional reporting. We've actually seen very few of his famous exclusives during the campaign.

But people in the newsroom I'm sure understand that those exclusives are essentially fictional. But they never call it out, they never report them out to show that Drudge may or may not be making stuff up. So, they know, they definitely look the other way, they understand that his reporting is completely dubious, but they still treat his site as being very, very influential. Yeah. I think journalists understand what is going on, and they understand the game being played, but as you state, they're still reluctant to spell that out, and in fact they still do the opposite, and they still write these stories about incredibly influential he is.

But now, when he's not, when it's quite obvious that he's had almost no serious impact on this race in the last six weeks, it's silence. The Drudgeologists end up with nothing really to say, and have no updates and don't really want to talk about what may have really happened to his once vaunted influence.

GG: Because they fear uttering a negative word. That's our brave journalist class, afraid to criticize even a low-life gossip-monger out of fear they might lose some traffic. That tells you how our press corps functions. I mean, if they're afraid of Matt Drudge, think of how they deal with powerful political figures.

I want to just ask you about this point, because to me this has been truly baffling for so long; I've made this point in so many contexts, and I've never heard an answer and I doubt I ever will, but if you ask most establishment journalists, they will tell you that they agree that there is a liberal bias inherent in their coverage. They agree with the Rush Limbaugh, right-wing critique, that the establishment press is biased towards the left in their coverage.

And yet at the same time,they will maintain the same people who say that, like Mark Halperin, Chris Cillizza, will maintain that Matt Drudge is the single most influential figure in shaping political media coverage in this country, and how campaigns are covered. In fact, Cillizza's point about why Matt Drudge is so honorable is that he's not really a right-wing figure, he's not really embracing a right-wing agenda, he's battling against the liberal bias in the media. How could it ever possibly be the case -- and how can this point ever escape anybody -- how could it be the case that the single most influential figure in shaping media coverage is clearly someone with extreme right-wing tendencies, and allegiance to a Republican agenda? How could a media that is liberal take its cues from a right-wing polemicist and still be liberal, and why is that point never seen to click in with even these reporters who accept the idea that we have a liberal press?

EB: Right, if you listen to the Drudgeologists, every guest you watch on cable TV is there only because of Drudge. Drudge is laying down the entire day's worth of cable television and certainly political coverage, because all the producers at the cable shows watch Drudge and then dutifully, their guests accordingly. That's literally what Cillizza wrote just six weeks ago. So, talk about all-powerful, I mean, he literally dictates how each day is going to unfold in the news cycle, according to his most loyal followers.

So, right, it doesn't make any sense, and I think, if they subscribe to the liberal media theory, I don't know, maybe this is their defense, this is their way of overcompensating. This is the way that we have to show that we're not liberal. How do you prove you're not liberal? You embrace someone like Matt Drudge. You pretend Rush Limbaugh is this serious Republican thinker. You put him out, you put Rush Limbaugh on the cover of New York Times magazine, and you white-wash away all of his hate speech. These are the things you do in order to show, on a daily and weekly basis, that you're not liberal, that you don't have a bias. So it's this very peculiar sort of dance that goes on and it's all counter-intuitive.

It would be nice if journalists sort of just did their job and didn't sort of pretend they had to prove anything, because, my goodness, if you look at the last few presidential cycles, I think no independent observer would come away with the idea that, boy, Al Gore and John Kerry really got all the breaks in the press; boy, Hillary Clinton really sailed through the press coverage; or Barrack Obama, boy, he didn't have to answer a single serious question. I don't think any independent observer would think that, but that's what they, that's the idea they cling to and they've got these rabbit ears for this liberal media bias charge, and so how do you disprove it?

You talk about how authentic George Bush is in his first administration, you talk about how the Bushes hate polling. All that nonsense that we saw go on. It was all a way to disprove this liberal bias theory, and another way to do it, is you talk about how incredibly influential and powerful Matt Drudge is, and when his influence completely evaporates, like we've seen in the last five or six weeks, you don't say anything. And then you hope his influence comes back, and then you don't have to discuss this embarrassing bit, essentially a spectator in the campaign.

GG: The last issue I want to ask you about, and that's just stepping back a little and looking at media coverage more generally this year, in terms of the presidential race, and just the Democratic vs. Republican contest on a congressional level as well. Do you think that the media coverage has been less hostile to Obama and to Democrats generally this year than it was to Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004?

EB: Yeah, I would say it's been more fair, and I think that's all Democrats or liberals or progressives have ever asked, they just want the candidates to be treated fairly. Why manufacture these narratives? Why manufacture these caricatures of candidates? Let's just cover the candidates and say who they are and what they say. I mean, Al Gore, nothing will ever, I don't think -- maybe I spoke too soon, something in Hillary's coverage in the primary. But I don't think any coverage, presidential, general election coverage will ever compare to what Al Gore when through. Literally, by the end of that campaign, the press was depicting him as this psychotic liar. That's not really an exaggeration, if you go back look at it.

John Kerry was completely dismissed as an elite flip-flopper, just completely buying into the Republican narrative and smears. This general election I think Obama has been treated fairly, which is, again, all we've ever really asked the press to do. And I think people are jumping up and down on the right about bias because they haven't seen a Democratic candidate basically treated fairly in a long time. It's to them, it's even wildly unfair and huge unusual and exotic. All it is is that the press not embracing these right-wing narratives for the most. I'm being generous, because there have certainly been times when the press tried to co-opt Republican talking points about Obama. But in general, I think they've done a more fair job in comparison to how they treated Kerry, and how treat Al Gore. In terms of the congressional stuff, I think the same thing agrees. I mean if you go back to the 2006 campaign, Mark Halperin was talking in June of 2006 how he wouldn't want to be a Democrat going up for reelection.

GG: Yeah, he said in June 2006 if I were a Democrat, I'd be scared to death.

EB: Because it was going to be about the war and how are Democrats possibly going to talk about the war in Iraq? It was a killer issue for Democrats, it was going solidify the Republican Party.

Again, just as recently as 2006, a lot of the main talking heads within the Beltway thought congressional candidates were in big trouble, because Democrats can't really talk about national security and the war. I think, again, probably because of the polling, and the extraordinary results we're seeing on the congressional side right now, the press has backed away from that, and I think they do realize something rather dramatic is afoot.

GG: Just to quickly follow up on that -- because actually, I agree with you, that the press has been more favorable, or fairer to Obama certainly if you compare it to what they did to Gore and Kerry, and I think there are are a lot of reasons for that, most of which will probably take some thought after the election to figure out exactly what drove that. But I wonder, and I think that one of the principal reasons for that, is because the political climate has been so hostile to the Republicans, and to George Bush and therefore to McCain and the whole right-wing structure, that the media figures, they are followers more than they are anything else, almost felt afraid to promote this hostility towards the Democrats and towards Obama and this obeisance to the right that has marked how they behave, because the climate in the country was just so hostile to that approach, that they were afraid to do that.

So it isn't as though Obama benefited because the press was more favorable to him, I think more the reverse in terms of causation, that the press is more favorable to Obama because the climate in the country was just so hostile to Republicans and that made it a lot harder for reporters to serve the pro-right narrative. What do you think is about that, in terms of why the press is fairer to Obama than, say, in 2004?

EB: I think that's mostly right, and again I think it all turned mid-September with the credit crisis. Before that, remember it was just this onslaught of why Obama isn't up by more, is Obama too soft?, Republicans are playing effective hardball. It was the same old stuff. But then when the credit crisis erupted, and once the mood of the country changed dramatically, I think the press did play, are followers, they're not leaders. Prior to that, they were doing the old status quo sort of Beltway prognostications about the campaign, i.e., Republicans are being more clever, they had more aces up their sleeve. But after that dramatic shift, they did become followers, and I think that did change the tone of the debate.

And I think the press basically likes the winner, or more importantly, hates a loser. I mean, look at the conservative pundits and commentators who are absolutely jumping off the McCain bandwagon. Did it really take Peggy Noonan six weeks to figure out that Sarah Palin, in her words, probably wasn't qualified to be vice president? Or David Brooks? Or Christopher Buckley? Couldn't they have figured out four weeks ago? But they didn't. When the polls opened huge, and it becomes clear to a lot of people that Obama's going to win, only then do they decide, well, I don't want to be associated with this, I'm going to officially put down my marker here, I'm going to get off, therefore I won't be stained after the campaign.

So, a lot of the coverage, particularly on the pundit side, is based on personal need, personal not wanting to look bad after the election. It's one thing to back someone who loses, it's another thing to back someone who loses convincingly, and again I think we're seeing a lot of conservative pundits not really being leaders here, but being followers, and wanting to protect their own career and their own reputation. And again, I think it backs up the larger point, that they're mostly followers here. They didn't really see what was going on with Obama until it happened, and that's not surprising.

GG: Yeah, as you point out in your piece, the brilliant Mark Halperin and Jon Harris wrote a whole book in 2006 on the upcoming 2008 election, and one name missing from their index was Barack Obama. And I think you're absolutely right, you're seeing lots of conservative rats fleeing the sinking ship, pretending to do so out of principle, but doing so out of self-interest, and a desire to disassociate themselves from the stench of failure.

Well, Eric, it's been interesting as always, and let's hope you're right in your piece that Drudge's loss of influence is substantial and long-lasting, and we'll see how it plays out. Thanks for taking the time.

EB: I'll talk to you soon.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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