by Eric Boehlert
I’m not saying that given the choice I wouldn’t pick a robust economy and a worry-free global outlook. But circumstances being what they are, I have to say that as the White House campaign hits its final stride under the ominous shadow of the Wall Street meltdown and the deep recession that’s hurtling this way, perhaps the only silver lining — the one unexpected pleasure — has been watching the Drudge Report be completely neutered by current events.
Matt Drudge is still doing his loyal best to boost the chances of the GOP down the homestretch in the form of a blizzard of anti-Obama and pro-McCain links on his site. (Last week, it was the half-baked McCain “comeback” that Drudge hyped relentlessly.)
And there’s no question that Drudge’s Web traffic remains strong and continues to grow, thanks to a burgeoning international audience. But in terms of setting the ground rules — in terms of setting the campaign agenda — Drudge has been AWOL since mid-September when the credit crisis erupted.
His current spectator status mirrors that of the low-flying right-wing bloggers. Just as the bloggers were hailed for their (pseudo) detective work in undermining CBS’ Dan Rather in 2004, Drudge was credited for the way he used his widely read platform to push the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story into the mainstream press, which helped derail John Kerry’s campaign.
Four years ago, Drudge and the right-wing bloggers were at the peak of their political power. Today, they’re pretty much watching the election pass them by, reduced to the role of frustrated sideline hecklers.
But that’s sure not the narrative the press enjoys pushing about Drudge. In The Way to Win, the 2006 conventional wisdom-affirming book about campaigning, Mark Halperin and John Harris were wildly impressed by Drudge’s acumen and his nearly limitless media power. The authors devoted an entire chapter to Drudge, toasting his “visionary” “insights” and anointing him “the Walter Cronkite of his era.”
“Matt Drudge rules our world,” they wrote. “With the exception of the Associated Press, there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts.”
And looking ahead to 2008, the duo warned, “No Democratic politician will survive in the 2008 presidential campaign without understanding the singular power of Drudge, and crafting a strategy to defend against this power.” (That wasn’t the only thing Halperin and Harris got wrong about 2008.*)
That adoration has remained constant among mainstream journalists, who praise Drudge’s godlike power and prestige, and then benefit from the high-traffic links he rewards them with.
“What nobody who follows the daily cut and thrust of American politics questions is Drudge’s continuing power to drive the stories and shape the narratives that define presidential politics,” Politico announced this year. [Emphasis added.]
Not to be out-Drudged, washingtonpost.com’s Chris Cillizza recently labeled him the “single most influential source for how the presidential campaign is covered in the country.”
Well, I’m here to call bullshit.
And no, this isn’t just a wishful, I-don’t-like-Drudge-so-I’m-going-to-claim-he’s-irrelevant column.
This is fact.
Because it’s obvious that since Wall Street’s meltdown commenced five weeks ago, and since America’s economic crisis became a tsunami of a news story that’s not only dominated the media landscape, but also irrevocably altered the course of the campaign, the Drudge Report has become largely irrelevant in terms of the setting the news agenda for the White House run.
That’s because a story like the unfolding credit crisis — sober and complicated — knocks Drudge completely out of his element of frivolous, partisan gotcha links.
Think about it. Since Monday, September 15, when word of emergency government intervention to save the economy began to spread, the presidential race, according to all the available data, has gone through a dramatic fourth-quarter shift, with Barack Obama opening up a comfortable lead. We haven’t seen this kind of wholesale shift in voter sentiment this late in a White House campaign since 1980.
The race is unrecognizable in terms of where the players are situated now and where they were five weeks ago. (Between September 15 and October 19, there was a 12-point swing in the Gallup daily tracking poll.) Now ask yourself: What role has the Drudge Report played in that burst of campaign movement? The answer, of course, is zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. His trademark flashing red lights have gone missing.
The dynamics of the campaign have irrevocably changed, and the mighty Drudge Report, the news site Beltway journalists trip over themselves to genuflect in front of, has been a complete bystander in the closing weeks of the 2008 campaign. (Not that this is the first time Drudge has choked down the stretch of a nationwide election.)
The reason is simple. Because of the unprecedented economic turmoil, we’re now in serious times. (Fifty thousand home foreclosures this year, in the state of New Jersey alone, is serious business.) And the Drudge Report doesn’t do serious. The American public’s attention has shifted from the campaign to the economy, and that’s why the Drudge Report remains largely irrelevant to that unfolding story.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) claimed economic conditions or the stock market drop were the news story they followed most closely during the second week in October, compared with just 24 percent who selected the campaign. Meanwhile, the credit crisis has unleashed waves of voter anxiety.
As long as those patterns hold, Drudge finds himself in no-man’s-land with no levers of power to pull.
For instance, Drudge spent last week going all-in on the McCain “comeback” narrative. But rather than aping the line, most of the press corps demurred, simply because the nationwide polling data did not support the claim. In fact, as Howard Kurtz noted on washingtonpost.com on Monday, the press has pivoted in the opposite direction, with even conservative media commentators declaring the cause lost for John McCain.
One of the few times Drudge has come up in the national conversation was when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan almost got laughed off the set of Hardball after citing Drudge’s unscientific reader poll to suggest Sarah Palin had been the clear winner of the vice-presidential debate. (See Crooks and Liars for the clip.)
And yes, it’s true that post-Wall Street meltdown, Drudge did influence the campaign narrative when, on the eve of the vice-presidential debate, he trumpeted information about moderator Gwen Ifill’s upcoming book. But that was ostensibly a get-the-media story; it didn’t affect the Obama campaign or help to boost the Republican ticket. Most viewers still thought Palin lost the debate.
Other than 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.
Why the misfires? As Halperin himself noted in 2006, “Matt Drudge is not doing stories on policy, on welfare, on healthcare. He’s doing stories on the most salacious aspects of American politics. When that drives the dialogue, that’s where the country heads, that’s where our political coverage heads.”
Thanks to our current economic crisis, “the most salacious aspects of American politics,” as Halperin put it, have taken a vacation during the closing weeks of this campaign. And the press can’t even pretend that those “salacious aspects” are remotely newsworthy, which means the second part of Halperin’s claim, about Drudge driving the dialogue, no longer applies.
Halperin’s writing partner John Harris admitted as much recently while addressing students at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. In an article on Harris’ speech, the local paper reported: “The Republican Party’s ‘Machiavellian’ style of attack politics hasn’t struck a chord in this election, Mr. Harris said, leaving John McCain to shift strategies nearly weekly.”
Note that that Machiavellian style of attack politics is pretty much code for the Drudge Report, which has been unplugged down the stretch.
Not that Drudge hasn’t tried to lay gotcha (Machiavellian) traps on behalf of Republicans:
Not one of those Drudge headlines, all posted within the past week, led anywhere in terms of blossoming into larger, damaging stories for Democrats, let alone full-blown controversies. (The ACORN voter registration story, which Drudge has peddled incessantly, has also failed to take hold in the mainstream as a true campaign scandal.)
Yet the sad truth is that in previous campaigns, all those items stood a very real chance of being embraced by the Beltway press and becoming big stories. As Glenn Greenwald wrote last year:
The last two presidential elections were overwhelmed by the pettiest and most fictitious “controversies” (things like Al Gore’s invention of the Internet and Love Story claims, John Kerry’s windsurfing and war wounds, John Edwards’ hair brushing and Howard Dean’s scream), and our discussions of the most critical issues are continuously clouded by distortive sideshows concocted by this filth-peddling network. Their endless lynch mob crusades supplant rational and substantive political debates, and the most wild fictions are passively conveyed by a lazy and co-opted national media.
Still, despite Drudge’s power outage this year, you won’t see Harris or Halperin or any of the other Beltway players who lust after his attention ever mention that the Drudge Report’s cache has been dented. That kind of talk is not allowed. Only constant adoration will do.
In fact, just this month, Halperin still counted Drudge among “the five most important people in American politics right now — who aren’t running for president.”
And while liveblogging the final presidential debate last week, Jonathan Martin at Politico, which is part of Drudge’s permanent cheering section, claimed that Joe the Plumber had been inserted into the national debate about taxes because McCain picked up his story from the Drudge Report.
” ‘Joe the plumber’ can thank “Matt theInternetist” for his instant fame,” wrote Martin, who noted that “McCain first used this anecdote in his economic speech” on Monday.
The problem with that gratuitous hat tip to Drudge was that the Drudge Report didn’t highlight Joe the Plumber until Wednesday, two days after McCain started talking about him. So, no, the Everyman does not owe his instant fame to Drudge.
But the Drudge fans at Politico (“he has an uncanny ability to drive the national conversation with what he chooses to highlight on his site”) sure wanted to push that pleasing line.
And today, either Beltway insiders can’t see that the media landscape has changed dramatically in recent weeks, or they’re too afraid to acknowledge that their online emperor is missing some clothes.
*Footnote: I had to chuckle as I paged through The Way to Win for the first time since it was published in 2006. The book is about the blueprint for taking the White House and which politicians were positioning themselves for victory in 2008. I laughed because there was one name that did not appear anywhere in the book about the upcoming campaign, one name Halperin and Harris left out of the index: “Obama, Barack.”
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