By B.J. Rudell
If Matt Drudge turns on you, watch out. And if the past week is any indication, President Trump should take heed.
A king maker — and perpetually aspiring dethroner — for more than 20 years, Drudge is to the Internet was Fox News is to television: a safe haven for conservative views. His news aggregation site, Drudge Report, is one of the most influential voices in politics. In 2000, the site enjoyed about 25 million impressions per month. Last year Drudge Report leapfrogged The New York Times into sixth place in U.S. media online traffic and engagement, and now the site earns about 25 million visits per day.
Drudge Report’s power stems from its throwback simplicity. The three-column design looks exactly like it did in 1997, except with more headlines, most of which are crafted to express outrage and/or disdain. Accompanying images help perpetuate or transform public opinion among a hungry conservative readership: a manic-looking Hillary Clinton, a smirking Barack Obama.
Drudge’s relationship with the current White House has been well documented. He and Trump have met in the Oval Office, and at least earlier in this administration Drudge spoke regularly with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner. Trump has made a point of developing and maintaining close relationships with influential conservative media figures like Drudge. If white Evangelicals represent the president’s defensive-focused firewall, conservative media are the offensive-focused turrets atop the wall.
That’s not to say Drudge has been lock-step with Trump. A thorn in the side of Democrats everywhere, Drudge sometimes flashes an independent streak, particularly on issues that matter to him. For example, last year he pushed back on Trump’s threat to revoke journalists’ credentials. A couple months later, through an intermediary, he relayed displeasure with Trump “not following through on his campaign promises — the ideals that helped him win and also brought Drudge’s backing.”
And like other notable conservatives, Drudge was slow to latch on to Trump. On the day Trump announced he was running for president, the Drudge Report offered a tepid response — a small-font, damning-with-faint-praise link in the third column: “Trump to declare $9 BILLION in personal wealth as he announces presidential run . . .” The following day, the eventual 45th president appeared further down the third column, with a quote that was over-the-top even by Drudge’s standards: “Trump: ‘I Will Be Greatest Jobs President God Ever Created.’”
But on the whole, the Drudge Report has been a fairly reliable backer of this president — that is, until this past week. The August 3 morning edition included the prominent pro-Trump headline, “Record 157,288,000 Employed” below a flattering photo of Trump with two thumbs up. Of course, such a figure normally wouldn’t register on the “newsworthiness” meter: a nation’s employed people will, more or less, increase as its population increases. Most presidents likely have served during one or more “Record Employments.” This was a fawning Drudge concocting a celebratory moment.
Then later that morning, 22 people died and 24 more were injured in the El Paso, Texas mass shooting. About 12 hours later, 10 died and 27 were injured in the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting.
That’s when Drudge’s tone toward the president shifted. Among the upper-left headlines on August 5 was this one: “After pair of mass shootings, Trump remains out of sight . . .” August 6 featured a “Bubble Popping?” warning regarding the stock market and the U.S. economy in general — a key indicator of Trump’s re-election chances. August 8 included an upper-left Rasmussen poll showing only 47 percent approval for Trump — a relatively low number compared to Rasmussen’s customary daily figures.
Then on August 9, the Drudge Report declared in its main headline “Red Flag: NRA Warns Trump,” and the following day Drudge posted three more stinging headlines right next to a smiling Barack and Michelle Obama:
· “Trump sides with Kim criticism of US-SKorea war games . . .”
· “Trump boasted of rally crowd size during El Paso hospital visit . . .”
· “Gallup: Approval 42% . . .”
Drudge’s August 11 edition included a “Senior Voters Wavering on Trump?” headline and the same 42 percent Gallup poll, while August 12 promoted former White House Press Secretary Anthony Scaramucci’s warning that Trump will “turn ‘on everyone’ and then ‘entire country’ . . .” And today’s edition includes a lukewarm “TRUMP NEUTRAL” pronouncement preceding a headline highlighting Chinese protesters’ “BATTLE FOR FREEDOM.”
That’s not to say one Republican’s loss is a Democrat’s gain. Throughout his journalistic reign, Drudge has rarely let up on the left.
Yet this past week’s coverage of the president has been unusually tough. Yes, it could revert to “normal” tomorrow with a glowing headline about Trump’s leadership, or a red-meat quote of Trump trashing a notable Democrat. But since the mass shootings, conservatives’ favorite online resource has attacked Trump in ways normally reserved for Democrats.
And that, in itself, is news.
B.J. Rudell is associate director of The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The author of three books, he has also worked on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and in consulting.
Originally published at https://medium.com on August 13, 2019.