Inside the byte-way With insider gossip (and in-cyber gaffes), Matt Drudge becomes an icon of Internet political reporting

His story is part American dream, part Revenge of the Nerds.

With nothing but a PC and a keen sense of rumor, Internet gossip reporter Matt Drudge propelled himself from folding shirts at the CBS gift shop two years ago to airing Bill Clinton’s dirty laundry on his Web site last winter.

Suddenly, the man the behind the online Drudge Report is the bad boy of American journalism — a notorious, self-made reporter who serves up news with hearsay, fact with fiction, to a constantly growing following.

But as he prepares to host his own show, set to premiere Saturday at 7 p.m. on the Fox News Channel, the biggest question about Matt Drudge may be whether he can survive his own fame — or infamy, as the case may be.

“To have your own TV show at age 31 on a national news network, it hasn’t been done before,” Drudge boasted recently over lunch in Hollywood, one block from his cramped apartment-turned-homemade newsroom. “It seems to me that it’s a no-lose situation.”

Drudge, who got his start sifting through Hollywood trash bins for big scoops, speaks with a self-confident, if not self-righteous, air when discussing his work, comparing himself to such visionaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

He’s a “citizen reporter,” he says, not a gossip hound, as his critics in the journalism world contend.

He practices “populist journalism,” not muckraking.

And, he says modestly, “I have the best sources in the journalism business, bar none.”

Indeed, Drudge has a reason to be proud of his Washington and Hollywood insiders, many of whom are in the media; they’ve provided the leaks — some true, some not — that have made his career.

His notoriety skyrocketed earlier this year when a source gave him a blockbuster: Newsweek editors had decided to kill an exclusive article about President Clinton and a certain former White House intern.

Drudge immediately ran with the story, posting it on his popular Web site (www.drudgereport.com) — which is visited by as many as 6.5 million people monthly — and dispatching it to his 100,000 e-mail subscribers.

He sparked a media frenzy.

But Drudge, a “D” student in high school, has not always been so lucky. He was slapped with a $30 million libel suit last fall after reporting without documentation that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has a history of beating his wife.

A day later, after receiving a harsh letter from Blumenthal’s attorney, he issued a retraction and letter of apology.

Drudge, who can publish with a keystroke, says he felt “awful” after the blunder. “You make mistakes, and it hurts, especially if you have to retract.”

(The Associated Press learned the perils of Internet journalism last week when it accidentally posted Bob Hope’s obituary on its Web site — although Hope was quite alive. A retraction was issued immediately.)

Despite his feelings of regret, Drudge admits that the still-pending lawsuit against him has few consequences and many benefits.

His legal bills in this suit are being paid by the conservative-backed Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and the case has provided him nothing but attention.

“I couldn’t rent a billboard high enough for that,” he said. “To be sued from the White House is a huge thing — a historic thing — so that ensured notoriety straight through to the resolution.”

‘A made man’

Speaking last week at National Press Club in Washington D.C., a lion’s den for someone like Drudge, he declared: “Thank you, Sidney Blumenthal.”

Drudge was invited to face the questions of journalists troubled by both his willingness to print hearsay and his habit of lifting other reporters’ stories before publication.

Many Washington media elites were fuming in January after Drudge appeared as a guest on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — a network television debut that they feared gave credence to Drudge’s work.

At the monthly luncheon, press club President Douglas Harbrecht offered a hostile introduction: “There aren’t many in this hallowed room who consider you a journalist.”

And yet, many of the 200 A-list journalists at the luncheon couldn’t help but applaud several times for Drudge, whose goofy and friendly manner surprises most people who know him only by his work.

“Applause for Matt Drudge in Washington? Now that’s a scandal,” quipped Drudge, donning his trademark fedora.

As with the lawsuit, journalists’ simultaneous criticism and adoration of the Drudge Report have only served to inflate its publisher’s popularity.

“Drudge was a made man when Vanity Fair and People magazine and my newspaper all did profiles of him,” said Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who has followed Drudge for more than a year. ”There is a sort of journalistic fascination with the guy, even as many in the business resent him.”

And Drudge definitely loves the attention, even though it hadn’t brought him much money, until now.

“He does seem completely fascinated by the folkways and habits of the mainstream media, and completely enraptured by its praise, even when he purports to condemn it as a hidebound, elitist institution,” said Todd Purdum, the Los Angeles bureau chief of The New York Times. “He does seem to very much crave the validation that mainstream media has conferred upon him.”

Drudge can recite word-for-word the headlines, captions and stories written about him. He remembers what he said in every interview, and how prominently the article was played.

He has the photo shoot down to an art, posing with his signature Drudge look — mildly menacing and quite different from his warm and nerdy mien away from a camera lens — before the photographer can even give instructions.

“He’s become a little more polished in his presentation,” said Kurtz, who wrote one of the first stories about Drudge, in May 1997. “He was a lot more nerdy a year ago. But he’s always had this streak of swagger because he tries to emulate Walter Winchell.

“I think with all this attention, he’s convinced himself that he can play in the big leagues, and that has given him some confidence.”
But his lifestyle will stay very much the same.

When not taping “Drudge,” his new show, he’ll remain “underground” in his small, ninth-floor apartment near Hollywood Boulevard and across the country from the Fox News studios in New York.

He’ll continue to read more than 30 papers a day and write the Drudge Report “when circumstances warrant,” according to a disclaimer on the Web site.

And, he’ll keep sparing his lunch hour for reporters who beckon.

Loner status

All of Drudge’s interviews invariably include talk of his obscurity-to-infamy tale, how he went from being a teen-age loner in suburban Maryland to a well-known, 30-something loner in Cyberland.

Drudge says he was a mediocre student in high school, with no real forte and no dreams other than a vague desire to make it big — perhaps to work for Daily Variety.

Drudge, who reads the news wires like gospel, got a “C” in a high school current-events class.

“I wonder where that teacher is now,” Drudge said. “Probably reading” the Drudge Report, he laughed.

After high school in Takoma Park, outside of Washington, D.C., Drudge left home for New York, where he spent a few aimless years working as a night manager at a 7-Eleven. But the Big Apple didn’t do it for him, and Drudge headed West.

He found work at CBS-TV in Studio City upon arrival, first working as a runner on “The Price Is Right” and soon moving to the studio lot’s gift store. It was there that he laid the groundwork for his rumor business. By eavesdropping, snooping and gabbing at CBS and around town, Drudge often came upon juicy tidbits of gossip that he would post on news groups (the online version of bulletin boards).
Soon, he accumulated enough online buddies to start e-mailing his dispatches directly to them. That list grew exponentially, quickly jumping into the thousands and then tens of thousands.

Responding to the surging popularity of his tip sheet, Drudge also started the Web site, which, unlike the e-mail, includes a list of links to popular newspaper and columnists’ sites.

Neither the e-mail list nor the Web site made him money, though, and he survived on stipends from Wired magazine, which ran his column for a while, and America Online, which continues to carry it (keyword: Drudge).

Drudge’s first big scoop came in January 1997, when he reported that Jerry Seinfeld was demanding $1 million per episode.

Others successes followed — he was the first to reveal CBS’ decision to fire Connie Chung, and Bob Dole’s selection of Jack Kemp as his running mate — along with some big-time mistakes: that Paula Jones saw a bald-eagle tattoo below Clinton’s belt; that Netscape and Microsoft planned to merge; and that the blockbuster motion picture “Independence Day” would bomb.

And then, of course, his Blumenthal and Monica Lewinsky revelations.

Drudge told the National Press Club that on the night he got the Lewinsky scoop, “I teared up when I hit the enter key, because I knew my life would never be the same.”

‘Internet superstar’

That story was what attracted Fox News executives, who figured Drudge’s popularity could benefit the fledging 24-hour news network, available locally on Orion Cablesystems (Channel 56).

“I think Matt is probably the first Internet superstar,” said John Moody, vice president of news and editor at the Fox News Channel. “He is one of the first people who has made the Internet a medium of real information, as opposed to this constantly hyped potential for information.”

“I don’t think Matt Drudge presents disinformation. And to say that he has drawn criticism from the journalistic world — we’ll wear that as a badge of honor any day as long as we’re being fair in the topics that we present.”

Paul Jones, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, likens Drudge’s career to that of conservative talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh. ”Limbaugh was covered the exact same way three years ago,” said Jones, who specializes in Internet-journalism issues. “The same people who are panicking about the Drudge Report were panicking about Limbaugh, too.”

Like Limbaugh, Drudge serves up political news with his own spin. And like his radio counterpart, Drudge is upsetting the mainstream media with his unorthodox practices.

Whether he’ll flounder on television as did Limbaugh — and as Jones predicts — remains to be seen.

But if Drudge’s schedule for the last few weeks is any indication — speaking at Harvard and the National Press Club luncheon, appearing on CNN’s “Crossfire,” granting several interviews and rehearsing for his show — he may be in for more than 15 minutes of fame.

Drudge, who never underestimates himself, says: “I start thinking about Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin. What if we said to them: ‘Slow down.’ We’d be sitting here still using candles.

“You can’t hold back creativity.”