This interview originally ran in our August 1998 issue.
When Matt Drudge rises at nine in the morning and connects to the Internet, his Hollywood apartment transforms into the newsroom where the notorious Drudge Report is created. With millions of online readers a month, the Report has broken national scandals (Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones) and scooped major news outlets on other stories (Dole’s choice of Kemp as a running mate, Tim Allen’s $1 million salary demands, Connie Chung’s firing). This one-man newsroom has played a pivotal role in a series of events that threatened to bring down the president of the United States.
Drudge, whom The New York Times described as “a bold, angular, furiously curious man who suggests an odd collaboration of Dickens and Raymond Chandler,” scans the wire services for late-breaking news, and then peruses about 30 newspapers from around the country and the world. Three TV sets, all tuned to news stations, hum in the background, and there’s a police scanner turned low.
Later in the morning, Drudge goes out for a bowl of soup. He returns to his apartment to read the European newspapers, make calls and check into chat rooms on America Online. These chats and his e-mail in-box are the sources for his scoops, which he follows up with more e-mail and telephone calls. His enemies accuse him of tapping into the mainframe computers of The Washington Post and other newspapers, but he insists he has a stable of traditional sources in and around newsrooms, Hollywood and Capitol Hill. Drudge follows up on leads and checks his sources–his thoroughness in these pursuits or, more properly, his lack of thoroughness, are part of the controversy that dogs him. Finally, Drudge sits down to write.
He clicks out short, sarcastic, occasionally misspelled and ungrammatical news items that range from quirky (an Amazon village terrorized by a “monster-sized boa constrictor the size of two buses”) to salacious (the original rumors about a dress stained with presidential semen started with Drudge). Often reported with a theatricality reminiscent of Walter Winchell’s radio dispatches from the Forties, Drudge writes about the movies that bombed on Friday, what people said in the weekend’s TV interviews, the latest Republican buzz and the most startling headlines that will hit the next day’s newspapers.
Drudge fancies himself a newshound, but he’s probably more closely related to computer hackers, who use technology for their amusement, profit and power. Where hackers break into computer systems and wreak mischief, Drudge uses technology to break into the nation’s mainstream media. In doing so, he has become the first Internet star, for which he is both praised and vilified. In The New York Times, Todd Purdum romanticized Drudge as the “cyber-muckraker with the Dickensian name” dispensing “breathless tips on topics from Paramount Pictures to Paula Jones.” The attacks have been pointed, whether they concern his questionable motives (a political conservative, Drudge has been accused of pushing a right-wing agenda) or his tactics. Vanity Fair wrote, “Clearly, conservatives had found a useful weapon in Drudge.” Time dubbed him “the king of new junk media,” and Lewis Koch, special correspondent for Cyberwire Dispatch, wrote, “Matt Drudge is a new variety of vampire: a nasty little mammal who bites and laps the blood of its journalist victims. Drudge’s Warholian fame, what there is of it, is due to living off the journalistic blood of other reporters.”
Although Drudge has been writing and distributing his dispatches for almost four years, two stories brought him into the national debate and dramatically increased the circulation of his e-mail dispatch and visits to his Web site (www.drudgereport.com). On August 10, 1997 Drudge posted this headline: New White House recruit has spousal abuse past. The next day, he published the entire item, claiming GOP operatives had asserted that White House recruit Sidney Blumenthal, a writer for The New Republic and The New Yorker who was about to become an advisor to Clinton, had once been accused of spousal abuse.
Within 24 hours, Drudge heard from Blumenthal and his wife’s lawyers, and immediately printed a retraction. Nonetheless, the lawyers next sent a letter demanding that Drudge reveal his sources for the story within five days. Drudge refused and is being sued for $30 million.
The other story that has made Drudge a household name began to unfold in July 1997, when Drudge reported that Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff was working on a story about a former White House staffer named Kathleen Willey who had been subpoenaed by Paula Jones’ lawyers. They believed that she could testify that Clinton had sexually propositioned her on federal property. The item enraged some members of the press (Isikoff, whose own story ran in Newsweek the following week, called Drudge “a menace to honest, responsible journalism”), but the Drudge Report became the talk of the nation’s capital and its circulation took off.
Drudge’s follow-up scoop–his biggest yet–came in January, when he reported that Newsweek had killed another Isikoff story. This time President Clinton was being accused of having a sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. More damning, the story said Clinton reportedly asked Lewinsky, who had confided in a friend about the alleged relationship, to lie about it in a grand jury investigation of the Paula Jones case. The friend, Linda Tripp, had secretly recorded conversations with Lewinsky and took the tapes to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
The Drudge Report launched a thousand newspaper headlines and special TV news reports, generating glee on right-wing talk shows and horror in the White House. There were early calls for Clinton’s resignation. Drudge, meanwhile, showed up on such news shows as Nightline and Meet the Press, on which he accused the Washington press of lying down for Clinton.
For Drudge, reporting stories such as these is a longtime dream. He grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, where his father was a social worker and his mother was an attorney. As a child delivering the Washington Star, he was enamored with news, though he saw no way into the business. He says he was an awful student (he graduated 325th out of 350 in his class at Northwood High School) and he never attended college.
Drudge spent several aimless years in New York City before heading to Hollywood, where he landed a job in the gift shop at CBS’ studios. Using information he overheard at the shop, he sent dispatches to Internet newsgroups such as alt.politics and alt.showbiz.gossip. When readers asked to be put on his mailing list, Drudge created one. Soon he put up a Web site, which included a long list of links to media around the world, plus his report. The site’s popularity grew, especially when it was picked up by America Online. AOL paid $3000 a month for the report, which allowed Drudge to quit his day job.
Drudge claims to be unbothered by persistent charges that he is unprofessional, sleazy and a tool of the right. In fact, he’s fighting the Blumenthal lawsuit with the assistance of David Horowitz, the best-selling political biographer who now heads a right-wing foundation, and a lawyer named Manuel Klausner, who is on the board of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. He’s still writing the Drudge Report, in which he continues to break stories. He is also working on a new show that debuted in June on the Fox News Network. We sent Contributing Editor David Sheff to expose the man who has single-handedly caused such a political stir. Here is Sheff’s report:
“I met Drudge, as he instructed, at Musso & Frank Grill, a classic hangout of a bygone Hollywood era. It seemed fitting: Drudge has been compared to Walter Winchell and has often been photographed in his trademark gray fedora, adding to his anachronistic persona. Alone in a booth, Drudge appeared young–he’s 31–and unpretentious, wearing a wrinkled polo shirt, no hat. His nearby ninth-floor apartment looks out over this seedy part of the city, over the record-album-shaped Capitol Records building and the rest of Hollywood, toward the Los Angeles beaches. Drudge said, ‘When I look out from up there, the column almost writes itself.’
"Drudge quickly launched into an impassioned rant about the Arkansas judge’s decision to throw out Paula Jones’ case, and he was filling me in on new scoops–another woman will soon accuse President Clinton of more indiscretions, he said. He spoke like he writes his column: feverishly, urgently, with an occasional chortle over some perceived hypocrisy on the part of the government or media. At one point he admitted, 'It’s a loner’s thing I’m doing. I don’t have a family. I’m starting to long for one.’ Then he shook the moment off. 'But it’s a great business,’ he continued, rubbing his hands together. 'It doesn’t get much more fun than this.”’
Do you acknowledge that a one-man operation is dangerous because there is no editors’ scrutiny, no standards and no fact checking? Isn’t that the primary reason you’re called a threat to responsible journalism?
Responsible journalism? With all those editors and all that checking, how did Richard Jewell happen? The Associated Press broke a story about two men arrested in Nevada with plans to release anthrax on the New York subways. The story was picked up everywhere. As it turned out, there wasn’t a bit of truth to it. How did that happen? What about all those lawyers, the double-checking, the editors? Stop Drudge? Why not stop the Associated Press? Tom Brokaw? Bernard Shaw?
Shouldn’t irresponsible journalism be stopped?
You have to take the bad free speech if you don’t want to lose the good. People have a right to hear it all. That’s why they come to me. GQ called my report a “small and obscure” newsletter. I have almost 7 million readers a month. That’s four times GQ’s readership. They should stick to clothes. They printed a good picture of me, though. I have my Web site, my own slice of media, and there’s nothing my critics can do about it. I figured this out early on. If they slime me, it creates more of me. Nothing they can say will stop me. They can’t pull my advertising–I don’t have any. Someone could conceivably order my phone jack taken out of the wall, but they would have to make a new law to do that. I don’t even know if they can stop me with new laws. I could run the Drudge Report from the Himalayas. I can say whatever I want, for any reason, period. Isn’t that a scary prospect?
You can be sued, apparently. Might the lawsuit that was brought by White House advisor Sidney Blumenthal stop you?
That’s his hope. But let’s say ten people say something about me. Ten people from ten spots around the country defame me, libel me and accuse me. How do I stop them? I guess I go after each person. I sue them all. But what happens if there are a hundred of them? A thousand? These are serious issues that have to be answered.
Are you losing sleep over the attacks or the lawsuit?
I don’t lose sleep over any of it. The reason I’m attacked is that I’m being heard. Powerful people are reading me. What I say is getting picked up. So the focus is on me. I’m the first one out and I have a big audience. Radio was licensed by government, television was licensed by government. But the Internet was built by government and isn’t licensed by anyone. The Net is a lot like the pamphlets of the old days, and I’m like a pamphleteer speaking my mind. But now the audience is the world.
Don’t your audience and venue make an essential difference? You’re passing yourself off as a reporter.
I am a reporter. It’s one man’s report. I broke the Kathleen Willey story and the Lewinsky story. I was first to report that Bob Dole picked Jack Kemp as his running mate, the first to report that Bill Gates was going into business with NBC. That’s solid reporting. That’s New York Times–caliber reporting. They can’t take that away from me.
But much of your reporting isn’t your own–you’re relaying other reporters’ stories.
I give credit when I’m reporting on someone else’s story.
But you’re essentially stealing another reporter’s work.
I have no qualms about it. I do it all the time. Say I hear that The New York Times is working on a big story. Sure, I’ll steal it. I’ll be the first to tell my readers. It’s dynamic. I cover the media as the media cover politicians.
Who are your sources for early reports of stories coming out in the newspapers?
My sources are concerned citizens in and out of government. I get a lot of information when I monitor news outlets. I report AP stories before they move onto the wire now. How the hell am I getting that stuff?
Do you pay sources?
I have never paid a source, although I wouldn’t be against it.
But a source who doesn’t really have a story to tell might make up something good and juicy for $100. There’s incentive to lie.
Listen, checkbook journalism has broken some great stories. The story about Dick Morris and the prostitute was great. It showed the hypocrisy of the Clinton administration. That was checkbook journalism. Gennifer Flowers is a good example of checkbook journalism. There have been countless other examples. As a matter of fact, the history of American reporting is full of checkbook journalism.
Advocating checkbook journalism, stealing stories–are you surprised that many journalists criticize you?
Of course not. But I’m not just stealing stories. I reported that Newsweek was killing a story about the president and his girlfriend. That’s my story. That’s original reporting.
But Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff did all the work on the Lewinsky story that you broke.
The story was presented to him, too. He didn’t discover Monica Lewinsky. And you know what I say? Tough. That’s competition. People scoop people all the time. It’s how competitive media work. You want people to be aggressive in getting stories. The true reason big-time journalists don’t like me is that they think they are the only ones who can tell the American people what’s going on in the world. Carl Bernstein, class of 1974, would knock on grand jury doors to get stories. If I did that now people would say, “He’s so sleazy, he even traipsed over to the grand jury.” I would probably be arrested. Well, Bernstein did it. He talked about how Nixon hadn’t had sex with his wife in 20 years. Woodward and Bernstein did it. People say I’m writing sleaze, that I’m writing about politicians’ personal lives–how terrible. Now all Carl Bernstein does is sit on media panels with his size 43 waist and say, “This guy Drudge is the worst kind of journalist.” Class of '74 dismissed. There’s a nice condo somewhere on the Florida coast for you, Carl.
Do you check and double-check the stories you run?
Sure. I call. I check. I get comments. Although I don’t have an editor, if I’m working on something really hot, I’ll bounce it off people. I was bouncing the Lewinsky stuff all over the place. I’ve bounced something I’m holding back now: I’ve got Lewinsky describing Clinton’s anatomy, his penis size. I’m deciding if and how I should report it.
How will you decide?
I’ve decided not to report it at this point, but I’m getting more tempted, because I think it’s going to become part of the bigger story. I did write an item called “The Details That Will Make Congress Blush.” Monica tells a story about having Clinton on the carpet in the Oval Office. She’s servicing him on the presidential seal. That’s the way she tells it, allegedly.
Is she allegedly telling this to Linda Tripp?
Do you know this from a source who has listened to Tripp’s tapes?
Right. And I’ve heard a small portion of some of the tapes myself. It is intense to hear that kind of stuff, realizing it’s going to lead to a real disruption of power in this country.
We’ll get back to that. But first, is the size of the president’s penis news? Should it be?
It’s news because if and when it comes out it could affect Clinton on a world scale. You could have Saddam Hussein making fun of the man’s penis size, for instance. Gennifer Flowers has already told the American people some things about it, but now this is a graphic description.
Why wouldn’t you print that? You’ve printed other extremely personal details.
I may when there’s a reason.
You mean, when other media are about to publish it?
I don’t think anyone will publish this. I don’t think The Washington Post will reveal Clinton’s penis size.
But you haven’t been delicate so far.
There has to be some reason to print it. The dress? There is DNA evidence in semen. That’s important. Monica’s clearance? It’s a national security issue. Doing it on the presidential seal says something, too, doesn’t it? Dick Morris strongly denies that one. I wrote on my Web site that Dick Morris said, “If she’s saying that, she’s really in outer space.” Because apparently Monica was describing—
Again, from a source who listened to the tapes?
I’m not going to discuss sources. This is Lewinsky telling the story of when she serviced Clinton as he was on the phone with Dick Morris, who was also being serviced. She called it quadraphonic sex. There are other items that I haven’t fully explored yet. I want to know if we’re going to have congressional hearings on those details. The graphic nature of it: penis size, lack of penetration. Are we really going to get into it? Can you see [Congressman] Henry Hyde asking, “Mr. President, did you penetrate her?”
Would you like to see that?
We may see that.
You maintain that it’s OK to steal reporters’ stories. Michael Isikoff, who reported the Lewinsky story, called you “reckless and irresponsible” and “a menace.”
Yes, because he worked hard on the story. It was a blow to him. I probably would have felt the same way. But new inventions come along and knock down old inventions. And again, my Lewinsky story was original. To report that Newsweek killed the story is original reporting. No one in the mainstream press has given me credit for that. I had six reports myself before The Washington Post came in. It was Saturday night, 90 minutes after Newsweek killed its piece, when I reported it. I already knew the story was being worked on and I knew all the details. Next, Bill Kristol, on ABC’s This Week, mentioned a report about Newsweek killing a story about a woman who claims to have had an affair with Clinton. George Stephanopoulos said, “Where did that come from? The Drudge Report.” They tried to discredit it by making it my story, but a few days later Stephanopoulos said it could be an impeachable charge. After the first report about Lewinsky, I reported the affidavit in which she denied having had sex with Clinton. Hours later I reported her top-secret government clearance. I obtained her résumé. Next I reported that Kenneth Starr had moved in, and The Washington Post finally did its story eight hours later. The next day I reported that there was a trace of semen on a dress Lewinsky said she would never wash. I reported that Bill Richardson at the United Nations had offered her a job. All original reporting, not from Newsweek. That’s a lot of work, a lot of original reporting on a serious story. So how can they maintain I’m just stealing other people’s stories?
What about your reports that turned out to be untrue?
Nothing I reported was untrue.
The story about the dress has been discredited.
I’m not sure that it has. She showed Linda Tripp a dress with semen stains on it and said that she would never wash it.
First, it may or may not be true that she said that. Second, it may or may not be true that she had such a dress, whether she said it or not.
It may be true that it exists and that Starr has it, that it was dry-cleaned, or that she was making it up. It may have been a taco stain. There are a lot of possibilities. This entire story is melodramatic, and she could be making up a lot of this stuff. Or it could be true. I maintain we haven’t heard the last of the dress. I’m not convinced about the report on CBS that claimed the FBI found no DNA stains. It sure is exciting, though. It happens to involve the president of the United States and an intern who is probably close in age to his daughter. And the story was broken on the Internet by a guy who’s being sued.
What if Lewinsky was making it all up? Would you then agree that it was bad reporting to print unconfirmed charges?
Absolutely not. It involved an FBI sting! It involved people in the White House offering her jobs! It involved top-secret government clearance! It involved gifts from a president. That’s all serious news. If I were Isikoff, I would have played it differently. If I’d had the story nailed down, as he did, and my editors had killed it, I would have quit. I would have held a press conference and reported what I’d learned.
Couldn’t the editors of Newsweek have been correct in wanting more documentation?
Which they got in three days? Come on. They ran the story in three days; it hadn’t changed. No. It was a big story and they were concerned, and rightfully so.
Was Isikoff, angry with his editors for refusing to publish his story, your source?
The last e-mail I got from him said, “You’re insane.” I also broke Willey, which was his story–I took it from under him. I broke it. Her talking to a reporter, saying she’d been hit on sexually in the Oval Office. He wasn’t able to get it into print. But I was.
Did you know Newsweek would print its Lewinsky stories once you broke yours?
No. The four days it took were nerve-racking because I was out there by myself naming names, accusing people of potential crimes. I was on my own for almost 90 hours. I didn’t sleep. I was a little more comfortable after Rush Limbaugh began his show with it on the following Monday, and Bill Kristol brought it up on This Week. But even then it was pooh-poohed. Stephanopoulos said, “Oh, that’s terrible.” But he knew the story was true; he was lying.
You blame the White House and journalists for discrediting you. But maybe people find some of these reports distasteful. They don’t want to read about semen on dresses–the president’s semen in particular.
No, I don’t believe that. These are the people who were riveted to Anita Hill’s pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can story. No. If you take just a snapshot of Drudge, it seems like an alien show. If you move the camera back and look at its history, you see it’s not so unusual. It’s about freedom to report, and the Internet lets you do it without any interference. A lot like the early pamphleteers, a lot like the early newspapers and early radio. It’s kind of refreshing.
You or any other pamphleteer could make up stories. Do you agree that’s a possibility?
Uh-huh. But then you lose credibility and people won’t read you anymore. Remember, they’re coming to me. I’m not forcing it on anybody.
Why were you given bits and pieces from the Lewinsky tapes that other reporters weren’t able to get?
I think people see that I’m sincere, that I’m just looking for truth. The people who approached me with the Lewinsky story are, I maintain, patriots. They’re not out to destroy anybody. They just don’t like deception.
But they’re known to be out to destroy this president.
You don’t know who gave me this stuff.
Linda Tripp was out to destroy the president.
She didn’t give it to me. And I’m not down on Linda Tripp, by the way. If someone asked me to lie about her boyfriend who was the president of the United States, I’d start taping some shit, too.
Did you have one source for all the Lewinsky-related revelations?
No. I’m not going to reveal the sources. I can only say they’re people out of government. On NBC News, I was asked if Ken Starr was my source. That, of course, would be illegal.
On Meet the Press you said there are more women in the Clinton scandal. Still?
A lot has come out since I said that. I’d already reported Willey. A former Miss America came out. And the airline stewardess. There were a bunch of them. There is another woman, who is cooperating with Starr. It’s a serious obstruction issue: Clinton gave her gifts, allegedly, and someone from another branch of government offered her employment for silence. This continues beyond the Paula Jones suit. I’m working on that; I have her name. I’ve been given the whole story. I’m working on other angles that I haven’t fully developed. In the highest office of the land, it looks like there may have been a coordinated effort to force people to lie, to threaten people to get them to lie, to reward people for lying.
Do you at least admit that your sources, or at least some of your reports, have been wrong?
Every reporter makes mistakes. I’ve been accused of saying Hillary Clinton is going to be indicted. All I reported was that talk radio in Los Angeles was flooded with callers discussing Hillary’s being indicted. That was turned into “Drudge is reporting that Hillary is going to be indicted.” People don’t understand this coverage-of-the-coverage stuff.
You admitted you were wrong when you reported that Sidney Blumenthal had a history of beating his wife.
I reported that it was a rumor.
Blumenthal is suing you for libel, charging that the report was malicious.
I printed a retraction and apology the next day. Why would I have retracted it if I were being malicious? Blumenthal got his side out right away–that he hadn’t done what he’d been accused of doing. I got my retraction out right away. I retracted the story and apologized. Isn’t that enough?
With that attitude, any crackpot can accuse anyone of anything and just apologize later. An apology isn’t enough–you have to do your journalistic groundwork beforehand. And retractions don’t necessarily end the damage: “Sorry I told millions of people that you’re a wife beater.” You circulated a false rumor, whether or not you retracted it afterward. Aren’t people still whispering about the allegations?
I hope not. I sure hope not. There’s a whole list of actionable falsehoods that Blumenthal has written. He hurt my friend [conservative author and activist] David Horowitz, saying he abandoned his wife and three children. David has four kids and never abandoned them. Blumenthal did a piece on Ross Perot where he mentions a friend of Perot’s who, he says, spent most of his Army time in Vietnam in detention. The guy served in Vietnam but was never in detention. A lot of corrections are in order. [Editor’s note: The New Republic did retract that charge. He was never in detention.] Does he maintain that there’s no give-and-take and there’s no room for retractions and mistakes? See, the Internet is a great way to learn about the motivations of those who are attacking me. [Columnist] Joe Conason has been attacking me in The New York Observer. He’s been standing up for Clinton: “This scandal doesn’t mean anything, blow jobs aren’t a big deal.” I did some research and found a piece he wrote in Spy: “A Thousand Reasons Not to Vote for George Bush.” Number one was “He cheats on his wife.” I just want to point that out.
Whether it’s Blumenthal, Conason or you, it’s irresponsible to report a rumor without corroborating evidence. Some journalists may not have such high standards, but shouldn’t they?
You don’t get a license to report. You get a license to style hair. Since World War Two, we’ve had an era in which journalism is supposed to be objective. That’s crap. That’s a new phenomenon. The earlier press had nothing to do with objectivity. This whole objectivity thing is a fraud.
If you throw out objective reporting, how can you trust anything you read? In that case every report could be propaganda.
Who’s objective? I can’t find anyone. It’s a corporate guise. CNN isn’t objective. When the Paula Jones decision came down, I did an item on the footage of Clinton in the hotel room, banging the drums and smoking a cigar. I thought it was revealing footage. The Web site got busy-300,000 people came through. But at CNN they were almost blowing up balloons in celebration. Fox would show the video of Clinton banging the drums, smoking a cigar, partying, while on CNN Wolf Blitzer was saying, “The president is being careful not to gloat,” Wolf Blitzer is spinning lies about Clinton as video footage disproves him. That’s not objective. That’s spin. There’s going to be a backlash against spin. Spin is a fad. I hope it goes out sooner than later. I’m sick of it.
Would you have written the Blumenthal, Willey or Lewinsky stories if a Republican were in the White House?
Absolutely. The next person in the White House will get my undivided attention. See, the people in the Clinton White House are taking this personally. It’s not personal. Clinton and Gore think they’re being unfairly targeted, but they just happen to be the first Internet era president and vice president. Whoever comes next is going to get the same scrutiny. It’s because people like me are able to have a competitive newsroom. Anyone can do it.
What’s the difference between the Drudge Report and the tabloids?
They’re different, though the National Enquirer was broken national stories, including the one about O.J.’s shoes. That report ended up getting Simpson civilly sued, and he lost. That week the National Enquirer was pretty newsy. On the other hand, that same week The New York Times printed a story that said an asteroid was headed toward earth. It was a lie. No one checked that one. Why not? It scared a lot of people. One scientist said an asteroid was coming. They never got another point of view.
The difference between the mainstream press and tabloids is that one requires credible sources, and one doesn’t. One carefully double-checks stories, and the other may use astrologers, for all we know.
And people choose what to read and believe. That’s their right. There are all these questions to ponder. It’s fun to be a part of this. It’s fun to be a definition of something. Drudge has become an adjective.
If Drudge is an adjective, what does it modify?
I’ll tell you what I would like it to signify. The New York Times called me “the country’s reigning mischief maker.” That’s pretty good. I like how they all say that the Drudge Report is lowering the standards for journalism, yet they all run home and read it. I don’t get it. Newspaper editors read me. When I did Meet the Press, William Safire said to me, “A lot of people tell me they read me through you”–meaning they click on his link on my page. The assistant to senior White House advisor Paul Begala said that the White House reads the Drudge Report. She said she reads it every day. She said she likes it. We’re talking historic stuff. If I’m so useless, why was Blumenthal reading me the night I wrote the story about him? He told the Times he was home reading me. The night before he started his first job at the White House. I’m not sure I’d be surfing the Web the night before I started my new job at the White House.
What do you make of another fallout of the Lewinsky scandal–that the general public is apparently fed up with salacious stories? Polls show that people don’t care about the president’s personal life.
Then why was 60 Minutes the you’re a wife beater.“ You circulated a false rumor, whether or not you retracted it afterward. Aren’t people still if a Republican were in the White House? bullshit that people are burned-out on these scandals. Absolute bullshit.
It’s not from the White House. It has been shown by many polls.
I don’t believe in opinion polls. I don’t know what they have to do with anything.
The polls say the president’s approval ratings are at an all-time high.
60 Minutes had the highest television rating that week. I’m more inclined to believe the Nielsen ratings than the polls.
People can watch the news and still be fed up with it.
I’m not that cynical. I think Americans love their country and are concerned about the person in the Oval Office.
But the majority of Americans, even if they believe that Clinton had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky—
And told her to lie about it—
Say they don’t care. They’re concerned about other issues–social security, foreign affairs, the economy.
Speak for yourself.
Poll after poll confirms it.
And a huge number of people thought the earth was flat. So what? After World War Two, a large group of people in Germany still loved Hitler. He had good polls. Polls have no bearing on what I’m doing. I’m looking for truth, for interesting stories that are being overlooked.
Do you think Clinton’s personal life is relevant to his job in the White House?
This isn’t about his personal life. I think history will show that Linda Tripp was being pressured by her friend to lie, under oath, about the friend’s boyfriend, who is one of the most powerful people in the world. That’s a serious dynamic. Paula Jones was taken up to that hotel room by a trooper who was carrying a gun, and then the governor dropped his pants and said, "Kiss it.” An Arkansas judge ruled that’s not outrageous. All right. It may not be outrageous in Arkansas. I hope it never happens to the judge. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned or I have an old street-sense. I didn’t go to college. I worked at a 7-Eleven. I worked at a gift shop also before I did this. Never had much of anything. Maybe I just have this dream that things still matter. Like the presidency. I’m very concerned that a president may be getting away with deceiving people.
If Clinton’s sex life is germane to the national debate, should the sex lives of Kennedy and Roosevelt have been?
I’m not sure Kennedy ever did that.
How do you respond to critics who say you have a political agenda? David Brock [author of books about Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton] says he warned you about using “completely crazy” Clinton haters as sources.
He never warned me.
Regardless, do you agree that it discredits sources if they have an ax to grind?
I’ll use Clinton lovers, too. I think Mike McCurry is crazy. How can he sit there and lie every morning? That’s nuts! You can call it spin. I call it lying. If he gave me a story, I would probably use it; he’s in a position to know. The people I talk with are in positions to know. I have good sources. One cannot break all these stories without good sources. I make mistakes, as everybody does, and I correct them and move on. I don’t have a malicious nature. Otherwise I could really cause massive trouble right now by doing vicious, vindictive things to destroy people, write things that are not based on reality. I could do that.
You could. Isn’t that the current problem?
Yes, but that’s the reality. Anyone could do it. All Internet newsgroups are about that.
But you have elevated yourself to the point where you have a wide audience.
Through reporting truth.
Is there responsibility that comes with your new position?
Sure. There’s responsibility that comes with being the first person to make a name for himself on the Internet. The Net has the potential to be as important a medium as television or radio or newspapers. And I’m the first name.
If the Internet gives everybody a megaphone—
Which it does. It gives freedom of participation to everyone, which is one of the premises of America.
Is it going to get harder for people to know what’s true?
That is a good point. Yes. How do we know anything’s true now? Anthrax scare in Vegas–I believed the story. Janet Reno believed it. We’re already not sure what’s true. I don’t know what on the AP News is true. I assume it’s true because I trust the AP reporters. They’ll correct it if it’s wrong.
You grew up near the capital. Was politics a big part of your childhood?
Not at home. But I was always political because I delivered the Washington Star and read all the stuff in it. I watched Crossfire.
Who was president when you were born?
In 1966? I don’t know. The first president I remember was Jimmy Carter. I was ten years old. I liked him, and still like him. Yeah, I wish Jimmy Carter were still president. He’s decent and I think he told the truth. That’s my number one priority. It’s not “the economy, stupid.” Who cares?
What about a president’s being effective?
I’d rather pay $3 at the gas pump and have a decent president than have gas at 99 cents and someone lying to me and making me sick. I’d much rather have a decent person in office. The president should represent who we are. It’s ironic that Clinton represents who we are, what we’ve become. He is a result of his generation. This is chaos. This is confusion. People talk about Eighties greed. This is the year of our lord Dow Jones 9000. I’ve never seen so much greed. These are the Roaring Nineties. I think people will want a less contrived situation, and the next president will probably be ugly as sin. I’ll vote for him. I’ll vote for the ugliest person.
Back to your childhood: What did your parents do for a living?
I’m protecting my parents all the way. Since the White House has been using private investigators, I haven’t been talking about my parents. Since this lawsuit blew up, I don’t even see them when I go to Washington. It’s probably the smart thing to do.
What are you protecting them from?
I don’t want them to enter my hell world. It’s high stakes when the president is supporting a civil lawsuit against you.
Do you think your notoriety is problematic for them?
For my parents? No. I’m more concerned with the private investigators and the White House slime machine. What they did to Linda Tripp–going into her arrest record from 30 years ago. I don’t want to bring my parents into the middle of this. He’s a social worker, she’s a lawyer. Both liberals. My father wore an original Nixon mask. My mother actually volunteered in the White House comment room at the beginning of the Clinton term. Now she listens to Rush Limbaugh. Still liberal, though. She’s just upset with the president.
What do you think of Rush Limbaugh?
I think he’s having a great impact on discourse in this country.
So you don’t agree with Al Franken that Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot?
As a matter of fact Al Franken is fatter than Rush Limbaugh now.
You have said that you were a terrible student. Has that been something of an exaggeration?
I can’t write cursive, I print only. I’ve never done a term paper and I wouldn’t know how. I wouldn’t know how to write anything more than two or three paragraphs, little bites. If I had to actually form a story from beginning to end I don’t think I could do it. Everything I’ve learned about reporting I’ve learned on the Internet.
You’ve said you were a loner. Are you still?
Still am. It’s even harder to let people in now because of what I’m doing. Mainly because it takes up a lot of time. When you start your own business, it’s pretty much devotion. I’m lucky to have five good friends that I pal around with.
Were you a happy kid?
I don’t know. I didn’t like authority and I didn’t like structure. My expertise in high school was forging notes, cutting classes. Boy, I knew how to do that. I never got caught. Suspended a few times.
I don’t even remember. Probably cheating. I’d always cheat on tests. Couldn’t get anything done.
Did you work on the high school newspaper?
I guess I did for a little while. I wasn’t very good.
Were you really 325th out of 350 students?
If that. If I had skipped one more day of something, I’d still be in high school.
Was there ever a chance that you would go to college?
I couldn’t. My SAT scores were awful. No one would accept me. The irony is, I may hit the college lecture circuit.
Is that a vindication?
I never look at it that way. I’m glad I did what I did in my 20s. Just observed a lot. I’d write down observations. I was kind of aimless and a late bloomer. I really didn’t get things going until my late 20s. I was sort of wandering around. I lived in New York for a year, couldn’t get anything going, worked in a grocery store, then came out here, got the job at CBS and worked in that gift shop. Got in there, had access. “Great, I get to go through CBS trash cans.” I was taking ratings out of trash cans.
Was that the intention–to get a job where you could get information that you could use?
To have access to any media outlet was the intention.
For what purpose?
I don’t know. I wanted to work in the newsroom, probably. I didn’t know how to pull it off. But dreams do come true. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I got this job folding T-shirts at the gift shop. They promoted me to assistant manager. Then I became manager and was responsible for a lot of things, did all the books and the buying. Got to hang around with Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne and all these other people who shot their shows at the lot CBS owns in Studio City. I got a lot of information.
Just by talking. All I did was talk all day. I’m not making much more money now than I was then. I was making a lot of money then. I started the Drudge Report while I was still working in the gift shop. For two years I did it secretly.
What led to it?
My dad bought me a computer. I said, “What am I going to do with that?” I logged on one day and saw the Associated Press on Prodigy. I said, “What in the world is this?” I had never heard of six versions of the same news story. If we’re lucky, newspapers print a portion of any story. All of a sudden I see there’s a lot of news out there that no one is hearing, other than editors who decide not to tell the people. That’s when I started the list on the Internet, with original material and stuff I was hearing, written in my quirky style. I put some up on the Internet, on alt.show biz.gossip and alt.politics, and heard from people who wanted to be on my mailing list. What mailing list? So I started a mailing list. My original reports were for three people.
What did you write about in the first e-mail reports?
Pat Buchanan running for president again, Whitney Houston shooting a film in Arizona.
All overheard in the gift shop?
Yeah. Roseanne angry about something, Cybill Shepherd angry that Brett Butler had a larger logo on the side of her dressing room. Seinfeld asking for a million dollars, CBS about to be sold to Westinghouse–I broke that story. I had only 500 readers at the time.
Did you ever consider calling Variety or The Hollywood Reporter with scoops you overheard?
No, I didn’t know how. It went on from there. One person told another person who told another person. This really is a chain thing that has blown up to this degree. Newsday did a profile on me and then Newsweek did one and then it got bigger. More people signed up and, once I put up the Web site, checked in. People who were reading me then have said that I’m not as much fun now that I’ve become a big player. I don’t know about the big-player thing; I’m doing it the same way. There used to be more spelling errors, more grammar trouble.
How did you support the Web site?
I didn’t make any money off it for two years. Nothing. I tried to ask for donations. I made like two or three grand. No way to make any money off it. Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley has learned that with his 20,000 paid subscribers. He has a $5 million budget and brings in only $375,000. There’s no money to be made on the Net–yet. Just like there probably wasn’t in the early days of other media.
But assuming you don’t have to write a check for $30 million, are you making a living now?
Sure. And I don’t think I’ll have to write any checks for $30 million, by the way. It’s possible I will, but Blumenthal has to prove actual damage. And if I have to make out a check for $30 million for something I write, I may have $30 million by the time this is all over. If the money can catch up with the fame, good God! At one point, I was giving phone interviews to Cape Town, South Africa and then to Tokyo and then to Australia and then to Chicago. It was wild. I was an international sensation, which is a unique Internet thing. I don’t think Winchell or Hedda Hopper or anyone else had instant global access.
You just signed up to do a TV show on Fox. Might your Internet devotees accuse you of selling out?
They’re already accusing me of that and the show isn’t even on yet. I’m a multimedia guy. I have a funny-looking face and a good delivery. I’ll try. We’ll see. I’m nervous about the TV show. Not about it bombing or me getting in trouble. I’m nervous about losing my innocence, my ability to be inconspicuous. Now, if I don’t wear the hat, no one knows who I am.
Do people really recognize you when you’re wearing the hat?
More and more. With the hat I hear, “Is that Drudge?”
Are you going to wear the hat on the show?
I may. I may do an ad campaign with just the hat. Hitchcock had his silhouette.
Will you hire a staff?
I’m not sure I need anybody.
What about makeup?
I’m not even sure I’ll wear makeup. I didn’t wear makeup on Meet the Press. There was [the show’s host] Tim Russert, made up like a clown. Him and everyone in the greenroom. The makeup room is more important than the newsroom these days. Isikoff is on TV too much. When does he have time to write anything? It’s confusing. Anyway, I have the kind efface that looks like it’s been beaten up. I don’t want to give up that look too quickly. Polish? Save it for the shoes.
Did you have any qualms about taking the Fox offer?
It was the right one. There’s no doubt that Fox is more aligned politically with my way of thinking than the other networks. I think the liberal press thing is old.
Or is it merely that liberal spin sickens you?
Everything is liberal spin. Time, after Clinton’s deposition [in the Jones case], issued a press release: One person close to him said the mood at the White House was, “Everyone is going to sleep well tonight.” The truth is, Clinton was in the shock of his life with that Lewinsky stuff. But Time, the most important magazine in the world, gets it wrong, spinning for the president.
You’re suggesting that Time is pro-Clinton, yet it has often aggressively attacked him.
Listen, anyone who said that the deposition went well and that everyone got a good night’s sleep is a propagandist. That’s raw propaganda they fell for and published. When I had the rest of the story–that’s the night I popped the Lewinsky story–Time was issuing this phony story to its millions of readers. But I was issuing the real story on my runaway Internet site. It just shows you there’s a shift in journalistic reporting going on. It’s moving away from the corporate. They can’t seem to get to what’s really happening. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve created too many layers, or because there’s too much at stake.
Do you really believe that most of the press is liberal, skewing its coverage to support Clinton and other Democrats? Look who owns most media.
Who? Ted Turner? Katharine Graham?
He’s the only conservative I’m aware of. And the others slime him. The Eisners, the Geffens–those are the powerful media people. Those are the people who swarm Clinton when he comes to town. I think that’s why Newsweek didn’t go with the Lewinsky story it had. That magazine is too close to the people it covers. It won’t dare say something about Vernon Jordan. It’s not that I’m pushing for the other side, either. I am a libertarian, not trusting any of them. I especially don’t trust the people who want to lead us at the turn of the century. They want to take the important issues into the new millennium. That’s scary. Al Gore, even more than Clinton. Gore, with his words “We’re in an epic battle to right the balance of our earth.” Those are huge words at the turn of the century.
Do you suspect that he’s being disingenuous?
No. He is really into it. He believes it. He believes it’s important that he lead the world at the turn of the century. Then he goes off to a global-warming summit. Well, I calculated how many pounds of fuel his plane burned. It took 250 million pounds of fuel to fly to a four-hour meeting. How many holes did that punch in the ozone layer? Gore is fabulous. If we’re really fighting for our lives, what’s he doing circling the planet and making it worse? Hasn’t he heard of videophone? He’s supposed to be Mr. Tech.
In Time magazine, Michael Kinsley wrote that the Lewinsky story, broken by you, “is for the Internet what the Kennedy assassination was to TV news.” Do you agree?
Kinsley is coming across more and more like an elitist to me, as if Slate is on one level and Drudge is on a lower level. Maybe he’s got it wrong. Maybe Drudge is on the higher level. He’s probably right about the comparison; he’s a smart guy with an IQ through the roof. I have probably not even a third of his IQ. But the attitude–you know, the smarmy thing–is, How dare he. When was the last time Slate broke any news?
How do you respond to Time’s description of you as “the king of new junk media”?
I think Time is pretty junky. It’s the king. I think that’s demeaning.
It’s been reported that you idolize Walter Winchell.
He turned pretty ugly in his late years, thinking he had a lot of power. He started using it and calling people Communists. What he did to Josephine Baker was pretty nasty. He’s not my role model. I use him as a map, studying his work, studying his language. He fevered it up. He made people really emotional, which he loved. He used the sound of a telegraph, but there was no telegraph. He would drink a bunch of water so he had to piss, and it made everything he said sound urgent. All of it was showbiz.
But like Winchell, you have allied yourself with political extremists. In fact, you’ve been accused of being used by the right, by the same people who used Paula Jones.
I’m not being paid by anyone.
Who is paying your lawyer?
He’s working pro bono. I love my lawyer. He’s a libertarian freedom fighter.
Richard Scaife, who funds the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, is one of the people who has been accused of heading what Hillary Clinton described as a right-wing conspiracy against her husband. David Horowitz, who runs it, started the Matt Drudge Defense Fund. You’re in bed with—
And therefore I’m letting Scaife dictate what I do? Hold on! I’m being sued. I’m defending myself. What difference does it make who’s defending me?
But by accepting help from the far right, you are allying yourself with them. You’ve already said that you don’t believe in objective journalism. But you could easily be viewed as a paid operative of the right.
Listen, I have probably created more news with my ten fingers than anyone else in the business. That’s not gloating or bragging, I just don’t know who else has done what I’ve done. Bob Woodward hasn’t broken hundreds of stories in the past year. And no one else has offered any help. I am not marrying into anyone’s camp. If this suit is dropped, it’s a divorce.
That’s presumably not the way Horowitz and Scaife see it. They are supporting you because they support your politics.
I don’t know that to be true. We’re trying to stop this lawsuit. Accepting support links me to them ideologically? That’s weak.
If your recent scoops had knocked down their favorite Republicans, would Scaife and Horowitz have come to your rescue?
Scaife is just one person who has given money to a center. That center has set up a legal defense fund that my readers are giving money to. If you want to try to make a correlation, fine. I just think it’s weak.
Would this foundation be doing it if you had gone after its guys instead of attacking the enemy?
Of course not. What’s your point? I’m being sued. I need to defend myself. Are you saying I have no right to defend myself? Now, if you want to go ahead and continue this because you think you have a good angle going, I just–it’s weak. You’re not going to be on the right side of it. I take AOL’s money, too. Is Steve Case controlling me? Why aren’t you obsessed with that?
Case’s company, America Online, is a co-defendant in the lawsuit. AOL will have to defend itself, but presumably its defense will be that it isn’t responsible for what it carries on its network.
My whiskers are up with your interest in this because it’s the same old stuff. It’s the wrong side and I’ll leave you in the dirt with this stuff. It’s not going to resonate, because it’s not where the action is. If you’re stuck defining me as this, I’ll say you have it wrong. David Horowitz called and said he had some lawyers I could talk to. I had talked with other people and no one wanted to take dirty old me. I needed a lawyer. I’m being sued for $30 million, which would ruin me. Who’s helping me defend myself? I kind of like people who would defend me against that.
Journalists are supposed to stay as clean as they can.
And not get sued?
Not take sides, not be aligned with one camp or another. Vanity Fair wrote that “conservatives had found a useful weapon in *Drudge.*
The liberals have too. The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek are leading the way on this investigation. Is that useful to Republicans? I’m not going to let you zero in on me.
Even if you simply pressured the mainstream press to run and continue to investigate the Lewinsky story, it would be useful to the right.
I also broke a story that said Newt Gingrich would admit to ethical violations. The headline was R.I.P. Gingrich. I guess that was useful to the Republicans too.
Have you contacted any First Amendment organizations?
They haven’t touched me. If I were busted for pot in my panties coming in from Peru, they would be rallying around me. Freedom to sell pot, freedom to smoke it, but not freedom to report and make mistakes. The protection of unpopular speech has always been part of the American heritage. This shows you how snobby these people really are. The Electronic Freedom Foundation is all Clintonistas.
Do you acknowledge that, in general, you push a Republican agenda?
I’m pushing truth.
Are you aligned with the Republicans on most issues?
I don’t know how aligned I am. I’m aligned with less big government.
How about on social issues?
I’m pro-life. I don’t like abortion. I agree with Mother Teresa on that stuff. But I think people’s private sexual stuff is private. It’s not fair game. I know that sounds silly coming from me, but I don’t do a lot of that stuff and I’m not interested in a lot of that stuff. I went to the post-Oscars Vanity Fair party here and a top director had his finger in some girl’s twat right in front of me. I never reported it.
A finger up the twat? Because it’s a dime a dozen.
But if he were a senator or a congressman?
Ahh. That may have made the difference. Especially if he weren’t single. People who want to serve the public are in a different arena. We have to hold politicians to a different standard.
You said you’re a loner. To get stories, do you go to many parties in Hollywood and Washington?
No. It’s almost all from telephone conversations and e-mail and online chats.
Do you miss something when you aren’t out schmoozing?
Like Winchell? Go to the Stork Club every night and get your items? I just log on.
To an electronic Stork Club.
Right on. That’s exactly right. It’s like being in the most crowded room with the best sources. It’s all right there. You just have to know what to do with it, how to make words come to life.
Do you get more of a charge covering politics or Hollywood?
All of it, wherever the good angle is.
Are you viewed differently in Hollywood than in DC?
They like me in Hollywood. I was at dinner the other night with a friend. She called over Sherry Lansing and said to me, "Sherry wants to meet you.” Lansing said, “Matt Drudge!” Lansing, the head of Paramount: Wow. I write about her all the time. She said, “I read you every night. As a matter of fact, I’m learning how to work the computer just so my husband doesn’t have to print out your report for me.” That’s pretty good. But it’s not that different in Washington. They like me too.
Has your fame given you more sources, or do you find that people are more wary of you?
Much more wary. Still, stories like this come around once in a while. It’s such fun. What good is it if you’re a reporter and you’re just taking the official word? That’s no fun. I don’t think anyone who gets into the business wants to do that. You want to come up with unspoken truths. You try to pop authority. I like that. The freedom to report this way is brand new because of the Web. Now everyone has the power to investigate kings, queens and pharaohs. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the fun and the invention. It’s a romantic thing for me.
And revolutionary. Just when you thought journalism wasn’t exciting, when you thought it was all going to be Disney, Time Warner, the Washington Post group, the Sulzbergers–just when you thought it was all corporate and controlled and boring and hopeless, the Internet comes along. Here I am.