Something has changed at Drudge Report, the influential site known for its tabloid-poetry headlines and conservative take on the news, and don’t think the president hasn’t noticed.
Matt Drudge, a web pioneer who went live with his site in 1995, was seen as an important media champion of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign. “A large measure of why Trump is the nominee goes to Matt Drudge,” Carl Bernstein said four years ago. And Mr. Trump has expressed his appreciation for the fedora-wearing web journalist, calling him “a great gentleman.”
But nowadays, like CNN, The New York Times and many other outlets, Drudge Report is just one more purveyor of “fake news,” in the Trump view.
For anyone who had not stopped by the site since it developed a reputation for lifting Mr. Trump and his brand of conservatism, the welcome page on Monday made for an arresting sight. At the top were images of stickers being sold by the Biden-Harris campaign that read, “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump.” Below that appeared a scroll of headlines linking to news stories from various sites, all of them written in Mr. Drudge’s staccato style, many of them related to a New York Times investigation of Mr. Trump’s troubled financial history.
“LOST MORE MONEY THAN MADE? … FINANCED EXTRAVAGANT LIFESTYLE WITH USE OF BUSINESS EXPENSES … FAKE BILLIONAIRE? … CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE: TRUMP OWES $421M.”
Mr. Drudge also did not pull any punches after Tuesday’s presidential debate: “Chaos reigns in hell debate … Undecided voters describe President as a ‘crackhead,’ ‘arrogant’ in focus group … Joe faces down raging Don.”
It was a notable shift from four years ago, when Mr. Drudge heralded Mr. Trump’s “rock star welcome in Florida” and highlighted stories that cast doubt on the health of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. His site, back then, also included links to coverage of Trump rallies as they happened.
Cracks started to appear in the summer of 2019, when Drudge Report featured a headline about the slow progress on a barrier Mr. Trump had repeatedly pledged to build along the southern border with Mexico: “NO NEW WALL AT ALL!” In December, when the House of Representatives impeached the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the site went big once again: “TRUMP ON BRINK.”
The Washington Times, a conservative daily, noted the shift. “The Drudge Report has stoked alarm on the right for appearing to pivot on its support for President Trump,” the paper reported last November, “increasingly linking to stories that are critical of the administration and to media websites that are accused of having an anti-Trump bias such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.”
In December, to raise awareness of a website he had started, Dan Bongino, a conservative radio host and frequent guest on Fox News programs, wrote on Twitter: “Drudge has abandoned you. I NEVER will.”
In April this year, President Trump weighed in on Twitter: “I gave up on Drudge (a really nice guy) long ago, as have many others. People are dropping off like flies!” The Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson echoed the sentiment in a July episode of his show, saying that Drudge Report “has changed dramatically, 180 degrees” and calling Mr. Drudge “a man of the progressive left.”
With the presidential campaign entering its final stretch, the attacks are mounting. On Sept. 1, Mr. Trump retweeted a post from Mark Levin, the host of a conservative syndicated radio show and a Fox News program, complaining about Drudge Report’s all-caps coverage of Mr. Trump’s denial of having suffered a health crisis (“TRUMP DENIES MINI-STROKE SENT HIM TO HOSPITAL … VIDEO: DRAGGING RIGHT LEG”). In response, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Drudge didn’t support me in 2016, and I hear he doesn’t support me now. Maybe that’s why he is doing poorly.”
The site has perhaps paid a price for jumping off the Trump train. It had 1.4 million unique visitors in August, down 42 percent from a year earlier, according to Comscore data provided by The Righting, which analyzes viewership of right-leaning outlets. Its audience has trailed that of the right-wing sites The Gateway Pundit and Daily Caller. New rivals looking to outdraw the once-fastest news-slinger on the web include Liberty Daily, Rantingly and NewsAmmo, The Washington Times noted.
Mr. Drudge, who rarely gives interviews, did not respond to requests for comment.
In “The Drudge Revolution,” a book published this year, the journalist Matthew Lysiak described how Mr. Drudge, the child of two liberal Democrats, started out some 25 years ago from a Hollywood apartment equipped with a dial-up connection. What began as a Sunday night online newsletter filled with musings on natural disasters and celebrities soon became a venue for scoops on media, entertainment and politics.
Its founder displayed a knack for knowing what would make readers click when he started posting links to articles plucked from the fast-growing internet. He has had many big scoops of his own over the years, but he made his name as an aggregator — a digital journalist who highlights work published elsewhere — and he moved with such speed that he often gave the impression of being first, even when he wasn’t.
When the relationship between President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky — a story he broke — led to an impeachment in 1998, Mr. Drudge fully embraced the role of “sledgehammer to the media establishment complex,” Mr. Lysiak wrote. The site had lurid scoops on Mr. Clinton alongside curios like “Sting says today’s rock music — is a bore!”
Mr. Drudge “effectively invented clickbait,” wrote the Columbia Journalism Review. Frank Rich, writing in The Times in 1999, said he was a “grandstander whom many, I included, once feared as the Devil of journalism incarnate.”
Drudge Report attracted plenty of conservative love and attention. Mr. Drudge worked with Andrew Breitbart, who later created the right-wing news site Breitbart News, and he met Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago. In 2015, he sat off-camera for a 45-minute interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy-theory-peddling founder of Infowars.
Mr. Lysiak, the author, said in an interview that rival websites are “licking their chops — they see blood in the water.” But he noted that there may be another factor in Drudge Report’s recent loss of traffic: the rise of social media.
“Matt Drudge was always first at everything, but not anymore, not even close — Twitter’s first,” Mr. Lysiak said. “For years now, people have been wondering who the next Drudge is, but it isn’t a person. It’s a social media revolution, and he sees that writing on the wall.”
But Mr. Drudge has a deep desire, and a talent, for staying relevant, Mr. Lysiak said. Betting big on Mr. Trump did the trick in 2016. Betting against him could work this time around.
Mr. Lysiak suggested that readers who expected Mr. Drudge’s site to stay true to one line of political thought were misguided.
“In reality, while Matt Drudge has his own personal political opinions, his website has absolutely no loyalty to any political party or ideology,” he said. “Now he’s thinking long-term, really putting his political capital on a Biden candidacy. And if that happens, he will once again weaponize his site on behalf of more conservative causes.”