Internet pioneer Matt Drudge up close
Geoff Metcalf interviews best-selling author, online scoopmaster

By Geoff Metcalf

A true pioneer of the Internet, reporter Matt Drudge has made a worldwide name for himself in online journalism. As the first to report the Monica Lewinsky affair, Drudge, over the last seven years, has built a large and loyal readership. His site is known both for scooping establishment media outlets on big stories and timely reporting of breaking stories. WorldNetDaily writer and talk show host Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Drudge about his career and his new book, "Drudge Manifesto".

Question: We have exchanged e-mails over the years but this is the first time we've actually had a chance to talk.

Answer: It's been seven years in this online world, which is about 20 years in a Dan Rather life.

Q: What got you started in this adventure?

A: As with a lot of interesting things in America, I don't think there was a "moment." I set up a computer my dad had bought me. I was working in a gift shop going nowhere. The Mosaic browser turned into Netscape and HTML code became easy -- so I set up a website. This was before CNN or the Washington Post or the New York Times or Salon or Slate or any of these people thought of doing something like this. I started with a few readers and it just ballooned up from there.

Q: I found you in '95 and you were crowing about having something like 20,000 hits. That was hot stuff back then.

A: Oh, yeah. That was something else. The whole notion I'd be sitting here one day last week with one million nine hundred thousand-something is outrageous and ridiculous.

Q: Every generation has someone like you -- Walter Winchell, Herb Cann, for example. Whether you like it or not, what may have started out as a lark will result in you ending up in journalism textbooks as an integral part of the New Media.

A: In what schools is that? (laughing)

Q: Whether they like it or not, even in the mainstream schools. You really are part of the vanguard of this New Media revolution.

A: I've got this new book out, "Drudge Manifesto," which we just released, and it's No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list. You can just imagine the horror of a lot of those New York Times people now having to recognize me in their newspaper as being on their bestseller list.

Q: I was talking to some mainstream types a few years ago and they said, "Drudge doesn't do anything. All he does is report stuff other people are doing." I responded, "Yeah, but he has the huge advantage of not having any bosses. He doesn't have to go through all that triage."

A: To report what someone else is doing is work -- especially if it hasn't been published yet. The whole notion that I can get into the newsrooms and cover what people are working on before it's published -- that is some of the hardest work. The hardest evidence is that no one has even come close to anything like that.

Q: There has to be some places where there is a hit list and some kind of disincentive for people who talk to or e-mail Matt Drudge.

A: There is this new law Congress just passed -- the whistleblowers law -- that now makes it a criminal act to leak classified documents.

Q: Some wags are calling it the "Drudge Law."

A: No, it's not just for people like me but for people like Bill Gertz and the "Year of the Rat" guys (Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II) -- all of these people are in the line of fire now. And watch for Bush. I think he would be the very one to start implementing criminal laws for people who leak and people who want to experience freedom of the press. I am very nervous about Bush now being 10 points ahead. I think Bush is an extreme danger to freedom lovers and to freedom of the press.

Q: But the alternative is so much worse.

A: I'm not so sure it is. The Republicans on Capitol Hill are the ones who want the Internet filters. If you go to some libraries now in Georgia -- in public libraries -- they have filters on their computers. If you type up "Drudge Report," it will flash "obscene material." And George Bush was out there in the third debate, the phony town hall meeting, where he said he is pro-filter. I can't vote for this guy. I'm not going to vote for him.

Q: I am!

I reread the book again -- and I caution listeners and readers -- you have to get about 30 or 40 pages into it to get used to the pace and style of it. I didn't catch it the first time I read it, but you dedicate this book to Linda Tripp. Why?

A: She is somebody who took on the establishment. She is one lady in suburbia who said to the president of the United States, "I'm going to get you, and I'm going to prove that you're a crook -- and I'm going to do it any way that I can." We have a great American tradition of taking on people who abuse power and Tripp, whether you like her or don't like her, did just that. I'm sure most of your audience sees through a lot of the propaganda the mainstream press put out there -- where the first lady is a hero and Linda Tripp is the villain.

Q: Not in this camp, pal.

A: I didn't think so. She was one who stood up to power -- and this whole book is written in that way -- it stands up to the establishment. I don't need Time Warner or Disney or Murdoch or any of these people now to communicate. I've got a little ol' website and I can be on the same plane as they are.

Q: I've put this question to Bob Novak, Jack Germond, John Fund -- every mainstream guy I have interviewed over the last five to 10 years. I have had a strong feeling for some time and, frankly, it's the primary reason I took up Joe Farah on his offer to pioneer this new venue instead of staying in major market radio. I really feel there is a symbiotic relationship between talk radio and the Internet -- and it's going to make a difference. The question I ask these guys is: When will they start reporting the stuff that Drudge reports, that WorldNetDaily reports? They have created a vacuum that has allowed for these venues to take off.

A: They never will, because they would have to give up their power. We don't need a Jack Germond anymore and we don't need the gatekeepers: the Ted Koppels, the Peter Jennings, the Dan Rathers, Tom Brokaw. They're all the same anyway. It is a din of small voices rising up, new faces, new breeds talking and exposing and communicating and reporting. You don't need these gatekeepers in Washington who are basically just feeding off of each other and bouncing things off of each other. If you've ever seen one of these parties where a Jack Germond or a Novak are in the place, it's a club, and that club is losing its power. They'll argue the ratings are going down and the shares are going down because people are not interested in politics and news.

Q: You and I know that's bullfeathers. What's happening with Chris Matthews?

A: His ratings are a disaster. He's barely getting two or three hundred thousand people a night.

Q: That's partly because he's on cable. I do better than that on radio.

A: Although Larry King is still about a million. O'Reilly is now hitting a million. Chris Matthews has been rejected by the audience because I think they see through his flip-flop, wishy-washy manner -- going where he thinks the people are going and not having convictions. But this whole notion that TV even will survive in the next 10 years is something I wouldn't bet money on. As the eyes go from that screen to this screen, they are going to take a huge hit.

Q: You broke the Monica Lewinsky story in January 1998. How big an impact did that story have on Matt Drudge?

A: That story was huge, no doubt about it. You have to remember, I already had a built-in audience before that. A lot of people think, "Oh, that was the first time he was on the Internet" -- which is ridiculous.

Q: You were doing something with AOL, weren't you?

A: I was doing something with AOL and with Wired. I had something like 400,000 visits that Saturday when that thing broke. After all, to break a big story like that you need an audience. George Stephanopolous, the following morning, goes on "This Week" to discredit me and says, "Where did that come from, Bill (Kristol)? 'The Drudge Report'?" I spent the next three days taking all the bullets. Rush Limbaugh went on the air that Monday and read the entire report. I think by that time there were three reports. There were eventually six reports before Washington pulled up their pants and figured out what to do with it. Katherine Graham (of the Washington Post) finally said, "Alright, looks like you've got it, Peter Baker and Sue Schmidt. Let's get this party started." Of course, if it had been Nixon, they would have been saying, "Carl, get out of the bar. Bob, get out of the lecture circuit. We've got ourselves a story. Let's bring down a president."

Q: You are the only reporter, I think, who has ever been sued by the White House. You have a cute anecdote in the book -- cute to us, probably not to you -- about how you found out about that Blumenthal episode.

A: Oh no, I laugh at it all. I was sitting in a Taco Bell eating a 39-cent taco when I learned I was being sued for $30 million by Sydney Blumenthal, the dirt devil from the White House. We've learned through discovery that the White House has actually been using White House aides to help with his discovery. I just think this is really outrageous.

Q: It's kind of standard operating procedure for this White House.

A: I don't think it is. Remember, they have been the ones who have been sued. Klayman, Paula Jones and others sued them. They've never sued back. They've done some other stuff with the IRS and all the rest. But they filed the lawsuit against me and then turned around and used the White House staff to do discovery on me.

Q: Some would argue that is theft of government property and resources.

A: Well, you would think so. But who's to say anymore. I've got a Clinton-appointed judge who is about to hear a Clinton-approved lawsuit brought by a Clinton senior adviser against the Clinton critic. It ought to be a great show.

Q: You got 30 million?

A: I might have by the time they get a verdict.

Q: One of the things I've always liked about you is that you are an equal opportunity offender. There isn't any partisan tint to it -- you take shots at both sides.

A: There can't be. If you're simply going to play one party or the other, you are in trouble. I don't do it just to be contrived. I think there are abuses by both parties and I'm very concerned with Bush at a lot of levels.

Q: I'm still taking heat for not supporting Bob Dole because, when I did my analysis of legislative issues, Dole supported everything Clinton did.

A: Right, and it's not us versus them all the time. I think we proved in the '90s that we can survive any president. If we can survive this basket case we've just ended up with here, I think we can survive anything. But of course, I'm concerned. I don't want Internet filters. I just don't. I'm being selfish here. I don't want to be blocked.

Q: As someone who has taken grief for over 20 years about wearing a handlebar moustache, I have to ask you: What's the deal with the hat?

A: It's branding. And it's a throwback to a different era when these gumshoe reporters actually stood up and shouted a little bit. So the public persona of having that mixed with the 21st century technology, I always thought was kind of neat.

Q: I like the concept of the hat, but why don't you get a better hat?

A: It's a very lucky hat. I'm superstitious. I've been wearing the same Florsheim shoes now for years, too. I'm a superstitious guy. I don't want to rock the boat.

Q: In the time you have been doing this, the growth has been geometric. It is both a blessing and a curse. You're basically a one-man shop, right?

A: That's right.

Q: I know I get overwhelmed with the volume of stuff coming into me and you've got to be getting hundreds of times more stuff. How do you handle it, and what falls through the cracks?

A: A lot falls through the cracks. Lewinsky almost fell through the cracks. It was a stray e-mail that came in. You just go for it. I have this whole theory. I feel like a fisherman on a lake with the most incredible fish. I've got thousands of people working for me that are stringers, that are e-mailers, that are eyewitnesses from the scene. I sometimes receive up to 15,000 e-mails a day. So it's just one of these great experiences where you sit back. Now if you go a little too deep, you start to fry up.

Q: Are you one of these guys who as he walks to the bathroom from the livingroom has to stop to check his e-mail?

A: It's always on. You just live with it. You always know what's on AP at the top of the hour. But it is also a window of opportunity where an individual can make a difference in such a corporate setting. This whole "Drudge Manifesto" book -- two-thirds of it is just a warning of what's going to happen if Time Warner and AOL merge with a Newscorp or a Disney. We're one or two mergers away from a few individuals controlling all of our images and most of our communications. What this new technology represents is a breaking up of that. And it really is a war. They are out to hurt us and malign us. They define the Internet as full of kooks and rumors and gossip when they are the ones that do that stuff. They are hypocrites.

Q: Hypocrites? Listen, I had just started working for ABC when Disney bought them. The whole thing was a marriage of delivery with content. Now you listen to some of the rhetoric about the Time Warner-AOL deal -- HELL-O? They're doing the same thing Disney did.

A: Exactly. They are just not the big fish anymore. But Steve Kassen in his cockiness and Jerry Levin, they'll be swallowed up, too. The biggest of the biggest will swallow and swallow until that fish gets swallowed. So it is a machine where all of us pay the price, where everything becomes a "CNN moment brought to you by People Magazine as seen in Sports Illustrated." This is a warning -- and this book is written from the outsider point of view -- the guy with an audience who is not kissing the ring of any of them, at least not too much.

Q: The Fox TV thing -- I'm very proud of you and a little disappointed at your leaving Fox over that episode. What happened with that?

A: They started censoring what I was saying. And they have every right to -- it's their channel. The problem is, I've sort of tasted not being censored and my audience on the Internet is much larger than any audience I would have had there.

Q: What struck me was you reportedly were going to show that compelling picture of the in-utero surgery with the baby's hand extended and weren't using it as an anti-abortion platform.

A: Oh no, I was going to go on the air and say, "Listen, you see this creature with this claw grasping at the doctor's glove? There are operations in this country that kill these creatures -- it's called abortion." Oh, they didn't like that at all. They thought it was going to be a misrepresentation. I told them, "Listen, I know a place I can say this. I know a place I can be everything I can be and speak my mind and not have to worry about fallout, shareholders, Nasdaq, listings or any of that stuff." And, at one point, I think they said, "So why don't you go there, Drudge?" And I said, "OK, I think I will." The whole notion that anybody should not be everything they could be -- now with this new technology, you have no excuses.

Q: I'm sure some have said, "Drudge, you've missed a great opportunity."

A: Sure, but hold on. I'm saying TV is dying. There's no future in that medium anyway, with all their pancake makeup and all their phony visuals and their propaganda and their theme music to wars.

Q: Do you see the potential for any kind of synthesis of the Internet and TV?

A: No, I don't think it's going to happen. I think MSNBC, which is trying to do that, is failing miserably.