Clinton and Drudge

clin.jpg By Richard Norman

There are a lot of reasons why Hillary Clinton looks set to lose the Democratic nomination. An inconsistent message and inflexible campaign strategy are two. Another important one is Barack Obama’s singular political talent. But one of Clinton’s biggest problems is a website: the Drudge Report. Earlier this year, two journalists, Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, wrote a book called The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008. In it they make some very astute observations about the changing nature of American political culture.

Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory — all are native flowers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The first was the disintegration of editorial filters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena. The New Media — talk radio, cable television, Internet websites — for the most part never had these editorial filters . . .

This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically. The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of filters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.

The king of the online political freak show is of course Matt Drudge, the reclusive second-hand "journalist" who came to prominence by breaking the Monica Lewinsky story. More than anyone else in America, he sets the tone of the media’s political coverage. Last October, it appeared Clinton and her advisers had taken the advice offered in Halperin and Harris’ book. A New York Times article, "Clinton Finds a Way to Play Along with Drudge," described a prominent Drudge scoop on a big Clinton fundraising drive. The article went on to say:

That people in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. But it also speaks to the enduring power of the Drudge Report, which mixes original reporting with links to newspaper, Internet or television reports far and wide. The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge’s targets of choice ? some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times. Aides in both parties acknowledge working harder than ever to get favorable coverage for their candidates ? or unfavorable coverage of competitors ? onto the Drudge Report’s home page, knowing that television producers, radio talk show hosts and newspaper reporters view it as a bulletin board for the latest news and gossip.

But by my estimation this article marked a sharp turn in Drudge’s coverage of Clinton. From November to February, the Drudge Report has gone out of its way to abuse and smear Clinton at every turn. It almost appears he wanted to make sure no one ever connected his name favourably with Clinton’s again. Here’s a representative sample from the last three months: SLIP: Hillary says ‘IF’ not ‘WHEN’ she is president… Sore Loser: Hillary Refuses To Congratulate… OBAMA TAKES ALL 3; AS HILLARY CRIES AGAIN VIDEO: HILLARY ELECTION DAY HEALTH SCARE: Coughing Fits Cut Short Election Day Media Interviews… Hillary’s 261 Earmarks Leads All… TALK OF HILLARY EXIT ENGULFS CAMPAIGN… ^ Photo of nude man missing from Hillary fundraiser… Flags come crashing down on Hillary after Veterans Day press conference… Hillary Clinton suddenly vulnerable as bruises start to show… ***Flashback 2000: Hillary stiffs single-mom waitress… HERE COMES KATHLEEN: Hillary Clinton faces sensational claims from another woman in Bill’s past… DON’T SHOOT THE MODERATOR: DEBATE FALLOUT TURNS UGLY… Tim Russert ‘should be shot’, Hillary supporter declares on conference call with top advisers… A search of the Drudge archives during this time does not reveal a single positive story. Obama, considered much more liberal than Clinton, meanwhile came in for little to no grief. From the last four months: Obama Dances, Sings with Texas Swing Band… Superdelegate schmoozed by Chelsea backs Obama… Even blowing his nose, Obama gets applause… Obama Draws Large Crowds In San Antonio, Houston… Obama: ‘Whatever it takes’ to end gun violence… Obama’s Edge: Michelle… FLASH: House Speaker Pelosi ‘leaning towards Obama’… Madame Tussauds Wax Museum Unveils Obama in Oval Office… Developing… Karl Rove to Obama: ‘How to Beat Hillary’… This is all in line with a CMPA report that shows Clinton has come in for the most negative media attention of any candidate: 3 to 2 negative, to Obama’s 3 to 2 positive, for example. What remains to be seen is whether Obama’s campaign has been passively benefiting from Drudge’s anti-Hillary whim, or has found a strategy to bring him on-side against her. If the latter, his likely victory in the nomination battle will appear as a master blueprint of how to win in today’s American politics.

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9 thoughts on “Clinton and Drudge

  1. It sucks, I agree. But it’s not part of anyone’s master plan. People are naturally salacious and interested in personality over policy. This stuff may dominate cable TV, but it’s less prevalent in the newspapers and PBS, for example…

  2. So Matt Drudge is one of the most powerful political operators around today who pulls the strings of the mainstream media like a mad puppeteer? Maybe I should check out his site more often…

    Part of the problem is that the people who do news today, especially on tv, do not seem like serious people. They understand that their product is entertainment, and they substitute lots of slick graphics and sound effects for detailed analysis. The question is, is this the news media that we deserve or is it being forced down our throats by the powers that be that stand to benefit from the bread and circuses offered by Wolf Blitzer and his show of hands or Bill O’Reilly’s “don’t be a jejune?” Still, it goes down easy like a light beer.

  3. Hi Richard

    Nice reply! I think we agree about the silliness of media focus on things like Hillary’s crying (which by the way apparently helped her in New Hampshire), Obama’s wearing Somali dress, and the rumor that he attended a ?secular madras” (untrue) and so on. My favorites (by the way) were from Gail Collins who (jokingly) wrote about

    – the candidates’ various claims about their duck hunting prowess http://laf.ee/wp/?p=8
    – Mitt Romney’s driving the family to Canada with the dog strapped to the roof of his car http://select.nytimes.com/2007/08/04/opinion/04collins.html?scp=2&sq=Collins+Romney+dog&st=nyt

    I guess where we part ways is whether the treatment of Hillary was just par for the course. I think so. Your readers might be interested in some very good editorials written a while ago by Paul Krugman on these issues. Here are the links:

    On the difference between Clinton and Obama health plans
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/04/opinion/04krugman.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=Krugman+candidates&st=nyt&oref=slogin

    On John Edwards as the (former) candidate with the best ideas
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/01/opinion/01krugman.html?scp=9&sq=Krugman+candidates&st=nyt

    On populism and bitter partisanship
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/28/opinion/28krugman.html?scp=12&sq=Krugman+candidates&st=nyt

    Finally I shamelessly put in a plug for myself here — my short (and silly) blog about this style of politicking

    http://laf.ee/wp/?p=8

    Cheers!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Michael. I agree Kerry did Kerry in, as Clinton is doing Clinton in. But neither are helped by a media that focuses much more on trivia and personality than on substance (a frequently made point, I know). I agree that there have always been journalists out there who dig up trivial/meaningless points and try to make them into big deals, but I don’t think it’s ever been like it is today. Drudge is a master of the salacious detail and the cable news channels (especially) are always looking for something to jump on. The issue doesn’t even have to be, “Does Drudge or network news journalists aping Drudge influence voters?” The issue can be, “Is the amount of airtime wasted by covering bullshit instead of real issues make a difference?”
    I’m not especially a supporter of Clinton, but I think she has been treated very unfairly by the media which has largely followed the lead of Drudge in focusing on personality and completely insignificant details. Is it the difference between winning and losing? Maybe not, but it has affected her campaign negatively.

  5. Hee Hee

    This is fun indeed. In today’s NYT, there is a piece about Hillary’s latest strategy to persuade voters in Ohio that she is a better candidate than Mr. Obama – she is going seriously negative. Here is the URL if anyone is interested

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/us/politics/26clinton.html

    My favorite part of the article is this quote about one of the attacks:
    ” ? the attack that received the most pop, on cable television and blogs, came after a photograph of Mr. Obama in ceremonial African garb appeared on the Drudge Report, and the item’s author, Matt Drudge, claimed that the image was provided by a Clinton staff member.
    Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said that the Clinton campaign had “engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party.” It has not been independently verified that the photograph came from the Clinton campaign.
    Mrs. Clinton’s new campaign manager, Maggie Williams, recently appointed to bring a tougher hand to the operation, issued a withering reply, not taking responsibility for the photograph but attacking the Obama campaign for suggesting that the photograph amounted to fear-mongering imagery.
    “Enough,” Ms. Williams’s statement began. “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.”
    “This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry,” she added. “We will not be distracted.”

    Well, well, well. Did the Clinton campaign release the photo? Did Matt Drudge take it with the intention of revealing that the Clinton campaign gave it to him? Is this playing a race card? Will it all mean anything? ? ghosts of Sam Donaldson and Fritz Hollings? What impact will all this have? I would argue that it will be marginal at most. But if it has any impact, I predict that it will further strengthen the perception (true or not) that Hillary is nasty. This will not help her. If she loses, she and Bill will then (of course) blame the media for being unfair to them. In the last act, they will both write more books about their struggles in life. Ah well?.

  6. Hi Richard

    Now that was a nice reply! I take your point that a rather large and silly group of media and political junkies probably bow before Master Drudge 30 or 40 times a day. They may also go to the Velvet Hot Tub as many times though I guess they would not admit it. But let’s not get too deeply into their personal habits. Everyone knows that these types get paid only if they say or write ?interesting” comments again and again and again (read — every God darned day). Hence my ?blah blah blah” label. The theory behind their work goes that something might become interesting because “interesting” people say it is interesting. But on this planet, what the US media thinks is ?interesting” may not be what actually shapes voter’s decisions.

    Swift Boating is a good example. Did swift boating do in John Kerry? I would argue to the contrary that John Kerry did John Kerry in. He ran an arrogant, boring and silly campaign that turned off the middle class people who should have voted for him whether he was a war hero decades before or not. Swift Boaters happened to be there to gloat about his demise. Same for Hillary. She simply does not seem to get it that the snarl attacks that she and her groupies indulged in against Obama (and their self pitying whining) revealed something about their values and turned off quite a few people who are fed up with this style of politics. The chattering class (including Matt Drudge) also doesn’t seem to get this. Once again, I think it is because they make their careers puffing themselves up by repeating and exaggerating the impact of nasty blah blah blah that floats around. By the way, these are the same people who all recited the mantra in the early days that Hillary could not be beaten, and Obama could not be elected. Did that have any impact? They also (can you believe it) took Mitt Romney seriously. Did that have any impact? While we are pondering Hillary’s (perhaps) demise, we might note that her campaign also did not seem to realize that there were primaries after February 5th that might require funding and organizational efforts. Obama’s people have been much better at grass roots fund raising and organizing, which is I think a major factor in his 10 in a row sprint. We might also consider whether Obama has a message that a lot of people like.

    On the blah blah issue, I am reminded of a Sunday morning TV exchange that took place many years ago on the David Brinkley Show between Sam (attack dog) Donaldson and Senator Fritz Hollings. Instead of asking a question, Sam said to Hollings that voters in South Carolina (a textile producing state) would like to know why Hollings had his suits made in Hong Kong. Hollings said that he thought viewers would like to know why Sam wore a toupee on TV. For once, Sam blushed and the topic then shifted to other equally fascinating subjects. This predated (by many years) the internet and Mr. Drudge. But isn’t it on the same level as quite a lot of media baloney that you see these days floating in cyber space like so much flotsam in the sea.

    My point — it is easy to get distracted by the blah blah blah served up by much of the media. In fact, voters develop and break loyalties to candidates for a lot of reasons. I think that blah blah blah from the media has become the half time entertainment to the football game.

  7. Hi Nick and Michael,

    All due respect to Velvet Hot Tub, but I think the Drudge Report is an extremely important part of American media culture. In fact, I think it is the single most significant political news website. It is a bulletin board for mainstream press coverage, and sets the tone and guides the direction of most mainstream press coverage.

    If you think Drudge is insignificant then you must think the Swift Boat Vets for Truth campaign against Kerry in 2004 was insignificant. They were injected into the media’s main vein by Drudge. If you think stories about Obama wearing a Somali costume, or “plagiarizing,” or Clinton spending $5 million of her own money–all recent stories that dominated CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS coverage of the race (and all minor, freak show stories) –haven’t had an impact on the race, then the fact they were broken by Drudge isn’t important.

    I think most people on the big networks would admit they check Drudge regularly for breaking news stories and race to follow up these stories. Nielsen says he has 3 million visitors a week. Mark McKinnon, a former media advisor to George W. Bush, says he checks the site 30-40 times per day. Positive coverage on his site is a big consideration for every campaign.

    I don’t deny that Clinton’s other mistakes have doomed her campaign. The point of my post is to say that Drudge’s negative coverage has led the mainstream media’s coverage, and done irrevocable damage to her quest for the nomination.

  8. I agree with Michael that you might be overestimating Drudge -though he is probably a bit more influential than this blog 😉 On the other hand, the statistic you cite about overall media coverage does probably have some effect, and rings true to someone who spends too much time watching CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. The media does tend to have a pro-Obama bias – to me, the proof of that came when Obama’s speech on super tuesday cut out McCain’s, and then last week during the primary in Washington/Hawaii/Wisconsinthey cut off Hillary’s speech mid-sentence to go to Obama’s (and there was a good two minutes of thank yous before he even got the meat of his speech). The media also tends to give McCain a pass.

    This is probably inevitable – Obama and McCain just get along better with reporters and have more likeable personalities, which combined with a subconscious desire to craft an interesting narrative (outsider upsets presumptive nominee) results in a slight, but noticeable, slant against Hillary.

  9. Hi Richard

    Sour grapes from a Clinton supporter? I do think you might be somewhat exaggerating the influence of the Drudge Report. It is just one of a huge number of web based sources of blah blah blah. I would put the Drudge Report at the same level of importance in opinion forming as the Velvet Hot Tub (a blog about Hollywood nipple spotting). But to be a bit more contrarian, could we give American voters a tiny bit of credit for forming opinions on the relative merits of candidates on their own, rather than see them as moronic zombies who follow …. God help us … someone like Matt Drudge?

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