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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Drudge 'the Walter Cronkite of His Era'

Walter Cronkite, for years named the "most trusted man in America" in opinion polls, later this week involuntarily will pass the mantle of his voice of authority regarding all things U.S.-news related to Matt Drudge, long considered by Democrats to be one of the least trustworthy news figures in the nation and often cited by media scholars as a possible key reason for the recent erosion of public trust in the media's credibility.

In a book scheduled for release October 3, the political director of ABCNews and the national politics editor of the Washington Post report that the four words in every newsroom and campaign headquarters are: "Have you seen Drudge?" For those who need this phrase to be explained, Mark Halperin and John Harris, in The Way to Win, spell it out: "So many media elites check the Drudge Report consistently that a reporter is aware his bosses, his competitors, his sources, his friends on Wall Street, lobbyists, White House officials, congressional aides, cousins, and everyone who is anyone has seen it, too."

"Matt Drudge is the gatekeeper," the reporters say, later writing that Matt Drudge "is the Walter Cronkite of his era." They explain that in the fragmented, remote-control, click-on-this, did-you-hear? political media world in which we live, "revered Uncle Walter has been replaced by odd nephew Matt." Cronkite, it should be noted, has voiced major suspicions about reporting distributed not through traditional news outlets but via the Internet and has called for increased suing and regulation of Internet-based sites carrying news coverage.

"Matt Drudge rules our world," Halperin and Harris write, not putting too fine a point on it. "With the exception of the Associated Press, there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts." The reporters understand this phenomenon so well, they ensured pre-publication publicity for their new book by sending out press releases discussing not the upcoming elections and how Democrats can win it but Matt Drudge's influence.

In fact, none of what these two reporters are saying should be news to anybody in the news business or even in politics; for at least a decade reporters shamelessly have refreshed the Drudge Report throughout the day. I daresay feminists have too. Say what you like about him, Drudge without question has great news judgment. No editor on the planet pulls in the kind of readership Drudge does by the choices he makes in what news items he links to on a continuously updated basis. News outlets across the nation follow Drudge's news judgment, or report on how Drudge is spinning a development, or deliberately decide not to give any ink to a news item he is playing prominently. There is no question that in this way alone he has influenced the U.S. news media.

And then there are the scandalous stories he'll break that mainstream news outlets won't. Most famously, of course, he broke the Monica Lewinsky story that Newsweek editors had killed (and that Newsweek's investigative reporter is widely believed to have leaked to Drudge to see that it got national play). Rarely does Drudge write his own news stories; when he does, he more-often-than-not writes about what's going on behind the scenes at mainstream news outlets -- news that these outlets don't want you to know but that reporters inside believe deserve national coverage and are tipping off to Drudge. One of the biggest continuing stories of this era turns out to be the upheaval in the mainstream media, including ongoing exposure over the past handful of years of the plagiairism involved, the laziness and sloppiness in the reporting, the bias never before really questioned, even the staging of news and photo coverage most recently. Almost all of this has come to light as the result of the "alternative" media to the mainstream and Internet-based monitoring of the mainstream media, pioneered by the likes of Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh.

Thing is, these two men draw readership and listeners in numbers the mainstream outlets can only wish they did. FOX News, meanwhile, long has topped the cable news ratings. At what point do these dominant outlets no longer qualify as "alternative" media? And why did feminist leaders cringe, for example, at the mention of Rush Limbaugh this past month when launching a national feminist radio program rather than saying they had learned from his example, which is that there is a big-numbers market for political talk radio wherein listeners believe they learn about the issues in time for them to think about them and do something constructive about them, and that feminists want to reproduce this kind of success in the new media? Or is the truth more along the lines that our classic feminist leaders haven't studied the Limbaugh model -- haven't even bothered to take a look at the business models for success in the medium they are going into -- and thus haven't learned the lessons to be taken away from it, regardless of political persuasion?

But I digress. In an age when the news media is fast merging into one big conglomerate and there are no lines anymore distinguishing Hollywood from Washington and news from entertainment, we need a meeting point somewhere in the middle of all of it. The Drudge Report has become the closest thing cyberspace has to a common meeting place for the U.S. news-following public. Matt Drudge has demonstrated extraordinary news judgment over a long and consistent period; whether you like his choices or not, his astuteness is on a scale that virtually requires anyone in the know to at least check out what he's reporting now. Finally, in the end a reporter is a newsgatherer; in that regard Drudge reigns as king in our era of information chaos.

But Walter Cronkite instead is giving his vote of confidence to Katie Couric, who CBS has invested a fortune into winning its newscast ratings, yet Couric dropped to second place behind NBC in her second week as the first female anchor of a network nightly newscast (despite a massive months-long publicity campaign usually reserved only for the biggest blockbuster movies). Couric decided to take a swan dive into the watery graveyard depths of network nightly news anchors at a time when the morning newscasts are the major driving forces of the network news divisions (and this was the case starting a decade before Couric joined the Today show -- that is, she didn't create this reality for morning network shows). She made her decision -- let's just be frank here -- based on reasons having to do with ego, because her choice certainly had nothing to do with where a serious anchor would go to have any actual impact in the network newscast media world. (Further, it's hard to call Couric's move "progress" for women when she deliberately jumped from the scene of action directly to the network newscast death bed.) The truth is, CBS and Cronkite would have done better in regard to the future of the network and the direction of news to pay attention to that Drudge of a manager they had at the CBS gift shop rummaging around in trash cans to dig up major scoops about how the mainstream media operates and disseminating that information to the public.

"And," as Cronkite would have said in a different age, "that's the way it is."