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Screen capture of the website Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) on Dec. 18, 2019.
Screen capture of the website Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) on Dec. 18, 2019. (drudgereport.com / Courtesy)

Matt Drudge, a titanic figure in American conservative media, appears to be slipping in influence — a change that could impact the 2020 election.

A force for decades, Drudge has angered a key constituency in recent months: supporters of President Donald Trump. The most passionate presidential partisans see Drudge as far less supportive of the president than he once was, and much less than they believe he should be. Trump-supporting websites and personalities have voiced outrage, and grassroots activists have taken to social media to express their displeasure.

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The shift in Drudge’s sentiments, and the void that leaves, could be significant.

Though not a household name on the same level as cable TV’s Fox News Channel or radio’s Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, who lives in southwest Miami-Dade County, has grown into a media powerhouse in recent decades via the self-titled Drudge Report.

The reason for the dissatisfaction is unclear. Drudge famously avoids publicity, and he didn’t respond to emailed inquiries for this report.

Drudge, 53, remains a somewhat opaque figure — described as “elusive” in the Washington Post, “reclusive and powerful” by The Week, and as someone “who rarely allows himself to be seen or heard in public” by The Guardian.

Many pictures of him show him wearing a fedora, in the vein of grizzled newspaper reporters depicted in movies in the last century.

Drudge’s base of operations is a five-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath home in a secluded area halfway between Homestead and Kendall in South Florida. Though enjoying outsize influence with conservatives, he’s registered as a no party affiliation/independent voter.

He started on the West Coast, in the 1990s, writing a Hollywood-based email newsletter focused on entertainment gossip before he transitioned to politics and a website. He exploded in prominence in 1998 with a blockbuster report that Newsweek magazine was declining to publish a story about then-President Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Matt Drudge in 1998.
Matt Drudge in 1998. (Brian K. Diggs/AP)

Drudge writes relatively little of the information on his site himself. Drudge Report is an aggregator, a website that publishes links to a wide range of articles produced elsewhere. It provides one-stop shopping to a variety of news, largely political, but also links to stories about culture, science, natural disasters and oddities. His stock in trade is compelling, often incendiary and sometimes sensationalized headlines that are especially good at getting attention. Historically the headlines have had a conservative spin, even if the original source’s headline and article are neutral.

For much of Trump’s rise as a candidate and as president, their interests didn’t diverge. Early in 2019, the president himself was so happy with the Drudge Report that he tweeted a picture of its key headlines on the day of State of the Union address: “Call For Unity,” “Trump Approval 48%,” and “Teflon Donald.”

No more. There are clearly headlines that Trump and his supporters dislike, such as “Trump Vowed to Shrink the Trade Gap. It Keeps Growing...” and “Manufacturers struggling in Rust Belt...” on Nov. 6 or “Colonel testifies he raised concerns about Ukraine, Trump..." and “Trump assumes Obama’s mantle as the ‘king of debt’...” on Oct. 30.

An early alarm was sounded by Limbaugh, on his radio program in June. And this fall, criticism boiled over in conservative and pro-Trump media:

  • “Et tu, Drudge? Alarm grows on right over site’s anti-Trump pivot,” from the Washington Times.
  • “He may not be able to earn back the trust of Trump supporters who feel betrayed that Drudge appears to have joined the resistance now,” said PJ Media, which warned the change could “backfire big time.”
  • “We have no special knowledge of why The Drudge Report has changed so noticeably. But it has,” said the polling firm Rasmussen Reports, which is known for its surveys that show higher Trump approval than other polls and is frequently cited by the president.
  • “What happened to Matt Drudge?” asked Gateway Pundit, which this week proclaimed that Drudge “Continues to push corrupt anti-Trump news.”

“There was definitely a major shift. Something happened,” said Karyn Turk, a conservative TV and radio personality who hosts “Behind the Headlines” celebrity TV segments. “I’ve been watching this unfold and I’ve been very intrigued by it.”

“I don’t look at it anymore,” said Randy Lundi, who lost a campaign for Congress in Ohio in 1994 and now lives in Jupiter. “It seems to me that we’re getting echoes of the Drudge Report.”

The internet — the very thing that Drudge used to become successful — is filled with theories. Fox News personality Jesse Watters said in a November segment that it’s hard to tell if “he’s riding a wave for clicks or there’s something personally inside his heart or his mind that has shifted against the president.”

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One of the Drudge Report links that Watters listed as as “negative” was a Gallup poll reporting Trump’s approval was 42%.

Drudge’s influence is also suffering for other reasons.

Audience attitudes are changing as Trump has commanded increasing loyalty, said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “If Drudge is putting forward a version of what the conservatives or the Republican Party should be that’s out of 2015, then he may be losing some of his readers, who may be on board with this remaking of the Republican Party under Trump,” Greenberg said.

Drudge isn’t alone in feeling effects of an audience that’s become ever-more supportive of Trump. Many of the president’s most ardent supporters even find the reliably pro-Trump Fox News lacking at times, and they’re touting the even more pro-Trump network One America News Network.

New competitors are offering more of what that audience wants. “Because of our increasing desire for sources that agree with us, people will hunt down and find very specific news sources,” said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. “You never have to be confronted with uncomfortable truths. If you confront it, you can choose to leave it.”

Drudge still offers red meat to conservatives, such as “Biden’s brain surgeon defends his brain...” on Aug. 21, immediately above “Biden recalls MLK, Bobby Kennedy assassinations 'in the late 70s’....” or the Oct. 16 banner headline that blared “Warren takes heat.”

But some of the newcomers are unabashedly farther to the right than Drudge and proclaim themselves as unwavering in their devotion to Trump.

The Bongino Report, launched Dec. 4, is operated by the outspoken and controversial Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who has unsuccessfully run for U.S. Senate and U.S. House in Maryland and U.S. House in Florida. Bongino didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he made his sentiments clear on Twitter: “Drudge has abandoned you. I NEVER will.”

While Drudge Report links to articles from a variety of news organizations — including the New York Times and Washington Post, derided by Trump and his supporters — Bongino links to decidedly right-wing news sources, many of which aren’t familiar names. Bongino told The Wrap that his site would never link to news from the Times or Post “unless it’s to make fun of them.”

Some people get their news differently than when Drudge rose to prominence. “I haven’t been on the Drudge Report in the longest time,” said Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party. “I don’t have a problem with Drudge. It’s just I don’t think of it." Instead, Barnett said, he gets turns first to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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A year out from the 2020 election, Drudge’s audience was down. From September through November, monthly visits were down 28.3% from the same three months in 2018, according to data from the market intelligence firm SimilarWeb.

Still, the audience is enormous. Monthly visits in 2019 average 72.8 million, SimilarWeb reported — although that compares with 2018 monthly visits of 101.5 million. In November, there were 65.2 million visits to Drudge, a 31.6% decrease from 95.3 million in 2018.

Still, those numbers make him a continuing player. This month, Mediaite placed him among the top four influential people in the news media for 2019. “There’s a case to be made that Matt Drudge is the only individual on this list who can actually swing the election.”

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @browardpolitics

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