September 28, 2020
At first glance, a reader can quickly discern the state of things around the country by noting a few of the eye-popping headlines—NFL players booed as racial justice stand sparks outrage, Oregon Scorched, and Advantages of Incumbency Crumbling Away for Trump. The website, unexpectedly still rudimentary, tells readers almost everything they need to know about today. So between the headlines and accompanying images an unfamiliar consumer might conclude this is a newspaper.
But, it’s not. It’s Drudge Report.
This modern-day news delivery platform dubbed a news aggregator was not initially self-described as journalism. Rather, founder Matt Drudge in an address before the National Press Club characterized himself as a “citizen journalist,” a term which implies license to rush to publish stories that mainstream media hesitate to print based on industry best practices. A lot has changed since this scrappy newsletter made its splash on a budding, 1995 internet, including my view. In a transformative era of journalism, I believe Drudge Report qualifies as journalism in its service to the public, exposing readers to news covered by a range of organizations including those not leaning toward a single bias.
Once narrowly focusing on Hollywood and Washington D.C. gossip, the Drudge Report made waves as one the big drivers of internet traffic even before Google or Facebook, but caused a sensation when it broke the bombshell Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, posting insider information that Newsweek killed, according to Pew Research Center. It has since evolved into the dominating news-aggregation website.
But is it journalism? At its outset, I would have said: Heck no.
Leading up to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and as an undergraduate journalism student at San Francisco State University, I would have scoffed at the idea. My biggest criticism as a then 20-something would have been: There’s no actual journalist. There’s no internal newspaper model monitoring content through multiple layers of editors. It doesn’t look anything like the broadsheet-style paper I held in my ink-stained hands. Yet, my news reporting professor back then warned our class: Newspapers will no longer exist. Still, I would have questioned how this website could demonstrate an obligation to the truth by posting other news organizations’ stories? It’s doubtful Drudge Report actually independently verifies all the facts in the dozens of stories it posts daily. Pew’s obligation to the truth tenet of journalism—one of several principles uniting journalists and news media in their definition of journalism as studied by the Washington D.C. think tank—demands that level of integrity.
Drudge Report also has a history of a Republican-leaning, conservative ideology. This alone would have disqualified Drudge Report as journalism for me then. News is supposed to remain as unbiased as possible; another core principle defining journalism, according to Pew research. Openly presenting this slant seems to violate this pillar, skewing the truth.
But as much as I miss it, it’s not the 1990s. A lot has changed in 25 years, including technology, my opinion about what is journalism and now, my thoughts about Drudge Report. While I’ve always subscribed rigidly to Pew’s four principles of journalism, the functionality of Drudge Report clearly informs the public; keeps government, businesses and other centers of power in check; and shines a light on dishonest acts.
Critics also have challenged Drudge Report as a “conservative ideologue,” according to a 2011 New York Times profile, noting that 15 percent of all the traffic at WashingtonPost.com was driven by Drudge Report. The posting of more “balanced” links speaks to another tenet of journalism—making it harder for those in power to abuse their power. As Drudge Report evolved, so have the linked news stories on the site and the opinions of his critics including those of allsides.com, which in 2018 recategorized the aggregator from a “Right” media bias to a “Leaning Right” bias. That progression is what has since swayed my view.
Twenty-five years ago many of us may not have anticipated the demise of newspapers or exactly how journalism would evolve in an internet- and social-media-driven society. But at some point early on, Drudge did. And it resonates because when I last looked, the counter in the lower right corner on the website showed 27,436,293 visits to the website in the past 24 hours and a new eye-popping headline leading the page—San Francisco may soon allow 16-year-olds to vote. Drudge Report has prevailed in a journalism world in the midst of remolding, in ways mainstream news organizations have not.