Matt Drudge’s panama hat is the kind that cigar-sucking American newspaper men wore in the 1940s. Seeing him without it is like seeing the Statue of Liberty without her torch or Tom Wolfe without his white suit.
The internet has spawned a million sites but has created few real legends — one of whom is Drudge. That hat is part of the legend, a bit of style in the void of cyberspace.
Drudge runs one of the most influential and discussed websites in the world: the Drudge Report. It is a tabloid newspaper that you can read on the net offering up-to-the-minute news, gossip, sport and celebrity stories. It was Drudge who in 1998 published the story of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and became famous overnight.
I expected a fast talking, in-your-face, liberal-baiting American. But after two minutes in his company you realise that Drudge is a loner. He says he has come to London “to find a good Indian restaurant”. At first I thought he was being flippant but he was not: “I don’t have any friends in London. I’m here for dinner. I like to travel. I spend 30% of my time travelling.”
Whether Drudge goes to London or Budapest he spends his time doing exactly what he does back in America: sitting alone in his room before computer screens: “My home, my hotel room, my car — they’re all like a mobile news room.”
As the city sleeps Drudge works late, tracking down stories, searching dozens of news agencies, web-sites, newspapers, radio broadcasts, television channels and tip-offs in the hope that he will be the first to bag tomorrow’s headlines. “I was first to break the news about the death of Lady Diana,” he boasts. “The CNN team couldn’t get into make-up fast enough.”
It is a gruelling schedule. “Yesterday I spent 13 hours in my hotel room looking for news. I’ve done seven hours already and will do another seven tonight.” For Drudge, news is not a job — it’s love.
“When a volcano erupts or an impeachment is formed — there’s a drama there. I look for action, motion, friction. There’s nothing more exciting than to watch a story break and grow — and to be the first one to present it to the world.”
What would be the perfect Drudge story? “An earthquake hitting a hospital with Bill Clinton having surgery and President Bush in the waiting room and an asteroid coming its way.” He laughs.
What does Drudge do when he is not plugged into cyberspace? “That’s a very good question and I’m not going to discuss it,” he replies.
“Hold on, Matt,” I say, “you’re always exposing the private lives of public figures. You can’t go all coy now.”
“I’m not very social. I live on an island in Miami, Florida, and I do my own shopping and pay my taxes,” he says. “And I’m not mean.”
That is not the way that Drudge’s critics see it. David Brock, a former right-wing journalist, claimed in his book Blinded by the Right that Drudge was gay, yet supported a party that these critics see as “homophobic”.
“So are you a gay right-wing Republican?” I ask.
“No, I’m not gay. I was nearly married a few years ago. And no, I’m not a right-wing Republican,” he replies without batting an eye. “I’m a conservative and want to pay less taxes. And I did vote Republican at the last election. But I’m more of a populist.”
Actually I don’t think he has an ideological bone in his body. He is a news junkie who wants the buzz of the story and leaves the battle of ideas to others. At the moment Drudge is excited by the Michael Jackson trial. When I say it does not seem to have caught the public imagination like the O J Simpson case did, Drudge is bemused. “This is much bigger than O J,” he says. “Nobody in Budapest ever heard of O J Simpson. When I drove into London from the airport the cabbie wasn’t discussing Michael Howard, he was talking about Michael Jackson.”
Born in the city of Takoma Park in Maryland, Drudge was a child who got terrible grades in school: “I’m self-taught, self-educated, self-made. I didn’t go to a fancy journalism school, I had to learn about computers and the net by myself.”
He set up an e-mail version of the Drudge Report in 1994. Since then it has grown into a business estimated to earn about £650,000 a year, although it still has a staff of one: Drudge.
When he first appeared in the 1990s he was part of a new group of outsiders challenging the political elite and the big media corporations. Has he now become part of the Establishment? “No. Because I have success it doesn’t mean that I’m part of the mainstream. I’m still an outsider.”
Then in the next breath he is talking about having a drink with Harvey Weinstein, the former Miramax boss, and hoping to meet George Bush’s twin daughters at the White House correspondents’ dinner this week. “Look, meet them once and you’re innocent, meet them twice and you’re not. So if you see me having drinks again with Harvey Weinstein then, okay, you’ve got me,” he says.
Back in the 1990s Drudge was a believer in the empowering potential of the internet. In a speech he said, “We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be.”
Now he sounds disillusioned and says that the “din” is growing into a cacophony: “There’s a danger of the internet just becoming loud, ugly and boring with a thousand voices screaming for attention.” He is no fan of the blogging phenomenon (weblogs linking sites): “I don’t read them. I like to create waves and not surf them. And who are these influential bloggers? You can’t name one because they don’t exist.”
He loves The Sun — “the best newspaper in England” — and BBC Radio 5. He even loves Michael Moore, the Bush-baiting documentary maker: “He’s genius.” And he does not believe that the internet will be the end of newspapers: “The internet feeds off the main press and the main press feeds off the internet. They’re working in tandem. I think what will happen is that newspapers will be printed throughout the day so you get different editions like in the old days.”
What is the future? “I never think too far into the future,” he says. “I’m too busy thinking about tomorrow’s news.”