Matthew Lysiak is a staff investigative reporter for the New York Daily News and author of The Drudge Revolution: The Untold Story of How Talk Radio, Fox News, and a Gift Shop Clerk with an Internet Connection Took Down the Mainstream Media. Matthew spoke with Divided We Fall to discuss his new book and its implications for American media and politics.
Joe Schuman: Thank you for joining us, Matt. It would be great if you could start by giving our readers a bit of background on The Druge Report and Matt Drudge.
Matthew Lysiak: Matt Drudge grew up in Silver Springs, MD in a dysfunctional family. His dad essentially disowned him and his mom suffered from severe mental health issues. He basically finished last in his graduating class and decided to move to Hollywood because he had a real passion for journalism—in particular, movies and gossipy Hollywood kind of stuff. Matt got a job as a showrunner moving sets around between commercial breaks. Eventually, Matt learned that the Nielsen ratings were actually being thrown into the garbage can one day before they were released to the public. He found out the schedule of the custodial staff so that once a week, he could grab these Nielsen ratings and post them on these early internet chat sites. Matt continued to collect Hollywood gossip from various sources and eventually created his own website. And that’s actually how the Drudge Report began.
Joe: That’s fascinating. So he started in Hollywood. But he eventually pivoted to politics. How did that transition come about?
Matthew: It was over time. To put it in context, we have to go back to the mid-1990s when a small handful of networks dominated the media landscape. Information was primarily controlled by a small group of TV producers and major newspaper editors who served as gatekeepers of information. At that point, the media landscape was very, very tight. They had information, for instance, about JFK’s affairs and decided it really wasn’t fit for public consumption.
Around that time, Matt Drudge met Andrew Breitbart. Andrew was unlike Matt. Andrew was fiercely motivated by politics. He believed in a form of political populism that we see today has blossomed into the triumphant Trump campaign. At that time, a lot of politicians, especially on the conservative side, didn’t feel like they had an outlet to go to. So they saw an opportunity. Drudge and Breitbart got their big break with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The original investigative reporting was actually done by Michael Isikoff at Newsweek. He was an old school journalist. If he was going to print something about the President of United States, he wanted to have every single I dotted and T crossed. But the result was the publication process was taking forever. So finally, the story was leaked to Matt Drudge who, two hours later, posted it on his website. At that point, the entire world of media changed.
According to the Star Report, President Clinton first saw media reports of the affair on the Drudge Report. To me, this marked a real pivotal moment in journalism. You could see all these giant media conglomerates trying to figure out how to deal with someone like Matt, who could go online and post something immediately. These major media corporations had huge staffs, lawyers, standards, etc. And they were beaten at their own game. It is weird because you usually can’t pinpoint these moments in history. But in this case, you can. It was the moment Matt Drudge pressed enter. All the work Michael Isikoff had done was really great journalism but was reduced to a footnote.
Joe: Fascinating. So from there, the Drudge Report grew into a behemoth news source with hundreds of millions of views. Did it always have a right-wing populist viewpoint?
Matthew: Breitbart was a true believer in the cause unlike Matt. Matt views the site as a business. I’m always amazed how shocked people are by hearing this. I’ll tell you a quick story. When Andrew Breitbart was helming the Drudge Report as the AM Editor, it was his job was to find links that he thought were Drudge worthy and post them. Every time Breitbart posted an article that was critical of Obama, Matt Drudge would pull it down and replace it. Finally, Andrew asked Matt about why he was doing that. Matt replied by saying that an Obama presidency might be terrible for the country, but it would be great for his website. And it’s hard to argue with the results, at least financially for Matt. There are more than a handful of people who did better financially under Barack Obama than Matt. His net worth is estimated at north of a hundred million dollars now. And it’s also a common theme that conservatives often do better under Democratic Presidents. They do better when there’s a bad guy to target.
Joe: Today, Drudge is now being accused of being a “Never Trumper” and even a “man of the Progressive Left” by various conservative pundits. If this is true, is it because it might be better for business?
Matthew: The Drudge Report is obviously being weaponized on behalf of Biden campaign right now. But it’s not personal with Matt. He has his own personal political opinions. He describes himself as a Libertarian. But at the end of the day it’s about his business. People were shocked at this in 2015, when Matt Drudge supported this liberal from New York City who was pro-choice named Donald Trump, as opposed to some of the more conservative candidates in the race. And why was Matt Drudge all in on Donald Trump? His page clicks went up to an unbelievable level during that period, which meant his revenue and influence went up as well. Between 2015 and 2016, the Drudge report had average about 30 to 35 million views a month, which was a record for him.
Joe: So if Biden were to win, would you foresee Drudge report flipping sides yet again?
Matthew: Based on the history of the Drudge Report over the past twenty years, I suspect that is exactly what it will do. Relevance is of the utmost important to Matt Drudge and his page views right now are about half of what they were in 2015-2016. Yet, nonetheless, everybody is talking about Matt Drudge. The President of the United States is tweeting about Matt Drudge. And none of this is by accident. He has orchestrated the whole thing and is laughing his way to the bank.
Joe: It sounds like he is playing Trump’s own game against him. And perhaps winning.
Matthew: He is. And he’s also playing the Left because he is going to pivot back right.
Joe: You touched on this earlier, but I think your book broaches a really important question about gatekeepers in public media. In the case of the Drudge Report specifically, should we be concerned that an extremely influential media outlet is being by driven by someone motivated not by any ideological beliefs but, rather, focused on revenue and influence?
Matthew: I think we should be very concerned. But at the same time I think we get the media we deserve. His site is popular because it is desired by a significant segment of the population in this country. What Drudge did to the media space is now only accelerating through social media. When I started at the New York Daily News, my editors would check the Drudge Report over and over to find the latest breaking news. But Matt isn’t first anymore. Twitter is first. And it’s not even close. For years, people had been asking who is going to replace Matt Drudge. The answer is that it won’t be an individual, but a revolution in the way we receive online news. I am an optimist, though, in terms of news. I feel like we’re really on the fringe of a golden age of information. Everybody basically has a newspaper on their phone right now. We are in the middle of a transformation, but I think it will end up a transformation for the better.
Joe: There are a lot of corollaries in my mind between the Drudge Report’s media philosophy and Trump’s campaign style. The strategy is as follows: make a lot of noise or say something controversial and get a lot of free attention; “no news is bad news”; decry fake news; dominate the news cycle and control the narrative. What I am wondering is if these tactics work in the media and political spheres, which they appear to do, why would a candidate or an organization not use them? I happen to think these tactics are harmful. But if you are only concerned about your business or your campaign, it seems like a strategy that works.
You say we get the media we deserve. I unfortunately agree. From the consumer perspective, reading good quality, fact-based journalism can sometimes feel like eating your vegetables. You know you should do it, but it is so much easier to skim the mind-numbing political scandal of the day.
Matthew: Yeah, it’s a guilty pleasure for me as well. Unfortunately, in my experience, a lot of the best investigative journalism is combined with an extremely boring, almost academic approach to writing, which bores people out of their minds. Another thing reporters have done is voice their own political beliefs within their reporting. This turns away viewers or readers and results in them only talking to half of the country.
Joe: I have heard the term “opinion-based journalist” used to describe what you are talking about.
Matt: In my opinion, that is a contradiction in terms.
Joe: And I think it touches on a blurring of lines between what is journalistic and objective and what is opinion and subjective. I see that blurring quite literally when I look at the front page of many major newspapers and can barely tell the difference between the headlines and the opinion section.
Matthew: I think that more than anything, this is one of the most dangerous pitfalls that the future of journalism faces. If you look at two outlets with different political biases, we are almost in two different realities. I try really hard in the book to keep my own politics out of it as much it is possible, which is not easy with such a controversial and political figure. I’ve gotten some criticism from both the right and the left and I take it as a compliment.
Joe: That’s how you know you’ve been fair. It’s like a good compromise: nobody is completely happy at the end.
I think that’s a fitting note to end on, Matt. I encourage our readers to purchase a copy of your book, The Drudge Revolution: The Untold Story of How Talk Radio, Fox News, and a Gift Shop Clerk with an Internet Connection Took Down the Mainstream Media. Thanks again for joining us today, Matthew.
Matthew: Thanks, Joe.
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