Author: Matt Drudge
Publisher: New York: New American Library, 2000
Review Published: March 2001
How will history regard the architects of what we experience as the current state of the information age? Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the moguls at Napster who view copyright as an archaic stranglehold akin to Taft-Hartley -- we lack the perspective to critique fully these fathers of invention. Founding or Foundling? Groundbreakers merely, or paradigm shatterers? The word that seems to come up most often in the general discussion of their impact is "revolutionary."
Not all revolutionaries, however, trust posterity to elevate their names to their deserved station. So they make a little noise while they're still around, lobbying for recognition.
Nobody makes more noise than the Walter Winchell of the Internet, Matt Drudge, who seems to understand that while cyberspace is truly unlimited, actual space (in history books, media studies course syllabi, the walls of the Newseum) is limited. In the words of this self-proclaimed savior of citizen-journalism, "I'm a new creature" (32). And in the spirit of his New York Times best-selling book, Drudge means to inform you of the following: 1) the rules of journalism have changed because he's changed them; 2) he's the David of cyberspace slaying the Goliaths of vertically-integrated mass media conglomerates; and 3) the so-called "Information Age" began specifically at the moment when he unleashed the story of THAT woman.
"I'm the earl of URL," he lets slip in an immodest aside in a page filled with immodest asides in a book filled with immodest asides about a career forged in immodest asides.
In matters of form, Drudge has written an unconventional book (or perhaps co-written; author Julia Phillips, in a cagey bit of professional hedging, gets collaborator's credit on the title page but not on the cover) that makes chapter-by-chapter critiquing difficult. Some of the book's more discernible sections carry introductory graphics like the double-page-filling double 00's that introduce the first "chapter." Other sections are telegraphed by enigmatic, self-important-sounding mottoes like "Le Ronde De Le Monde 2000," and "Wake Me When They're Done." Or with typographical stunts, like the lines of ascending hugeness which declare PRINT IS DEAD (7 pt. type), MOVIES ARE DEAD (15 pt. type), TV IS DEAD (60 pt. type).
The stuff in-between -- by that, I mean the actual "book," for lack of a more accurate term -- is a collection of free associative diatribes against the establishment media, fragmentary narrative threads about Monica, the two Bills (Clinton, Gates), Dan Rather, Dr. Laura, the New York Times, and Drudge's Cat (who makes frequent appearances and contributions to the actual text). The book reads something like what you would get if you fed large chunks of Gravity's Rainbow and the Washington, D.C. Social Register into a computer and asked it to combine the two, while suspending the prohibition against sentence fragments and run-on sentences.
In other words, Drudge has done something truly revolutionary here: he's turned the Internet into a book. And from this Manifesto forward, the debate about whether the Internet will destroy printed books will have to be rephrased to consider the reverse possibility. This book will certainly do more harm to the Internet than the Internet could ever do to book culture. Latter-day Luddites, secretly wondering what they're missing on the much-hyped Drudge Report, need not risk losing active Luddite status by sneaking into their local library and signing on under a fake name. They need only leaf through this book. Samuel Beckett once remarked of James Joyce's work, "It isn't about something. It's the thing itself." That's Drudge. His book isn't about the Internet -- It IS the Internet, in all of its maddening glory: democratic, alarmist, immediate, opinionated, sexy, accessible, revelatory, ephemeral, unavoidable.
Reading Manifesto in one sitting is akin to running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. The sensation of being pelted by tiny jets of cold water seems enjoyable -- at least your first few times through. Then the refreshing spray becomes merely an uncomfortable dampness. Eventually, it becomes a teeth-gritting annoyance. At 247 pages, Manifesto will leave most readers water logged.
Here's a sprinkling:
My finger's poised over the button.
This is everything.
Everything you've ever been and everything you'll ever be . . .
"Whaddya think yer doin' Drudge . . . "
"Am I reading this right? You're about to accuse POTUS of having it off with an intern? Are you preparing to blow up Washington? Get me Janet Reno . . . !"
"Hey, I don't like it either, but it's confirmed confirmed confirmed, and your Janet Reno's authorized Starr to move in . . . "
"You are a terrorist, aren't you?"
"Mommy and Daddy were liberals . . . "
"You and your internet manifesto."
"Let the future begin . . . "
"So be it . . . "
Microsoft Mouse moved into position.
Ready. Aim. Enter.
"What's done is done."
"What's done is done."
What's done is done.
Bouncing beams from dish to dish, e's, faxes & alarms, 1 a.m.
Cellphones, conference calls, dirty dresses, cigars, 2 a.m.
Subpoenas. Grand Juries. Fallout. 3 a.m.
Elections. Impeachment. 4 a.m.
Acquittal. 5 a.m.
Fame. 6 a.m.
The entire book is written in this over-heated melange of tortured syntax and pop cultural detritus. Yet, remarkably, some substantive -- even heroic -- moments of journalistic inquiry emerge amid the flotsam. Drudge is the highest profile cyber-news-jock addressing such issues as the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in Beijing. Or closer to home, the harassment of witnesses during the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. Perhaps that's what makes Drudge such a complex conundrum: his Drudge Report tackles the large-scale issues of corruption, persecution, fraud and hypocrisy in 60 point type -- and with a dogged ferocity. If he weren't so busy patting himself on the back for his iconoclastic status,
I'm not carried on their air.
I'm not a byline in their dirty print . . .
he'd be easier to embrace. He's a lot like rat poison -- necessary, I suppose, to control the rats. Harmful if ingested too deeply by humans.
Yet ingest him we must. Drudge's brand of journalism has infiltrated more than the copy-cat Web sites and right-wing talk radio which share his disdain of establishment media. Drudge has become a tidal force in the cyberculture ocean, and he's engendered some important dialogue in the news industry. As someone who believes in the public's absolute right to know about all the wrongdoing and covert creepiness sponsored by our government, I celebrate Drudge's independence. So do many members of the Fourth Estate. Drudge has helped energize the debate about the role of the free press, individual responsibility of journalists, the relationship between source and reporter, and the concentration of media power in the hands of the few. No self-respecting reporter would ever agree to the kinds of restraints now routinely placed on journalists if those restraints hadn't irreversibly leeched into industry precedent. Consider just one example: the practice of the "embargo."
Governmental and corporate bodies routinely release information to media outlets under the caveat that the information be held, or "embargoed," until a specific time. Could be an hour later. Could be a day later. Under this system, all media outlets are assured of getting the information and not being scooped by the competition. In exchange, they must adhere strictly to the embargo.
Drudge ignores embargoes. His disdain for the whole idea of embargoed information has not, as his most vocal critics charge, revealed him to be an unethical, predatory louse. Rather, he's shown himself to be a journalist whose blood boils at the very notion of prior restraint. He breaks embargoes every chance he gets (the most recent example being his early-afternoon release of exit polling information from Florida, broadcast under the headline "Bush Wins in Squeaker"). Instead of piling on Drudge for his failure to conform, perhaps the major media outlets ought to rethink who's on the right side of this issue.
Drudge's unavoidable shortcoming -- and I deeply regret he didn't address this in the book -- is his failure to check his sources. Journalism 101: check it out. He can't claim the mantle of citizen journalist just because he's got a Web site. Journalism implies -- no, requires -- adherence to some minimal standards of fact verification. Reporting unsubstantiated rumor isn't defensible as a sustained modus operandi. Being fed information by "unnamed sources" is one thing. Giving that information the imprimatur of global dissemination is quite another. Drudge gets an awful lot wrong; his track record is abysmal. His professional credibility is practically non-existent, except among the most fervent right wing partisans. Those "mainstream media" outlets he would never condescend to work for? Drudge can stop rehearsing his refusal. Not even the smallest family-owned weekly that adheres to Associated Press rules would risk its standing on such an unrepentant rumor monger.
For most Drudge fans, the nadir of the book will be its final dozen pages, in which actual (or rather, purportedly actual -- a loaded concept in the ethos of virtual cyberculture) e-mails he's received from readers of the Drudge Report are reprinted. (The sampling's unimpeachable credibility is made manifest by the inclusion of e-mails from clerics, professors, and retired military men.) Here's just one posting, typifying the overall book's trademark anti-media frothing and Messianic zeal:
In plain terms, you're my hero. You showed the elitist snobs of the establishment media that one man with a dream, a PC, and perseverance can scoop them on a regular basis and be right as often as they are. Sometimes more often than they are.
You also proved that the most important component of a website is information. Not bells and whistles, not the latest RealPlayer plug in, not bandwidth-clogging animation, but information.
You, Matt, represent what the media should be: tenacious, disrespectful, honest, entertaining, and unstoppable in your pursuit of the truth.
Screw the networks and their holier than thou attitude. Drudge!
Long may he reign! (215)
To love Drudge, apparently, one must despise the "elitist snobs of the establishment media." That's too bad. In a perfect world, one could have his Drudge and still consume a steady diet of "elitist" fare: network news, mainstream newspapers, and the like. Drudge's biggest impediment to the legacy he seeks may be the conditions he's established for admission into his admiration society. He's made it impossible to join his cult unless you renounce every other sort of outside influence. Drudge isn't content to be one voice among many: EVERYONE ELSE is the enemy. As he puts it,
I will never be owned by Sumner.
I will not kiss Sir Stinger's ring.
Not duped by Rupe nor rope-a-doped by Killer Diller.
I will not be spiked by KayGraham, ArtOchs, Mzuuckerman.
My teeth won't shiver for Bernie Shaw, I won't ask Larry King which is the best lipstick . . .
Drudge will not be polled. Drudge will not take census.
Drudge will not be keyworded on anyone's IPO.
Drudge will take his Tootsie moment, but with photo approval.
Drudge will outlive Clinton. (193)
Drudge will outlive Clinton? Perhaps, strictly speaking. But will Drudge outlast Clinton? That seems unlikely. But it should make for some interesting historical jockeying. Or perhaps, given the freaky nature of our times, a best-selling collaboration.
James Broderick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English and Journalism at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, New Jersey. He has worked as a reporter and copy editor for newspapers and wire services in the Midwest and the New York area. <email@example.com>
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