Shock: Drudge loses his grip on US media!

By John Gapper

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Last Thursday afternoon, Matt Drudge broke out the red capital letters for the lead headline on his internet site, the Drudge Report.

“SHOCK: MCCAIN VOLUNTEER ATTACKED AND MUTILATED IN PITTSBURGH,” the headline read, with a strapline: “ ‘B’ CARVED INTO 20-YEAR-OLD WOMAN’S FACE … DEVELOPING.”

It was a shocker in the tradition of Mr Drudge’s scare stories and hyped-up trivia about Democratic candidates in US presidential campaigns, to go with past items about John Edwards’ $400 haircut and John Kerry’s windsurfing. This time, however, it was not merely tendentious but false.

By Saturday, the Drudge Report carried a smaller headline reading: “SHE MADE IT ALL UP!” beside a photograph of Ashley Todd, the Texan student in question. Far from being attacked by a tall black man and told she ought to vote for Barack Obama, she had injured herself.

The Ashley Todd affair was the latest in a series of failures by Mr Drudge to recapture the magic of the past, when the Drudge Report had an unrivalled grip on the media agenda. He has spent the past month blatantly cherry-picking poll results that favour John McCain, to the loud derision of Obama-supporting blogs.

Although there has been some narrowing in the national polls this week, Mr Drudge has cried wolf so often in recent weeks that he can hardly claim credit when the wolf finally shows up.

The decline of Drudge is part of a broader shift in the US media, both old and new, towards the Democratic party. Unlike in the last two elections, when Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s strategist, expertly exploited the media’s short attention span and love of sensation, the Republican candidate has lost their affection and respect.

Mr McCain bears a lot of the blame for that, since he has run a chaotic and unpleasant campaign, insinuating that Mr Obama is not to be trusted because of his vague link to Bill Ayres, a former member of the Weather Underground 1960s terrorist group; suggesting that he is less of a patriot than Mr McCain himself; and generally losing his temper.

It still infuriates Republicans, who are convinced that the media have it in for them. Umpteen newspapers (including the Financial Times) have declared their support for Mr Obama and Slate, the online magazine, this week disclosed that 55 of its staff and contributors intend to vote for Mr Obama and one for Mr McCain.

In fact, I think they are correct that the media currently tilt leftward in the US, but not for the obvious reason. It says less about the bias of “liberal elite” journalists and more about a breakdown of the established media order, from The New York Times to Mr Drudge.

Mr Drudge’s dominance has been undermined by competition. His sensibility infuriated so many people that left-leaning sites such as the Daily Kos sprung up to challenge him. Lately, his thunder has been stolen by the Huffington Post, an unlikely blend of leftwing blogging, reporting and aggregation founded by Arianna Huffington, the media gadfly.

The Huffington Post has leapt past the Drudge Report in traffic, attracting 4.5m unique users in September, compared with 2.1m for Drudge and 2.4m for Politico, a political news site. While Mr Drudge picks out stories that could hurt Mr Obama, the Huffington Post does the opposite, highlighting anything that makes Mr McCain look bad.

This shift leftwards online has been matched on cable television, where Fox News, the rightwing news channel, has increasingly faced its mirror image at MSNBC. The latter’s leftish talk-show hosts, Keith Olbermann and now Rachel Maddow, a chirpy gay liberal, dish out scorn about Republicans in opposition to Bill O’Reilly and others at Fox.

The effect is not just to balance out Mr Drudge and Mr O’Reilly but to place old-school media objectivity, as practised by US newspapers, under pressure. Obama-supporting blogs have ridiculed stories in outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that fail to dismiss distortions by Mr McCain.

All this, and falls in advertising and circulation, is pushing newspapers back to a scrappier, more plain-spoken and partisan “yellow press” past. Instead of soberly trying to filter all information with a careful “on the one hand, on the other hand” balance, they are becoming more colourful in tone and politics.

Some old hacks are shocked. Michael Malone, a columnist and “one of those people who truly bleeds ink when I’m cut”, wrote on ABC News online that the bias to Mr Obama on television and in newspapers was “not just bewildering but appalling”.

Well, maybe, but it looks familiar enough to a British journalist: this is Fleet Street. It is what happens when you get intense competition among different media outlets, all seeking to play on (and pander to) the audience’s sympathies and biases.

The centre is no longer holding. “Having many voices is the natural state of the media. There was just a three-decade long exception in the US when city papers and networks dominated,” says Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and lecturer in journalism at City University of New York.

Just as Fleet Street swings left and right politically, depending on where it sees its commercial advantage, the US media have shifted left for a time, to mimic what they judge to be the country’s mood. When that mood swings back, so will the media.

In principle, the Republicans should appreciate this, for it is a triumph of the market over monopoly control. Or, as the Drudge Report might put it: “MEDIA ATTACK THEMSELVES! … DEVELOPING.”

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