Toby Harnden in Washington
Ten years ago, he was a reclusive, pasty-faced 31-year-old who, bashing away on his laptop in his grungy Hollywood apartment, shot to prominence when he threatened to bring down Bill Clinton’s presidency by breaking news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal
Now, Matt Drudge owns a luxurious Mediterranean-style stucco house on Rivo Alto Island in Florida’s Biscayne Bay, a condominium at the Four Seasons in Miami and is said to drive a black Mustang. He remains an elusive, mysterious figure but the internet pioneer is arguably the single most powerful journalist – though his detractors even deny that is his occupation – in the world.
Drudge is still an outsider, contemptuous of the cosy relationships and closed-door deals that keep the ordinary person from being privy to the secrets of the Establishment. He is the reason why people across the globe are now reading about Prince Harry serving in Afghanistan after he shattered a blackout agreed between Fleet Street and Buckingham Palace.
This week, he posted a photograph of Barack Obama dressed in the tribal garb of a Somali elder during a 2006 trip to Africa, claiming it had been emailed by a member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It appeared to be a brazen attempt to fuel rumours that her rival was a dangerous Muslim.
Within minutes, the photograph was the talk of Washington news rooms and New York television studios. BlackBerry messages flew back and forth between reporters and political operatives. The story spread across the worldwide web as bloggers weighed in on a juicy item that was suddenly topping the news agenda.
Welcome to the world of the Drudge Report. A world in which the successor to Walter Cronkite and Bob Woodward is a loner with no university education or journalistic background. He is now surreptitiously courted by the media and political elites that once derided him but now fear he has the power to change the course of an American election.
The Lewinsky scandal and the 2008 presidential campaign are the bookends to what could be described as the Drudge decade. At the start, he was the antagonist who came from nowhere – Bill Clinton initially fumbled the site’s name, calling it the Sludge Report. By the end, he had become Hillary Clinton’s weapon of choice against Mr Obama.
Just as he revealed details of Bill Clinton’s tawdry affair with Miss Lewinsky while “Newsweek” editors agonised over whether to publish the story, Drudge posted the news of Prince Harry’s front-line service against the Taliban on-line without regard to any niceties. Within an hour, Buckingham Palace had lifted the embargo and Prince Harry was the lead item on CNN.
It all seems a long way from Matthew Nathan Drudge’s days as a gifted but directionless schoolboy growing up in the Washington DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland
The son of divorced parents who lived with his mother, he would, he said later, wander past ABC News headquarters and “daydream” of being on the inside, “stare up at the Washington Post newsroom over on 15th Street, look up longingly, knowing I’d never get in”.
After stints at a 7-Eleven store and at McDonald’s, odd jobs as a telemarketer and New York grocery store assistant, he gravitated to Los Angeles in 1989, attracted by the intersection between media and celebrity that was to become the rich seam he mined to achieve his success.
He worked as a runner on the game show “The Price is Right” before landing a job at the gift shop at CBS Studios – a window into Hollywood – and rising to become its manager.
By 1994, his father Bob, a former therapist and social worker, was worried that the self-described “aimless teen” was becoming a directionless adult. He gave him a Packard-Bell computer in the hope that it might spur him on to achieve more.
The following year, Drudge the elder founded refdesk.com, a site that describes itself as indexing “quality, credible and timely resources that are free and family-friendly” and which Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, uses as his home page.
Drudge the younger chose a different path. He threw his energies into producing an email newsletter filled with snippets of gossip and rambling steam-of-consciousness opinion. By 1996, he was focusing more on politics, charging an annual $10 fee to his subscribers – which grew from 1,000 to 85,000 between 1995 and 1997.
Today, the Drudge Report attracts more than 600 million visits a month. With an old-fashioned typeface, Drudge primarily links to stories, though he still breaks news using his trademark flashing siren over a banner headline.
So much internet traffic can be directed to an item linked to by Drudge that unprepared websites have been known to collapse under the strain.
For politicians, the effect is akin to a needle injecting information into the media bloodstream. A positive story can give a shot of adrenaline to a flagging campaign. More commonly, negative information can be like a dose of poison being administered.
It has been Republicans who have most assiduously courted Drudge, a conservative populist who passionately opposes abortion and despises taxes. Research directors of the Republican National Committee have made pilgrimages to Miami to pay homage to Drudge.
A 2005 dinner at the fashionable Miami steakhouse Forge in which Tim Griffin, the outgoing RNC research director, introduced his successor Matt Rhoades to Drudge is already the stuff of political lore. Rhoades went on to become communications supremo to Mitt Romney, whose opponents in the 2008 presidential race noted frequently that negative stories about them appeared regularly on Drudge.
American reporters from the mainstream outlets that often dismiss Drudge as a salacious rumour-monger often tip him off about their exclusives or even the stories their editors will not run.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2008 campaign has been the connection between the Drudge Report and the Clinton campaign, who has reportedly used the former Democratic party official Tracy Sefl as an emissary.
But the attempt to woo the man who came close to being her husband’s nemesis appears to have backfired. “The Clinton campaign has clearly had an ability to move negative stuff about Edwards and Obama in a way that we did not have,” said Joe Trippi, chief strategists to John Edwards, who recently dropped out of the 2008 race.
“They tried to take some of the tactics that had worked against them and use them for their own gain just when people were getting sick of the kind of politics that’s about what’s the next bucket of blood that’s going to be dumped on Drudge.”
Drudge revels in his notoriety, the opaqueness of his methods and his ability to cause trouble. The story about the Obama photograph led to widespread condemnation of the Clinton campaign – prompting some to wonder whether it had been deliberately placed to discredit her.
Alongside his Prince Harry story, Drudge had proudly highlighted the verdict from the veteran Left-winger Jon Snow of Channel 4 News: “I never thought I’d find myself saying thank God for Drudge.”