Buzzfeed reported yesterday that journalists at the Sun—the British tabloid one, not the Baltimore or Colorado ones—are, as the headline said, “Worried The Drudge Report Is Making Them Become More Right-Wing.” With all the attention to whether right-wing media makes readers more right-wing than they might otherwise be, it was helpful to be reminded that the influence operates on the input side, too: “the Sun’s website editors have become increasingly insistent on creating what they have internally referred to as ‘Drudge-bait’ in an effort to secure huge amounts of traffic from the aggregator.”
We’ve all been there! Matt Drudge’s enthusiasms and attention have been influencing the dynamics of the internet for a whole generation now, or several generations if you’re talking about the lifespan of publications. For many of us, the reclusive Floridian news-aggregator gave us our first experience of having our publication’s traffic and audience shaped by a powerful extrinsic force; getting a story picked up by Drudge was like having a blast of wind suddenly peel away one wall of the newsroom, exposing you to the gaze of a new and numerous set of readers, and not necessarily friendly ones.
How to feel about this was always complicated. Drudge was erratic but he had identifiable partisanships: among those were that he liked stories that made Democrats look bad, and that he liked stories that made major media look bad. And he liked sensational stories. Getting Drudge pickup could mean you were dispensing scrutiny without fear or favor, or it could mean you had pushed a piece too far into irresponsibility. Or it could mean both at once, as the context displacement of landing on the Drudge Report gave writers a preview of existence under our current regime of total context collapse.
It was a bit heartwarming—a bit—to read that the Drudge effect is still going on. The particulars were grim and absurd, given that Buzzfeed was describing a British newspaper’s efforts to pander to one extremely American oddball who has a taste for bigotry. In the hopes of catching Drudge’s eye, Buzzfeed reported, the tabloid was not only hammering away at Islam-baiting stories about London mayor Sadiq Khan, but pushing coverage of the Proud Boys (“‘Sun readers might wonder why they’re getting these crazy, political stories about people they’ve never heard of,’ said one Sun reporter. ‘It’s because of Drudge.'”) Buzzfeed describes internal memos worrying about not having enough “Drudge hits” or encouraging the pursuit of “Drudge clout.”
The truly upsetting aspect, though, was not the news that a major publication would bend its news priorities to fit the tastes of a one-man target audience. It was the reminder that Drudge is an anomaly only because he is one identifiable person, with an identifiable (if esoteric) news agenda. The same Sun spreadsheets that might list “Drudge” as a story classification, according to Buzzfeed, could also say “SEO” or “Facebook”—likewise extrinsic forces, but whose reach is more vast and whose influence is more obscure than Matt Drudge’s, and to which everyone readily answers.
The industry as a whole hasn’t outgrown the impulse that makes the Sun pander to the Drudge Report. It has channeled that impulse into pandering to invisible news-sorting robots, driven by intentionally obscure algorithms. When your newsroom got a Drudge hit, you could usually guess why, and you could decide whether you wanted to do that sort of thing again. When Facebook flooded you with a share of the Ice Bucket Challenge mega-traffic, there was no human purpose or agency to consider. You followed the orders from the machines, or you lost out.