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Matt Drudge Logs Off

The Drudge Report has become a conformist shadow of its formerly bratty, oppositional self. Why?

by
Armin Rosen
November 24, 2020
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Matt Drudge, right, on Capitol Hill, October 1998, after the House of Representatives voted to proceed with the impeachment of President Bill ClintonStephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Matt Drudge, right, on Capitol Hill, October 1998, after the House of Representatives voted to proceed with the impeachment of President Bill ClintonStephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

It was the kind of story that would once have had Matt Drudge deploying font sizes that newspapers used to reserve for declarations of war. On Oct. 14, Twitter and Facebook blocked users from spreading a New York Post article alleging that Hunter Biden had brokered meetings between his father, then the vice president of the United States, and executives at a Ukrainian energy firm where the younger Biden held an $80,000-a-month sinecure. The Post’s article included photos of what appeared to be an exhausted and intoxicated-looking Biden in various states of undress.

Yet the controversy over tech companies restricting the spread of a story unflattering to the Democratic presidential contender was nowhere to be seen in the upper half of The Drudge Report—once the most coveted and agenda-setting real estate in right-of-center media. “RECORD TURNOUT ALARMS REPUBLICANS... BIDEN +7 GA,” screamed the top headlines on Oct. 15.

“People have noticed that Drudge has basically become a liberal site over the past two years,” a senior figure in conservative media told me that week.

“Liberal” might be a stretch, but it’s hard to argue with the claim that The Drudge Report has changed over the past few years. At the very least, it became an anti-Trump site. “YOU’RE FIRED!,” the top story on Drudge read on Nov. 7 when Joe Biden’s Electoral College win was first projected, appearing above a full page of links celebrating the former vice president’s victory—Drudge screenshotted the headline in a rare tweet that same day. During the campaign, the site had touted any and all bad news for Drudge’s once-preferred candidate and sometimes-host at the White House—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the Media Critic-in-Chief.

“Our people have all left Drudge,” the president tweeted on Sept. 14. “He is a confused mess.”

Drudge has always been an enigma, but aspects of Trump’s critique appear to be accurate. The Drudge Report once cycled through 40-50 links in a single five-hour period. The page is now updated only once or twice a day and almost never reacts to breaking news, as if it’s being run by someone who simply doesn’t care anymore. Traffic has reportedly lagged, with Comscore data suggesting a 45% plunge in the year before this past September. In the glory days even a midpage Drudge link could pull a million views; the number is now down to the high tens of thousands. Drudge pulled the report’s app from Apple’s and Google’s app stores, only to later link to it in the Drudge sidebar after switching ad brokers without explanation in mid-2019. And unlike in past years, when the page had multiple staffers working morning and afternoon shifts, Drudge watchers have no idea who, if anyone else, works for the site. The last reported employee was Daniel Halper, a former Weekly Standard editor hired on in 2017, though it is unclear whether he still works there. When reached by Tablet, Halper would not comment on any past or current involvement with The Drudge Report.

In interviews with over a half-dozen various former Drudge associates, about half suggested that the site may no longer be under his control. For these people, politics alone couldn’t explain all the changes at the site. The humor, the oddball stories about sex robots and exorcisms, and the obsession with weather events are all almost entirely gone, along with any pretense to original reporting.

One former confidante cited a story in apparently wide circulation among the small number of people who know or knew Drudge: In the early 2010s, this person said, Drudge fantasized that he would keep the DrudgeReport.com domain forever, and that the site would simply go black one day without explanation. Others asserted that Drudge, reportedly a globetrotting lover of expensive cars, hotels, and real estate, actually would sell for the right amount. Two floated the theory to Tablet that the site had been bought by a liberal billionaire.

One of the few ex-Drudge associates who would discuss him on-record in any depth is the New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, a figure of some notoriety for her role in revealing then-president Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Goldberg is a former close confidante who said she had not spoken with Drudge in over five years. She believes he no longer runs the site. “It’s a totally different publication,” she told me. What was the biggest sign? I asked. “Oh, every line of the page,” she replied. “It’s just so obvious that he’s not interested, that somebody else is doing it.” This was just one of several theories volunteered by people who had been close to Drudge, though none was forthcoming with proof. Drudge himself did not respond to multiple requests for comment through both the email address listed on The Drudge Report and an intermediary.

“We don’t think Matt is there anymore,” tweeted the polling company Rasmussen last December. “Word is he sold, just waiting for confirmation. Now that will be a story.” (When reached for comment, Scott Rasmussen said he left the company in 2013 and was not aware of the tweet. Email requests for comment from Rasmussen the company went unreturned.) In mid-October the New York Post reported on “rumors that Drudge is looking for an investor” that were then “sweeping the publishing and financial world,” though without offering any further detail.

Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic Party strategist and the point of contact between Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and Drudge, also doubts he’s still in charge. “The writing’s on the wall that it’s not quote ‘him,’” she said. In December of 2017, a nine-song public Apple Music playlist attributed to a Matt Drudge was uploaded and linked to on the semi-official Drudge Report Archives website—with songs including “Let Go” by Connie Constance, “Life Goes On” by E^ST, “Say Goodbye” by Tom Chaplin, and “Easy Way Out” by Other Lives. It concludes with Seal’s “Still Love Remains.”

No one who spoke with Tablet really knows why the once-mighty Drudge Report has changed so much. The truth behind the site that adapted the fast pace and ethical flexibility of tabloid news to the web may be too tangled for a catchy 30-point font headline to capture, as it lies beneath a tangle of obscure family connections, complicated business arrangements, and the personal saga of a shadowy man who made himself an enigma at the height of his fame. But while there is no smoking gun or definitive final answer, there are still scattered clues as to what could be going on behind The Drudge Report’s curtain.

For instance, a 2007 New York magazine article probed the tortured relationship between Matt and his father, Bob Drudge, a Maryland social worker who started an AOL-era website called Refdesk. Robert had sometimes seemed to resent his depressive and occasionally delinquent son, whose life he turned around by buying him a Packard Bell computer in 1994. Refdesk is now owned by a California-based woman named Margaret Otto, who also owns the obscure web marketing company that became The Drudge Report’s sole ad broker in mid-2019—the contact number in the Refdesk “contact” page now redirects to her cellphone.

Perhaps in founding and then selling Refdesk, Bob Drudge created a means by which his son could finally leave behind the online economy of rumor and sensationalism that the younger Drudge had helped bring to life. Maybe Matt Drudge achieved something that’s proven all but impossible for polarizing media and political figures in the internet era: an exit that manages to be mysterious, lucrative, and, by his standards, strangely dignified.

The Drudge Report is one of the most influential websites in history. In 1998, Drudge, who ran a popular newsletter buoyed in part by information he’d dig out of trash cans near his job at the gift shop at CBS studios in Los Angeles, reported that Newsweek had spiked an article about an extramarital affair between Bill Clinton and a White House intern. Being first to a story that resulted in the impeachment of a president was a mere entree: In the 2000s, The Drudge Report became the only news aggregator that absolutely everyone read. A Drudge link had the power to kick off entire news cycles. Editors and reporters across the media often assigned stories and composed headlines as if they were writing for an audience of one.

Drudge’s political beliefs have always been a subject of speculation. But editors often had an idea of the types of stories that would catch Drudge’s attention. Freak weather events, signs of war between the United States and either China or North Korea, and the alleged invasion of undocumented immigrants were Drudge mainstays. Few would dispute the gossip-mongering media curator’s fascination with the salacious side of American politics—images of the future first son smoking a crack pipe in bed are newsworthy in part because of Drudge. Insomuch as Drudge has any clear convictions, they involve an intense suspicion of concentrated power and the glorification of his own free will. “You’re playing in Google’s hell pit,” Drudge—or at least a shadowy outline of Drudge—fumed to Alex Jones, America’s leading conspiracy-theory-based entertainer, during an October 2015 appearance on Infowars, Drudge’s last extended interview. “Make your own place. The internet allows you to make your own dynamic, your own universe. Why are you gravitating towards somebody else’s universe?” In the closest Drudge has come to a mission statement since the early 2000s, he described his website as “a correction to this groupthink.”

Drudge remained an opaque figure since ending his weekly radio show in the late 2000s, giving almost no interviews and making no public appearances. Early in the Trump presidency, he popped up for a 12-minute segment on the heterodox far-right-winger Michael Savage’s radio show to warn that Trump’s passivity in the face of both the Democratic and Republican parties’ various alleged conspiracies against him was endangering his young presidency. Drudge had been an early backer of Trump during the 2016 campaign, and had reportedly been shepherded through the White House by Jared Kushner. Drudge, like Trump, embodied the increasingly blurry barrier between serious politics and playacting, with the public square offering a venue for a lucrative brand of cynical yet spellbinding performance art. But the differences soon outweighed the similarities: As one Drudge confidante noted, the tone on The Drudge Report was hardly funereal when the Republicans were wiped out in the 2018 midterms. The pivot away from Trump began not long after that.

In early 2017, when Drudge and Trump were still on good terms, the news maven’s father, Bob Drudge, sold his website, Refdesk.com, to a California couple. A dry-as-dust compendium of web-based research tools, Refdesk had its moment of fame during the early Bush years when The New York Times reported that it was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s favorite website. According to filings on the Maryland secretary of state’s website, Refdesk was transferred to Margaret and Adrian Otto, both identified as “director and manager of Refdesk Holdings, LLC,” that January. The California corporation that would assume ownership, the aforementioned Refdesk Holdings, Inc., had been registered in California in December of 2016.

According to her LinkedIn page, Margaret Otto resides in Mountain View, California, the Silicon Valley gold coast town that is home to Google, LinkedIn, and other tech giants. Mountain View is hardly a right-wing bastion—Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn founder, is a Democratic Party megadonor. It turns out that Drudge’s connections to the big tech “hell pit” are personal. Margaret’s husband, Adrian Otto, is currently the technical director of the office of the chief technical officer at Google, where he helps design and maintain the web giant’s cloud computing systems. Adrian’s Drudge association goes back to the very beginning, according to Margaret: “That was 25 years ago, probably,” she said when asked about her husband’s involvement with The Drudge Report.

As Buzzfeed reported last year, an archived version of the website for HA Hosting, a company Adrian Otto founded and that both Ottos managed, boasted in 2005 that it maintained the servers for the Drudge Report, helping the site to withstand a surge of 36 million unique visitors on election day in 2004. Otto was also responsible for hosting Andrew Breitbart’s website and was thanked in one of the late Drudge assistant’s books. According to a source with first-hand familiarity with The Drudge Report’s operations, Adrian Otto continued to serve as the site’s de facto webmaster as late as 2019, overseeing its connection to the internet, communicating with its Japan-based developer, and addressing various back-end issues. A reference to an “Adrian” still shows up in the Drudge Report’s source code, at the very bottom of the page: “<!-- END -- DO NOT REMOVE THIS LINE --Adrian --!>” (based on a search of the Wayback Machine, this line first appeared in 2009).

In the summer of 2019, Drudge abruptly ended his relationship with Intermarkets, a Virginia-based web marketing firm and the only ad broker his site had ever used. He replaced it with a company called Granite Cubed whose California corporate filings listed Margaret Otto, the owner of Refdesk, as the entity’s CEO, secretary, chief financial officer, and director. Drudge provided his former ad broker with no explanation for the move and was similarly tight-lipped with Otto. “I have no idea, actually,” she said when asked why Drudge hired her company. “It was very sudden and yeah, I was never informed as to any details.”

I had reached Otto by accident, fairly early in the reporting process. The Refdesk contact page lists a Maryland telephone number, to be used for “reporting emergencies.” Instead of reaching Bob Drudge, whom directory listings place in or near Ocean City, Maryland, the number redirected to the cellphone of Otto, some 3,000 miles to the west. Otto was tight-lipped over the course of our unexpected 20-minute conversation—she was vague in addressing the question of whether it was at least notable that she’d ended up deeply enmeshed in both of the Drudges’ websites. Subsequent attempts to reach her again by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Advertising on one of the world’s most-trafficked news websites was suddenly the responsibility of a one-person shop run by a person who had no apparent experience in the complex world of online advertising but who served as the owner and operator of Bob Drudge’s website and whose husband had long-standing ties to The Drudge Report. Otto’s advertising company eventually changed its name to Voranda, and has only one other listed employee on LinkedIn, aside from Otto. That person worked in digital marketing at the conservative website World Net Daily for eight years, according to LinkedIn.

Otto claimed Voranda currently has six clients, including Refdesk and Drudge. She would not give an exact number of employees at Voranda, saying only that it had “a few.” She did not know who, if anyone, still works at The Drudge Report. “He’s doing a great job, however he manages it,” she said of Matt Drudge. Otto is one person close to Drudge—and the only person I spoke to with a current known business relationship with Drudge—who vouches on-record for Drudge still having an active role in the site.

Otto says that Refdesk Holdings, Inc. owns only its namesake website. Still, Refdesk Holdings, LLC and Refdesk.com, Inc. are two different entities in California. In November of 2019, Refdesk Holdings changed its description in required California state corporate filings from an “online reference site” to a “holding company.” Voranda and Refdesk.com, Inc. also share the same corporate address, a street and suite number that correspond to the location of a UPS store in Mountain View.

There is notable overlap between Refdesk and Drudge that goes beyond the connection to the Otto family. The sites’ ads.txt pages, which list information identifying the online sales channels through which ads are served on a given website, list over 20 direct ad IDs that appear on no other websites. “DIRECT only account IDs shared across on Refdesk/Drudge proves it’s a tight network, with the two orgs pooling data and money within these accounts,” explained Zach Edwards, a California-based data expert, founder of the boutique analytics firm Victory Medium, and longtime Drudge Report watcher. Edwards also observed similarities in the two sites’ application programming interface (API), the software by which the sites interact with other users and pages—they run a similar script to check if visitors are from California, which has more stringent privacy standards than the other 49 states. As Edwards puts it, the sites “have an overlapping data layer, generated from ads.txt, javascript, and the requests that are sent out to third-party companies and the responses those companies send back.”

This is to be expected: Both Drudge and Refdesk share an exclusive ad broker, Voranda. A mid-October search of scores of direct ad ID numbers in the Drudge and Voranda ads.txt page turned up no sites other than The Drudge Report and Refdesk that identified themselves as Voranda clients. Otto claimed that the marketer worked with a handful of other websites, although it is unclear who the company’s other clients might be.

Reclusion gives Drudge something his firebrand media peers never had: an escape hatch.

The Ottos’ Drudge connection is both personal and mysterious: Margaret Otto was active in the Junior League of Los Angeles, and was on the board of the FBI Los Angeles Citizens Academy Alumni Association. In addition to being one of the most prominent tech-side employees at Google, Adrian Otto is a founder of Open Stack, a freely available cloud computing program. There is no hint of a political agenda or of any malfeasance or graft in either person’s background—although there isn’t much of a hint of an interest in web advertising, either.

The online advertising business is both highly technical and nearly unregulated. A broker like Voranda is selling real estate on a given site through a constellation of online middlemen who buy space on behalf of their clients—the companies that actually serve web ads often operate under multiple names and have only a vague existence in the physical world. Sales shops like Voranda are selling more than just real estate, though. Advertisers sometimes also buy the privilege to cookie a site’s visitors and can gain a fairly granular understanding of who its users are.

Above all, online ad brokers are faced with the still-unsolved riddle of how to monetize people’s attention on the internet. If you’re The New York Times, your answer to the defining problem of 21st-century media is to produce quality content and hope that deep-pocketed brands will want to hand over money to access your discerning upper-middle-class customer base. If you’re servicing ads on the trashier end of the web spectrum—on say, an illegal streaming site—the answer is to pack in as many ads as possible, no matter how annoying they are and no matter what they’re for. If you’re selling ads for a site where the audience is reportedly falling and the former readership is puzzled or even openly hostile, one possible answer to your monetization problem is to skirt the boundaries of the existing industry standards—knowing, perhaps, that these standards are extremely vague and can be manipulated without taking on any legal risk, and also that the site’s namesake is too checked out to really care and had loose standards to begin with.

On Oct. 19 of this year, the top line of Drudge included a link to a plagiarized New York Times story hosted on an obscure website called Dnyuz.com. A Dnyuz link led the entire site on Oct. 21. There were multiple Dnyuz stories somewhere on the page for much of October, which is the kind of prime election-season Drudge placement editors might once have traded their expense accounts for—at least back in the days when editors had expense accounts and Drudge was seen as the kingmaker behind the entire American political information ecosystem.

According to a May article in Buzzfeed, Dnyuz is an Armenia-based website that rips off articles from American news outlets without permission. Buzzfeed reported that Google kicked Dnyuz off of its advertising network but did not suspect any business relationship between Drudge and Dnyuz.

Still, websites can profit off of one another without any kind of formal business ties. Some 89% of Dnyuz’s 2 million monthly total visits are from referrals, over 96% of which come from Drudge, according to the analytics website SimilarWeb. In other words, without Drudge, Dnyuz would barely have an audience to sell ads against.

The websites’ businesses turn out to be oddly similar, too. Advertising on the internet works through third-party networks communicating with websites where they serve ads, often through rapid-fire auctions. Each individual ad has its own bidding identification number, which is publicly viewable for any website by opening its domain followed by /ads.txt. These distributions, the vast majority of which are automated, happen through so-called direct ads, which advertisers prefer because they can know with certainty exactly where and when their ads will appear. Less desirable are reseller IDs, which might wind up just about anywhere. Direct ads are meant to be unique to a single corporate owner; reseller IDs can show up on tens of thousands of domains, and are more common on sites that lack the capacity, or the credibility, to fill out their page with direct ads. Thus there is a built-in incentive to disguise reseller ads as direct ads, slapping an expensive label on what is inevitably a much cheaper product. Per an analysis by Rocky Moss, a co-founder and CEO of DeepSee, a company whose programs help web advertisers detect and avoid fraudulent practices among online publishers, Drudge IDs show up across 40,000 different sites, while Dnyuz IDs appear on some 13,000. This is a sign that both organizations at least tolerate and perhaps even profit from this kind of rampant ad mislabeling, according to Moss.

The sites also seem to belong to the same corner of the same ecosystem. While Drudge and Dnyuz don’t share any direct IDs, they do share 13 reseller IDs. Moss found that these IDs are collectively shared by another 15,000 sites. But only 185 of these sites, some 1.2% of them, also share all 13 of the IDs common to Dnyuz and Drudge. Among them are several dozen U.S.-based local news websites, like FremontTribune.com and BillingsGazette.com, along with a smattering of red-meat conservative infotainment-type pages, like CarlHigbie.com, DrewBerquist.com, StacyOnTheRight, and Lifezette.

Edwards noted that several of the ad servicing companies that show up in Dnyuz’s ads.txt also lack much in the way of a clear grounding in physical space, with their sites offering little in the way of contact information—Surgeprice.com “doesn’t even seem to exist.”

Meanwhile, Edwards and Moss found a number of oddities in The Drudge Report’s advertising practices. In mid-October, Moss discovered that The Drudge Report was running a script that would load advertisements that do not render on the site’s publicly visible page. The existence of the hidden ads was further concealed through “detection evasions”—Moss found that the ads disappeared when they were examined with standard web developer tools. Advertisers paid for ads that were supposed to be featured on the site but which remained hidden, with steps taken to conceal the very fact of their being hidden. The advertisers, who are almost always represented by computer programs that make lightning-fast automated bids on available web real estate, are paying to place ads that a user simply never sees. Moss explained the discovery in a YouTube video, which was made after Tablet brought various other irregularities to Moss’ attention:

Drudge seems to have had a habit of gaming the web advertising economy, as Buzzfeed reported last year, citing online advertising industry concerns over the site’s suspiciously fast auto-refresh rate. Online ads are often priced based on the number of users expected to see a given ad. According to a source with first-hand familiarity of The Drudge Report, in early 2018, Google determined that Drudge’s suspiciously fast auto-reload rate artificially inflated the impressions for ads that the web giant was serving to the site. Drudge has manually tinkered with the automatic page refresh rate over the years, according to Edwards, a longtime watcher of the site’s HTML. Frequent automatic reloads were ostensibly meant to make users aware of content updates on the page, but they had the effect of also refreshing the ads, thus driving up the number of eyeballs recorded as seeing those ads. Google declared that it would halve its advertising payout to Drudge, though it’s unclear how badly this cut into the site’s bottom line, or how angry Google was at a website that had generated significant revenue for them over the years. Industry experts estimated The Drudge Report’s revenue at somewhere between $9 million and $30 million over the previous year, Buzzfeed reported in August of 2019.

The Dnyuz links, mislabeled ad inventory, hidden ads, and recent history of inflating ad impression numbers—even if not illegal—point to a once highly influential news operation whose highest concern is now the extraction of monetary value from its audience. Still more proof of The Drudge Report’s mercenary outlook comes from a review of which websites share a Google ads publisher identification number with The Drudge Report. Google ads IDs and account numbers are typically linked to bank accounts through which websites are paid for advertising space. Buzzfeed identified the alleged owner of Dnyuz partly by looking at common ID numbers shared on Adsense, one of Google’s advertising platforms—the numbers are sometimes shared by sites that have a direct business relationship.

Moss discovered that some 960 websites share one of three Google publisher ID numbers with The Drudge Report. These IDs are associated with three online marketing companies that sell reseller inventory on Drudge: Saamba, PixFuture Media, and Project Agora, Ltd. Drudge is in a continent-spanning, if totally automated, revenue-sharing relationship with these 960 pages, a number of which also share direct IDs with Drudge. Interestingly, scores of the sites that share direct IDs, which typically only recur among sites that have the same publisher, are English-language media outlets based in foreign countries—the Deccan Herald, the daily newspaper of Karnataka, a state in southwestern India, shares some 40 direct advertising ID numbers with Drudge, to take just one of numerous examples. It’s at least theoretically possible the two websites have a common owner. For Moss, it’s likelier that these direct labeled ad IDs are falsified reseller ads, and that the shared Adsense ID indicates that the Deccan Herald and Drudge are cashing in on the same opaque ad market. However this arrangement came to be, it provides yet another monetization shortcut for a site that still claims 20 million page views a day.

Some of The Drudge Report’s unusual activity appears to have begun within the past four months—the hidden ads first showed up in early August. Moss noted “a significant change in the script profile” beginning around the same time late this summer, along with “a stark increase of the average number of ad frames loaded per-session” and an almost total reorganization of the site’s ad stack, which is the range of programs and companies serving ads to Drudge (see below). “The shared IDs have changed a ton over the past year,” Edwards also observed.

Drudge’s disenchantment with Trump predates these changes. Perhaps The Drudge Report’s new ad broker wanted to cash in on higher traffic during the stretch run of the presidential election. Or—if there’s any truth to the rumors— maybe its new owners did.

Perhaps the unusual practices reflect decisions made by Drudge himself rather than any change in ownership. But Drudge would be under no obligation to disclose a new owner—a former confidante speculated that if The Drudge Report ever sold, the only two people who would know about it would be Drudge and his buyer. One possibility is that Drudge has remained the site’s owner on paper while the meaningful decisions are made elsewhere—perhaps in Mountain View, where his ad broker and long-serving webmaster and the owner of his father’s website are located. The Ottos might not own both The Drudge Report and Refdesk, but they have a great deal of potential control over how both sites operate, along with valuable information about their audiences.

An exclusive web broker can act as a kind of gatekeeper for a website: Visitor data is part of the reason advertisers pay for space on other people’s pages in the first place. Drudge currently runs between 200 and 300 “cookies” through which advertisers can track users’ web activity; as Moss notes, the default version of the site at the time he examined it in mid-October, and then again in mid-November, was the “unsecured” page, leaving users unusually exposed to bad actors (unsecure pages are identifiable by the prefix “http” in their web address). In both cases the default soon changed back to the secure “https” version but for some span of time the election-season Drudge Report was a potential free-for-all for anyone looking to gather valuable and potentially identifying data on visitors to the site.

Even now, The Drudge Report is an information bonanza. Traffic may be down, but the site still claims tens of millions of daily visitors, on par with major news networks and newspapers. The question is: Whose bonanza is it?

I asked Lucianne Goldberg if Drudge’s old friends ever speculate about where he might be. “Gone,” she said. Not gone in the sense of dead, she quickly clarified. “Gone” in the sense of finished with his old life: “I think he was a little surprised he made it as far as he did, and that he was as quote ‘important’ to the general press scene as he was ... He had a cool operation. He didn’t have to work very hard, went swimming once a day in the ocean, and he liked going to parties. And he liked his hat.”

Multiple former acquaintances of Drudge’s theorize that his disappointment with Trump is sincere, and similar to that of his friend Ann Coulter’s: Both turned on the president because of his unseriousness in pursuing their agenda, particularly the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Drudge is famous for discarding friends over forgotten or half-invented slights, according to both news accounts like the New York magazine profile and to several former acquaintances who still aren’t quite sure why the web publisher cut them out of his life. In the greatest possible demonstration of his jealously guarded independence, Drudge may have done the same thing to a president of the United States whose White House he could freely crash.

Maybe Drudge decided he was sick of it all—and perhaps this was a wise move. Right-of-center media can be a bestiary of lightning rods and public villains. Former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon is under indictment on allegations of tax fraud; Tucker Carlson is subject to a nearly full-on advertiser boycott despite having the highest-rated show on cable. Twenty-five years into his career, Drudge, by having effectively disappeared, has become an object of fascination rather than scorn.

Reclusion gives Drudge something his firebrand media peers never had: an escape hatch. Tracy Sefl is one of the most unexpected of the former Drudge acquaintances, and thus someone with a unique vantage into his psychology. She is a professional Democrat who spent years working to advance the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, perhaps the public figure that looms largest in Drudge’s tangled psyche. Sefl proved successful in placing stories during the 2008 campaign, during which Drudge emerged as somewhere between an affable adversary and an unlikely friend. “What I have to imagine is that there’s no joy in it anymore for Matt,” she said. “And that may be what it comes down to. What fun is it anymore to follow all of this for someone who’s been doing it as long as he has, someone who’s ridden the roller coasters that he helped build? What fun is it in 2020 to be mucking around in these news cycles?”

Sefl believed that Drudge was never all that political. He cared about “personalities—personalities of the principals, the candidates, the elected officials, personalities in media. He was attuned to those. He had opinions about them. I imagine he still does.” He had few rooting interests outside of himself. “I’ve never believed that he has a side that is a partisan side. His side is capitalism.”

Lucianne Goldberg had a similar read. “I don’t think he had any politics at all,” she said.

Drudge grasped the potential of the internet before almost anyone else in publishing. “We are entering an era vibrating with the din of small voices,” a smirking Drudge told the National Press Club during an infamous 1998 appearance. “Any citizen can be a reporter.” Maybe Drudge is undertaking one of his boldest moves of all, one that will hopefully prove as pioneering as his belief in the flattening effects of web media: Whether through a payday, political apathy, or a newfound slackerdom, Drudge might have actually pulled off everyone’s dream: making bank and then logging off.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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