City Paper is not for tourists
(A street in a leafy Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C., June 10, 1981, 5:30 and 32 seconds p.m. EST.)
Young Matt Drudge watched the rolled-up newspaper tumble lethargically through the thick humid air and land with a pathetic thud on the front porch. He had come to despise the sound.
At that very moment, standing in the dead end of a Takoma Park street and weighed down by his bulging sack of Washington Stars, the veteran paperboy nearly collapsed as a breaking bulletin flashed in his overheated brain. “Delivering newspapers sucks,” said Drudge, gritting his teeth. “There’s got to be a better way to deliver the news! Something faster. Something that doesn’t suck.”
He despised the dailies’ stranglehold on the true freedom of the press, constantly quashed by the battalions of editors and sub-editorsyellow-bellied libel-shy cowards, every sniveling one of ’em.The glory days were over for the old-school newspapermen he revered, those gritty scribes who started as errand boys and battled their way up the ranks, dishing dirt on the rich and powerful. In the post-Watergate world, to snag a job as big-time reporter at a media conglomerate like the Washington Post you had to be a Harvard boy and an all-around wingtip-lickergetting stories spoon-fed to you by fat-cat sources between rounds of back-scratching at the Palm.
What chance did Drudge have, anyway? He was a wretched student, one of those born rebels who simply can’t abide the rules of school discipline and proper grammar. Early on, he had realized the futility of raising his hand and waiting to be called on. He sat in the back row, stayed mum, and passed notes, keeping with Joyce’s maxim: silence, cunning, and exile.
He was already a media junkie, scouring the papers and eyeballing the TV news shows. Most important, though, he was blessed by a set of jutting, oversize ears that could pick up stray bits of hush-hush for miles aroundwhat he would later call the “network of whispers.”
Young Drudge was interested in the “news,” not the lump of dead wood pulp and triple-sourced bilge that lay at his feet, but that ever-elusive bird of innuendo that flies unfettered, chirping flighty proclamations even while defecating on those below.
Someday, young Drudge vowed, he would be a leader in a media revolution in which news flashes and red-hot exclusives of every conceivable sort would streak through an endless night. In that bold future, anyone could be a reporterno matter what his writing or communication skillsas long as he had the guts to get the scoop. Of course, until then, he had to finish his paper route.
“I love Takoma Park. It was a great place to grow up. When I pass through there, I get all tingly. It was magicalthere was a lot of places to go get lost.”
It’s Matt Drudge, sole proprietor of the Drudge Report, the most talked about one-man, damn-the-establishment vanity press since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. He’s yapping in his nasal voice on the Bat Phone from his one-bedroom Hollywood apartmentwhat he modestly calls “the most dangerous newsroom in America.” As usual, the West Coast weather is dead-solid perfect, with no chance of precipitation. “It’s a beautiful day, going up to 80 degrees,” he reports. “I’m just sitting here petting the cat and watching the wiresthat’s all I do.”
Forget Drudge’s phenomenal success breaking news stories, the Sidney Blumenthal lawsuit, and even his upcoming TV show on Fox (which Drudge humbly suggests may change that medium forever). Let’s talk about the making of an American outlaw, an alienated young man who grew up in the shadow of the most powerful government in the world, wondering what made it tick. Let’s take a look at the larval years of a media bottom-feeder.
“I remember climbing trees and rolling down hills and raking leaves and throwing acorns and sliming fireflies on the sidewalk and watching them glow,” he says of his boyhood frolics in Takoma Park. “I’d stare at the clouds and daydream. I had my own little world.”
Yet there was more to this latter-day Huck Finn than killing bugs and running wild in his suburban outback. Early on, he also displayed a Tom Sawyerlike affinity for the follies of the adult world, namely that great Sodom in his own back yard, Washington. It seems that the Washington Star delivery route may have at least sparked, if not sealed, his future destiny. “I used to sit there and read the paper,” he says. “Half the fun was getting to read the stuff. I was always looking at those Op-Eds and seeing who was doing what to who and stuff like that. I was more interested in the media stuff than the politics, and still am. Ever since I was a little boy I’ve been obsessed with the D.C. culture, which was strange, since no one in my age group was interested. The only good grades I got in school were for current events.”
The only child of two government workers, Drudge zealously protects the privacy of his parents, who, according to him, have “gone underground” since his sudden fame. Of his father, who still works for Uncle Sam, Drudge will reveal only the following memorable anecdote: “He was a big Nixon hater, and he was one of the original people to wear a Nixon mask, so there’s some continuity here.”
Drudge says he might still be delivering for the proletarian Washington Star today if only the paper were still around. “I was really into it,” he says. “I was making good money at the time, but unfortunately the paper folded. I still have my Washington Star delivery bag. The Star was more like some people type of thing. The Washington Post is so arrogant, and they can’t stop writing about me. I’m in there again today…”
Over the phone comes the sound of fingers furiously tapping on a computer keyboard. It’s Drudge busy at work, doing what he does best: gathering dirt, this time on himself. “I do a little Lexis-Nexis search every morning to see how bad it’s gotten,” he says. “It’s funny, because the established people are the most inaccurate onesNewsweek gets things more wrong than anybody.”
As he hit his high-school years, young Drudge began to embody some of the bleak qualities suggested by his surname, like a character lifted from a Dickens novel. He shot up to nearly 6 feet tall, but he was all gangly limbs, and his rail-thin angularity was emphasized by a long, skinny face, coal-black beady eyes, a boxer’s nose, and those magnificent jug ears, which had somehow managed to outpace the amazing growth spurt of the rest of his body. In an age of glitter T-shirts and Boy George, Drudge was about as contemporary-looking as a chimney sweep.
At Northwood High School in Silver Spring, young Drudge was the epitome of the dark, brooding loner. “Not only was he anti-social and anti-establishment, he had this chip on his shoulder,” says a high-school classmate. “And he had a real sinister demeanor about him. Most of the girls were afraid of himhe had that I-might-do-something-crazy type of attitude. He always had this disheveled look about him, very unkempt, and he had bad acne and such a hard, mean-looking face. You’ve got to work hard to look friendly with that face. Probably the only reason he talked to me was because I was the only one that didn’t judge the Drudge.”
The paper route was already ancient history, but young Drudge’s obsession with the media racket remained. The classmate says that Drudge would walk the halls like a reporter on some imaginary beat, decked out in a press hat and a speckled sport jacket: “It was like the hat Jimmy Olsen wore at the Daily Planet. No one wore a hat like that unless they were being silly or for school-spirit day, but Drudge had it on all the time.”
Still, Drudge made no effort to join the high-school newspaper or participate in any other activity. Not only did he reject the academic regimen, he also forsook any athletic or extracurricular activities. The other kids listened to Rush and Skynyrd and played sports and Pac Man and joined cults like the key and glee clubs, but not Drudge. He even rejected the after-school vices so common even today: smoking, drinking, and drugging. Nothing. Drudge resembled a teen Bartleby, issuing an everlasting “No” to any hint of peer pressure from the in crowd or anybody else.
“He wasn’t into anything. He was a nonentity at school. He showed zero interest and zero volition and he just did the minimal amount and went home. He came across as really caustic and cynical and kids just weren’t ready for that, especially back then,” says the classmate.
Drudge wasn’t a total cipherhe often spoke with the brutal wit of an accomplished young nihilist. “He was real perceptive watching people,” recalls the classmate. “He was very, very observant, and I think that carried over into what he’s doing now. Back then, when he did say stuff, he had a knack for coming off the wrong way.”
Forsaking the social circles of teen cliques, young Drudge staked his solitary claim to the no man’s land between the jocks and the geeks, the stoners and the preps. His ’84 yearbook entry is one of the briefest ever recorded in the annual Arrowhead. The inscrutable senior revealed little except his zodiac sign (Scorpio), his favorite color (Caribbean blue), his preferred food (Jalapeño bologna), and his personal motto (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”).
But perhaps the most telling document from the early Drudge years is a so-called “Last Will and Testament” that Northwood High seniors wrote at the end of their last year. Most of the student entries contain the usual whimsical, goofball, or locker-room wisecracks. But Drudge’s entry is brooding and melodramatic, even in the context of common teen angst. It may have been his first published work, and in its misspellings and faulty grammar it uncannily foreshadows the Drudge Report itself:
“I, Matt Drudge, being of sound mind and body, do hereby leave the following: To my only true friend Ms. thing, Vicky B, I leave a night in Paris, a bottle of Chaps cologne and hope you find a school with original peopleAnd to everyone else who has helped and hindred [sic] me whether it be Staff or students, I leave a penny for each day I’ve been here and cried here. A penny rich in worthless memories. For worthless memories is what I have endured. It reminds me of a song, ‘The Funeral Hyme [sic].’”
Upon hearing a full recital of his Last Will and Testament, Drudge is taken aback and uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He definitely remembers Vicky B but doesn’t recall being quite so dark and bitter.
“I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff,” he says. “This is really esoteric stuff. Any rumors of me screwing any pigs or anything?”
What about the hat?
“That’s garbage!” says Drudge, raising his voice on the phone line, and then breaking into a hearty Herman Munsteresque guffaw. “That’s just folklore.” He flatly denies that he ever wore a press hat or anything like his current signature tweed headgear during his days at Northwood High. Maybe a baseball cap, but he can’t remember for sure. “I don’t wear the hat even now all that much. It’s just a persona.” (But he can’t help adding that someday his book will be titled This Hat Talks.)
Drudge admits that the teen years were tough on him and school was the ultimate torturehis only regret is that he didn’t drop out way before graduation. (He was 325th out of a class of 350). “I was bored with it all,” he says, proudly declaring that his only extracurricular activities were passing notes and cutting class. “It was rigid, it was stupid, it was a lot like the news coverage now. There’s very little originality going on. Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned on my own. I’m self-taught. I’ve kept some original thinking or what I think is original. [Other journalists] have to listen to an editor saying yes or no. I don’t listen to anybody.”
As for his mythical role as a bad-boy hallway loner, Drudge says that is spun fantasy as well:
“I got kind of popular in the senior year,” he recalls, describing excursions to hiphop shows in New York. “I was going out with a few nice ladies. The funny thing is they’re just getting back into my realm. They’re e-mailing me: ‘Remember me? I went to school with you.’ It’s like reunion through e-mail.”
Drudge even recently heard from Ms. thing, Vicky B, the old flame he toasted in his Last Will. She lives in Ottawa now, he says. Nice girl, but no dice, Vicky. Drudge gets so many e-mails every day (“about 10,000,” he says) that he couldn’t answer more than a fraction of them even if he tried. So many scoops, so little time.
Drudge does pull away from the computer screen long enough to get excited about his Washington homecoming, though. “I’m gonna see if the town’s as dirty as it reads,” he says, laughing his Herman Munster laugh. “Washington’s quite happening; I just think it’s a dangerous town. I think if I stayed there too long I would get into even more trouble than I’m currently in.” CP