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''The Drudge Report'' on fire

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Just a month ago, online gossip maestro Matt Drudge was the toast of the Internet. Now he may just be toast.

The source of his success and embarrassing excess is the newly infamous Drudge Report. The daily E-mail bulletin offers news and celebrity poop clipped from mainstream media and exclusives tipped by Drudgies — a network of shadowy ”insider” sources. For two years, Drudge, 30, has functioned out of his Hollywood lair like the GIA — a Gossip Intelligence Agency funneling raw data from La-La Land to 85,000 subscribers. Free of fact checkers and legal beagles, Drudge has broken stories ranging from the President’s peccadilloes to the Seinfeld salary fight.

Then came the story. On Aug. 11, he posted a flash claiming that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal had a history of spousal abuse. One problem, says Blumenthal: Drudge was wrong. On Aug. 12, he issued a retraction. By the weekend, Blumenthal had put out a flash of his own — a multimillion-dollar libel suit.

Suddenly, Drudge turned into Garbo, no-commenting the world (including EW). However, Blumenthal’s attorney, William McDaniel, was talking: ”These people don’t seem to think they have to respond to anything,” he raged. ”They hear something, they go home, they put it on their computer, they press a button, and it goes around the world.”

Will this signal the end of the Net press’ Wild West era? No, says Drudge online counterpart Harry Knowles, whose Ain’t It Cool News site dishes film-industry dirty laundry. ”They have to realize it’s not going to go away,” he says. ”If something like my site goes away, there are a half-dozen others waiting in the wings.” Maybe so, but lawyers are plentiful too.

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