Matt Drudge makes a dramatic debut in Impeachment: American Crime Story’s third episode, “Not to Be Believed,” which premieres Tuesday night on FX. The character does not get an introduction so much as a down-and-dirty origin story. In the episode’s opening scene, set in 1995, Drudge (played by Billy Eichner) manages the gift shop at CBS Studios. The character is lit and scripted like a screen villain—perhaps not surprising, given the show’s creators have said the true crime of Impeachment is the way Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and Paula Jones were maligned by media.
During the five-minute opening sequence, Drudge locks up the gift shop, throws on a trench coat, digs sensitive information out from a studio dumpster, and returns to his small, drab apartment to publish the biggest scoop of his career at that point: Jerry Seinfeld’s negotiations for $1 million per episode. Three years later, Drudge would eclipse that news story with a political bombshell—breaking news of Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern.
Ahead, a closer look at Drudge’s real-life beginnings and his role in making Clinton and Lewinsky’s affair the scandal spectacular that it became.
These days, Drudge is known for being a “mysterious media maven, conservative kingmaker, and arguably the most influential news aggregator in history,” according to a Vanity Fair feature last year. But in the early ’90s, his résumé was considerably less impressive.
Drudge grew up in the Maryland suburbs and graduated from high school 341st out of 355 students in 1984, according to Matthew Lysiak’s The Drudge Revolution. While many of his peers went to college, Drudge spent the following years drifting aimlessly between jobs like 7-Eleven night manager, telemarketer, and McDonald’s team member.
“Drudge’s father ultimately changed his life,” wrote New York magazine in 2007. “After high school, [Drudge] drifted to his father’s hometown, Los Angeles, where he worked for years in the gift shop at CBS studios. Worried about his son’s aimlessness, Bob Drudge insisted on buying him a Packard-Bell computer in 1994. The Drudge Report began as an e-mail sent out to a few friends.”
The Drudge Report started taking off in March 1995, and Drudge’s “first big break came straight out of the garbage” while he was working at CBS Studios, according to The Drudge Revolution:
Tuesday’s episode also flashes back to a trip Drudge made to the capitol—which Jeffrey Toobin described in his book A Vast Conspiracy, on which Impeachment is based. The trip would include a fateful conversation with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff (Danny A. Jacobs), who was on the Clinton sexual harassment beat. While Drudge had been digging scoops out of the trash, Isikoff was operating on the opposite end of the reporting-morality spectrum—vetting sources and declining access to illegally recorded audio. Toobin writes:
In May 1997, The Washington Post formally introduced Drudge to the world in a profile entitled “The Dirt on Matt Drudge”:
Though Drudge had a reputation for being hit-or-miss with its news breaks—he incorrectly reported that Microsoft was buying Netscape, and that Independence Day would bomb at the box office, according to The Drudge Revolution—he managed to break the Clinton affair news.
On January 17, 1998, Drudge published the story with the headline “NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN:”
The story set off a full-on media frenzy around the Clinton White House on par with the press circus around Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Days later, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ABC radio followed with their own reporting that Kenneth Starr was investigating whether Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan encouraged Lewinsky to lie to lawyers for Paula Jones about whether she had an affair with the president.
Incredibly, this was not the first time that Drudge scooped Isikoff. Drudge previously beat the Newsweek reporter to breaking the allegations that Clinton made advances towards another White House aide, Kathleen Willey. Speaking to press after breaking the Lewinsky-Clinton affair news, Drudge acknowledged his own controversial tactics in scooping Isikoff.
“There’s something in the culture of Washington where reporters share their stories, and now there’s an outlet, meaning me,” said Drudge. “Before we all talked about it, but who’s going to print it? … This thing just fell into my lap.”
The article not only opened the floodgates for political attacks, it also marked another important turning point. Per Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy, “By launching the story into the public discourse via the Internet, Drudge’s post announced a fundamental reordering of our media hierarchies, a process that has only accelerated in subsequent years.”
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