Exclusive submission to CFP by Drudge Revolution author Matthew Lysiak
DRUDGE REPORT PAY-FOR-PLAY SCHEME
“Shortly after the Huffington Post launched on May 9, 2005, the website not only took a leftward tilt but also heavily relied on news aggregation, making it a clear and direct competitor to Drudge. The relationship soured. By that June, Andrew Breitbart was out. He made another disastrous business decision when he decided to take a small buyout instead of the percentage he was originally promised, which would have been worth millions if Breitbart had waited.
Breitbart went back to work for Matt, knowing that he wasn’t going to pay him more, but offering “four or five ideas on how to make money.” Idea number one was to buy a subscription to the newswire services. To Breitbart, it made perfect sense. On any given week the Drudge Report would link to hundreds of wire stories, sending traffic, along with the advertising revenue that accompanied it to third parties. If they bought into the wires, Breitbart reasoned, that money could be kept in-house.
“The idea was to have ten wire services and have them all under Breitbart.com,” says a friend of Breitbart’s. “If you were someone who wanted to be inside the news, this would be the ultimate news junkie page.”
Matt shot the idea down, telling Breitbart, “Then the Drudge Report would become a business, and the Drudge Report will never be a business.” But Breitbart came back with a counteroffer: What if he fronted the money himself to buy the wires under his name? Would Matt then agreed to allow him to link to the wires he owned? Matt signed off on the deal. Breitbart moved forward with purchasing a subscription to the wire services, telling friends he took out loans totaling $150,000 for the subscription.
In the summer of 2005, he launched Breitbart.com, “providing up-to-the-minute wire service stories.” Publicly, Breitbart said that he “wanted to create the single best place where I could go as an avid news reader to get headlines the second they hit the internet so I don’t have to go to 40 sites.” Asked about if there had been an agreement with the Drudge Report, Breitbart told reporters, “I’m grateful for the traffic that is sent my way.” The new arrangement would dramatically change the composition of the Drudge Report. On August 17, 2005, Breitbart.com went live. On August 29, 2005, Breitbart peppered the Drudge Report with links from Breitbart.com forty-eight times, according to an analysis by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois Cline Center for Democracy.
By flooding the Drudge Report with links to Breitbart’s wire page, Breitbart.com went from obscurity to boasting 2.64 million unique visitors in its first month of operation, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
Publicly, Matt said he was happy to assist his friend, telling CNET News, “For the wire stories, I’ve always looked for places with low graphics, without a lot of spinning Java tops on them . . . When I send my readers someplace, I want it to be convenient for them to get there.” He added, “I want to help him out. He has always wanted to do this. This is his idea and hopefully he can make a living from it.”
Breitbart had other revenue ideas. He entered into a pay-per-click financial arrangement with Reuters that further altered the page. From January 1, 2005, to October 14, 2005, the Drudge Report linked just twenty-nine times to Reuters. In the period following the deal, from October 15, 2005, to December 31, 2005, the Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com 229 times. Each Reuters link was embedded with an HTML tag that allowed the news agency to track how much revenue Breitbart had been generating by the traffic sent their way.
It wasn’t the only pay-for-play arrangement. On January 26, 2006, Breitbart and his wife were sued by the Minnesota-based internet advertising firm Gen Ads for $75,000 for allegedly being in violation of their own agreement to take advantage of Drudge Report traffic. The court papers outlined a process of how Breitbart was able to manipulate the Drudge Report website to line his own pockets. According to court documents, after the August 2005 launch, Breitbart.com almost immediately became one of the most trafficked sites on the internet, with 2.64 million visits in its first month of operation. Nearly all the traffic originated from his own referrals while helming the Drudge Report. The advertising agency was happy with the traffic until it learned that Breitbart had broken the agreement by promoting a third party:
“In November 2005, Gen Ads learned that BL had entered into an advertising agreement with Reuters, a third party, for the placement of multiple links on the Breitbart Site to promote the Reuters site. “Indeed, Andrew was negotiating the agreement to place Reuters Advertising at the time he was negotiating the Advertising Agreement and LLC Agreement with Gen Ads.” In other words, financial arrangements for posting a story on a news site raised ethical concerns.
Journalist Greg Beato, describes the arraignment as a black eye for Matt. “Drudge really used to emphasize his editorial independence. So the fact that there were these seemingly paid editorial links to Reuters.com on DrudgeReport.com looked like an ethical breach to me. Basically, it was pay-to-play.”
Breitbart had expected to cash in on the deal, but instead, he told friends the legal battle put him $300,000 in debt. While Breitbart may have struggled to pull himself out of debt, he had become adept at milking the Drudge Report for its political currency.
Conservative talk show host John Ziegler recalls, “The Drudge Report was almost like the mafia and would often be used as a henchman for the conservative side . . . there were absolute quid pro quos.” Breitbart would use the power of the Drudge Report as leverage when there was a story he wanted in the mainstream news media. According to Ziegler, “He would send a link to [Mike] Allen of Politico. There would be a wink-wink, nod-nod, and voilà!: Allen posts a story.
Breitbart would put the link on Drudge. It’s a win-win because Allen gets the traffic and the story Breitbart wanted to circulate had been cleansed of the right-wing stench and through Politico and could now get circulated through the mainstream news media.” In another instance, Ziegler says he used the threat of a Drudge Report link after the NBC show Today threatened to reschedule an upcoming interview Ziegler planned to use to promote his next project. Ziegler says he called Breitbart and said, “If they bail on me, would you be able to post a story on Drudge?” After Breitbart agreed, Ziegler called NBC. “We did the interview as scheduled. That was the power of Drudge.”
Matthew Lysiak is a nationally recognized journalist and author of Newtown (Simon and Schuster) Breakthrough (Harper Collins) and Drudge Revolution. The story of his family is the subject of the series Home Before Dark which premiered April 3 on Apple TV Plus
Bonus Clip — Matthew Lysiak discusses Drudge Revolution with Buck Sexton