Scoops Ahoy!

Psst. Want to know today what's going to be in The Washington Post tomorrow? Check out the Drudge Report, available on the Internet.

It's a tip sheet put out by Matt Drudge, a 30-year-old media junkie based in Hollywood whose dispatch is rapidly becoming a must-read in the capital's power corridors--and a headache for The Post and other news organizations struggling to combat this sort of cyberincursion.

Matt Drudge--yes, that is his real name--is a Takoma Park (Md.) native who has no other experience in journalism and who roundly boasts of the good fortune of having done so poorly in high school that his mind was spared the ravages of higher education. "Education doesn't make the man," Drudge said in a recent interview in which he ticked off the names of famous scribes (Don Hewitt of CBS's 60 Minutes, for one) who skipped college.

Maybe he can't recite Beowulf, but Drudge has a knack for scooping big news organizations on their own stories--a big reason (besides tattletale reports on the action on Hollywood's back lots) for the growing popularity of the Drudge Report, which first appeared in March 1995.

Consider this feat. The May 7 Post published a page-one story by staff writers Brian Duffy and Susan Schmidt reporting that FBI director Louis J. Freeh had advised Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the role of the White House in the Democratic Party's fund-raising practices in the 1996 presidential campaign.

That was a big story. Most Post readers saw it on the morning of May 7. Purchasers of the paper's early "bulldog" edition, available at The Post's headquarters on 15th Street, could have scanned the story at about 10 P.M. on May 6, also about the time the piece appeared on-line on the Post's World Wide Web site.

But E-mail subscribers to the Drudge Report were flashed a one-paragraph preview of The Post's Freeh scoop at 8:22 P.M. Drudge said he learned of the piece 30 minutes earlier--and was "very sure that a story had been written and edited and was going to be on the front page."

And how did he know all this? Drudge wouldn't reveal his source in this particular episode, but he said his tips generally come via E-mail from writers, at The Post and other publications, seeking advance "publicity" for their scoops. "It's just like having an early review of the movie--I'm early-reviewing the newspapers," he said.

Asked about Drudge's assertion that he's fed previews of news stories, Post managing editor Robert Kaiser said: "We just never do it." Told that Drudge boasted of having inside sources who regularly leak him Post stories, Kaiser replied: "Well, they shouldn't."

Reporters Duffy and Schmidt both said, adamantly, that they had given nothing to Drudge. "I found it very disturbing," Duffy said of Drudge's advance on the Freeh piece. "The reporters at The Washington Post don't work as hard as they do for someone to pilfer our stuff."

Could Drudge be picking advances off the news wires? Perhaps on occasion, but in the case of the Freeh story, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service sent the piece to its subscribers (mostly newspapers) at 8:36 P.M. on May 6--14 minutes after Drudge's E-mail flash.

Pressed on his methods, Drudge sent this bulletin via E-mail: "I better not talk anymore about how I am getting Washington Post stories before they hit the papers or wires. It sounds like you are about to blow my cover--and I need to feed my cat--who will only eat Fancy Feast it seems." (And, in fact, a concerned Kaiser is looking into Drudge's access to Post pieces.)

Drudge works out of a small apartment on Hollywood Boulevard. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and snagged an entry-level job in a CBS gift shop. He became an Internet junkie after his dad, a social worker for the Maryland state government, bought him a computer. The Drudge Report is all-consuming--he has no staff and is often dashing out the door to grab the freshest tabloids off the newsstand. "Both my parents don't understand the full breadth of what I'm doing," he said.

A self-described "conservative" and "Clinton crazie," Drudge said he was having fun and not expecting to get rich. That's a good thing. Anybody with a Net hookup can receive the Drudge Report for free--you simply ask Drudge to put you on his E-mail subscription list. Subscribers are sent periodic news (or gossip) flashes "when circumstances warrant," as Drudge puts it. The report is currently sent to some 51,000 E-mail subscribers. Drudge periodically conducts pledge drives, and he said he has received "some checks from top journalists in the country" (but wouldn't provide any names). Also, the Drudge Report is now syndicated on the Web site of Wired magazine.

The pre-publication leaks aren't Drudge's sole fare. His E-mail report features his own irreverent, chatterbox commentary on Washington and Hollywood, with a dose of Manhattan.

He also offers a World Wide Web site (www.drudgereport.com) that provides access to his E-mail writings as well as links to on-line reports of news wire services, newspapers, magazines and columnists.

On May 6, the Web site led with a report of White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles's plans to leave the White House--a bulletin linked to that day's already-published Boston Globe Bowles scoop by reporters Brian McGrory and Ann Scales. "The whole thing I'm doing is making these media people into stars," Drudge said.

Not that he's spotlight-averse. Drudge attended the recent White House correspondents' dinner in Washington--and in a brief stay in town, he managed to visit the Palm, the Jockey Club and the Jefferson Hotel.

His airfare was paid by Microsoft Corp., bankroller of on-line magazine Slate. Drudge declined to say whether he was talking about a deal with the Michael Kinsley-edited publication--but don't be surprised if one happens.

Meanwhile, the leaks--and the mystery of how Drudge gets them--continue. On a recent Friday, the Drudge Report contained an advance of a scheduled Sunday feature by Los Angeles Times reporter James Bates on tie-ins between movies and the fast-food industry. The LAT-Washington Post news service sent that story to its subscribers on Thursday at 3:12 P.M. But Drudge talked about the forthcoming piece in detail in a phone conversation with this reporter on Wednesday at noon.

Bates, in an interview, said he got a midweek call from Drudge, who wanted to know if the feature would run on Sunday, but he said he referred Drudge to editors. So how did Drudge get an advance? "I didn't give it to him," Bates said. Matt Drudge: Scooping the scoopers.

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