Bizarre Love Triangle: Breitbart, Reuters, and the Drudge Report

Earlier today, author Greg Beato posted a fascinating story on his site Soundbitten disclosing the links-for-pay arrangement that the Drudge Report's sometime deputy Andrew Breitbart struck with Reuters. We wrote about it earlier, but Beato's allowed us to reprint it.

For years, Andrew Breitbart, second-in-command at the Drudge Report, labored in the shadows cast by his boss's legendary fedora. Now, he's known as a major media player in his own right, the architect of a burgeoning conservative news network that's far more ambitious than anything his boss has ever attempted. In 2005, he created Breitbart.com, a streamlined news portal that carries the latest articles from the Associated Press, UPI, and other major newswires. In 2008, he created Big Hollywood, a group blog that counters liberal bias emanating from a dangerous fifth column of Malibu gasbags, statist puppets, and singing schoolchildren. In 2009, he introduced Big Government, a group blog that counters the liberal bias emanating from liberals. And perhaps just in case it turns out prime numbers emanate liberal bias too, he's even registered Big23.com.

Breitbart has a reputation for ideological transparency. "At no point have I attempted to hide my political leanings as I have endeavored to create Big Hollywood and Big Government. There is a need for a checks and balance against the New York Times and the rest of the supposedly neutral traditional press," he exclaimed at Big Hollywood. In an interview with the Financial Times, he reiterated his commitment to openness. "I make no bones about coming from an ideological and partisan point of view. But at least I'm honest about it."

But he's not just outspoken. Taunting his own nipples on Red Eye, trash-talking Upton Sinclair at a Tea Party rally, he's entertainingly outspoken. Catch him in an especially playful mood, and he practically pukes candor. "This is the Abu Ghraib of Abu Ghraib," he exclaimed to the Washington Independent about his ACORN video series. "Abu Ghraibs for everyone! NEA Abu Ghraib! White House Abu Ghraib! ACORN Abu Ghraib! Journalism Abu Ghraib! You've all been exposed, you corrupt bastards."

NO COMMENT

When an interview subject delivers quotes like that, you pretty much just turn on your tape recorder and let the magic happen. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I called up Breitbart, asked him about a long-term business deal he has with Reuters, and he declined to comment.

I was hoping he'd brag about how much money he's made from the deal. And fire off some zingers about how unlikely it is that he, a guy so conservative he once suggested to the New York Observer that it would "almost disgust" him to have sex with the liberal movie star Maggie Gyllenhaal, had hooked up with Reuters, an international newswire with a reputation for anti-American bias, anti-Israeli bias, and anti-conservative bias.

And maybe if I had caught in a particularly expansive mood, I figured he might brazenly exclaim that while Reuters is charging its MSM brethren thousands of dollars a month to license its content, it's paying him, the anti-MSM upstart, for editorial links he places on his two news portals, Breitbart.com and Breitbart.TV, and even on the Drudge Report.

At which point, I would have probably said something like, "Dude, you're living the blogger dream! Mainstream media's paying you to link to its content, and you're using the money you make from them to fund sites which, as you told the Wall Street Journal, aim to ‘attack the media and to expose them . . . for the partisan hacks that they are.' They're paying you to say they suck! I don't think it gets any better than that."

At which point, Breitbart might have replied, "It doesn't. It really doesn't. It does not get any better than that."



Unfortunately, Breitbart isn't talking.

Instead, he suggested I take my questions directly to Reuters. Reuters, in turn, is being tight-lipped about the deal as well. This isn't that surprising. Reuters is a major international news agency — it reports on either people's business, not its own. Finally, there's the third party in this odd menage, Matt Drudge. He hasn't responded to email requests for an interview either.

What are they trying to hide?

MATT DRUDGE: UNHERALDED WEB ALTRUIST

This particular story started in 2005, when Breitbart decided to create Breitbart.com, a streamlined news portal for hardcore information junkies seeking access to every single story produced by the major newswires.

The genius of this simple idea cannot be fully appreciated unless you understand how the Drudge Report works. To the average hard-working blockhead who's never figured out how to make millions of dollars simply for rewriting AP headlines, the Drudge Report may seem like little more than a lazy parasite. But it's actually more complicated than that. Because while Matt Drudge realized early on that the best way to make money on the web is to leverage other people's content, he's also one of the web's most generous sugar daddies, giving away tons of potential revenue to rather arbitrary beneficiaries in the newspaper industry.

That's because a large percentage of the stories the Drudge Report links to are newswire stories, which can be licensed by any entity willing to pay for them. An Associated Press story, for example, may be carried on literally hundreds of sites – and Drudge is free to link to whichever one of those sites he chooses, for whatever reasons. In turn, the lucky site he links to is rewarded with a huge blast of monetizable traffic through no reportorial work of its own.

In the early days of the Drudge Report, the Washington Post was a frequent recipient of Drudge's largesse. Take, for example, this Drudge Report screenshot from February 8, 2000. It contained eight links to the Washington Post's website, and yet to get all the traffic that resulted, the Post's reportorial staff didn't even have to investigate a press release, much less wear out any shoe-leather — every single link went to an AP story carried on the Post's site.

Over the course of a year, the Drudge Report links to thousands of AP and other newswire stories. At some point, Breitbart realized this was basically like pouring money down a drain, only worse. It was like pouring money down a drain that some random newspaper publisher was sitting under, cackling gleefully as the money poured down on him.

Why, Breitbart must have wondered, couldn't he be that cackling publisher? A newswire portal would require little investment other than the newswire licensing fees, and yet with the Drudge Report sending it a thundering river of traffic every day, it could potentially make millions of dollars in advertising too.

That Drudge didn't pursue such a plan himself is just one more reason he remains, like Morocco's tree-climbing goats, an inexplicable phenomenon of nature. Maybe he figured he was making enough money as it was. (In 2001, Drudge told a reporter that he first started earning more than "seven digits" a year in 2000.) Maybe he thought running AP articles on his own site would diminish his carefully cultivated persona as a renegade citizen journalist working outside the bounds of the traditional news media.

In any case, Breitbart.com officially launched in 2005. Over the years, both Breitbart and Drudge have maintained that Drudge has no financial interest in the site. In a 2005 CNET article about Breitbart.com, Drudge exclaimed that he had "never owned a share of any company that [he's] linked to." In 2007, Breitbart told the L.A. Times that Drudge has "zero creative or business interest in the site."

Breitbart, however, does have a business interest in the site, and as soon as it launched, he began sending Drudge Report readers to his new, extremely hungry baby.

On August 29th, 2005, for example, the Drudge Report linked to Breitbart.com 48 times. On the following two days, it linked to Breitbart.com a total of 82 times. Over this single 72-hour period, it linked to Breitbart.com more times than it linked to Slate, The Huffington Post, The Nation, The New Republic, The National Enquirer, Rushlimbaugh.com, AnnCoulter.com, Rolling Stone, and Rosie.com, combined, in six years.

These numbers come from a database compiled by Kalev Leetaru, Coordinator of Information Technology and Research at the University of Illinois Cline Center for Democracy.While the Drudge Report has never maintained an archive, DrudgeReportArchives.com, an independent site, has been taking snapshots of the Drudge Report's front page since 2001. In July 2009, Leetaru analyzed every snapshot taken between January 1, 2002 through December 31, 2008 — 171,717 pages in all — and published a report of his findings.

According to Leetaru's report, 25% of all links from the Drudge Report in August 2005 led to Breitbart.com. Needless to say, Breitbart.com flourished. In its first month of operation, the new site attracted 2.64 million unique visitors.

Incredibly enough, his good fortune was about to get even better.

CODE GREEN ALERT: PAID LINKS AT THE DRUDGE REPORT

In the early days of Breitbart.com, Breitbart licensed content from the Associated Press and Reuters, as this archived page shows. But according to documents generated in a 2005 legal dispute between Breitbart and two other parties, Reuters terminated its contract with Breitbart.com in late September.

In October 2005, however, Reuters approached Breitbart with the kind of offer that generally occurs only in the less believable tales in Penthouse Forum or when a Nigerian vicar is planning to rip you off. To wit, Reuters wanted to pay Breitbart "a fee for traffic to driven to Reuters [sic] own website."

Typically, newspaper sites pay newswires to license their content, and that's what Breitbart was doing until Reuters cancelled its original contract with him. Now, it wanted to switch things up.

Under the terms of the new proposal, Breitbart would not be able to publish complete Reuters stories on his own website. Instead, he'd merely publish headlines and summaries that would link to Reuters' own page.

Breitbart agreed to the new deal on October 14th, 2005. Six weeks later, on December 2, 2005, Reuters returned to Breitbart.com with a splash. Indeed, before December 2, Associated Press headlines occupied the most prominent position on Breitbart.com's home page. In the wake of the new deal, Reuters became the house brand.

At Breitbart.com, Breitbart's goal is to present the latest news stories as they break, regardless of their importance. If it goes out on the AP wire, or the Reuters wire, it goes on his site: Breitbart aims to carry every story the wires are producing, with the newest stories getting top billing. Thus, in his function there, he's not so much a news editor making judgements about what stories are most important as he is, say, a news grocer, assembling the widest, freshest stock of journalistic produce available.

In privileging Reuters stories over AP stories simply because the former was paying while the latter was charging him, Breitbart was merely bringing the values of the grocery store world to onlines news distribution. Supermarkets across the nation charge companies like Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble a slotting fee to reserve the most desirable shelf space and floorspace for their products. At Breitbart.com, Breitbart was doing the same with Reuters. (Over time, the site's design evolved. In the current version of Breitbart.com, no one newswire receives favorable placement over any other. Stories from all newswires are combined into a single feed, with the most recently published stories at the top.)

At the Drudge Report, Breitbart isn't just a news grocer, however. He's a body double for the man the Daily Telegraph has dubbed "the world's most powerful journalist." Drudge enjoys this title because of his ability to direct millions of eyeballs to a specific story or issue. And since thousands of those eyeballs are attached to cable news producers, newspaper editors, White House correspondents, and radio hosts with hours of air-time to fill each day, Drudge can single-handedly turn a story into the story in a way that few others can.

Indeed, when Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza canvassed more than a dozen campaign strategists, communications directors, and other high-placed political operatives, each one agreed that "there is no single tool more powerful in the modern media for breaking a story or turning up the volume on a little-noticed comment" than the Drudge Report.

"[Drudge] serves as an assignment editor for the national press corps," Kevin Madden, former campaign press secretary for Mitt Romney, told Politico in 2008. "If he has a story up, you know the cable networks are going to cover it all day."

Thus, there are expectations – enormous expectations — that Matt Drudge and anyone working for him are not just amassing journalistic produce but are instead performing important editorial functions. Millions of readers believe the Drudge Report finds the most interesting, relevant, and entertaining needles of truth buried in the dull, biased, and sloppily reported mountains of journalistic hay the media dumps on us every day. Thousands of reporters and editors believe Drudge's nose for news is so sharp he can sniff out a scandal in the third paragraph of a story everyone else thought was so inconsequential they didn't get past the second paragraph.

No doubt Breitbart has a good nose for news too. After he made his deal with Reuters, however, a new scent began filling his nostrils-the sweet intoxicating aroma of easy money.

In a document arising from his legal dispute, Breitbart admitted that he had "at times, caused there to be hyperlinks to Reuters' website from the Drudge Report, and that some of those links have contained the same tracking code as links to Reuters' website from www.Breitbart.com."

Here, of course, would be a great place for Breitbart and Reuters to chime in with some specific information about the nature of their deal.

For example, were the Drudge Report links a formal part of their arrangement?


Was Reuters paying Breitbart a flat fee for the paid links he was placing on Breitbart.com and The Drudge Report, or was it paying him based on the amount of traffic he was driving to its site?

These questions, alas, remain unanswered, because Breitbart declined to talk about his deal with Reuters and Reuters has been nearly as silent.

If you examine the links to Reuters.com at Breitbart.com, however, you'll find that that they all contain a common feature — a string that reads "RPC=22" or "RPC=23."

On this single subject, Reuters did shed a little light. According to Erin Kurtz, PR Head of Thomson Reuters' Americas and Media Division, the RPC string in a Reuters.com URL is "a parameter that enables [Reuters] to track clicks from URLs on our newsletters, from/to partner sites, etc."

Examine the Drudge Report's links to Reuters.com links and you will see that the RPC string can be found in some of them as well. See, for example, the URL associated with the "Hope" headlines that leads The Drudge Report on December 15, 2005.

But how often, exactly, was this happening?

Kalev Leetaru's database of Drudge Report snapshopts reveals that before Breitbart agreed to his new deal with Reuters, the RPC string never appeared in any of the nearly 700 links from the the Drudge Report to Reuters.com that were published between January 1, 2002 and October 14, 2005.

After the new agreement, however, the RPC string began to appear, well, it was just like Breitbart said. The RPC string began to appear "at times." What Breitbart didn't say, however, was that the RPC string also began to appear at other times. And other other times. Which is to say, it basically started to appear in almost every Reuters.com link the Drudge Report featured. Meanwhile, the frequency with which the Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com began to increase.

How much? The Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com just 29 times from January 1, 2005 to October 14, 2005. Then, Breitbart signed his new deal to drive traffic to Reuters.com for money. From October 15, 2005 to December 31, 2005, the Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com 229 times.

In all fairness, it may be that this abrupt 2900% increase in Reuters.com links didn't have all that much impact on the Drudge Report's content.

Like most news outlets, Reuters produces a certain number of commodity stories — a summary of a White House press conference, a field report from a candidate campaign appearance — that numerous other sources are reporting on as well. If, suddenly, the Drudge Report started favoring Reuters' accounts over the Associated Press's or the New York Times', well, the Drudge Report's readers were still getting information about whatever events its editors deemed most important.

In addition, it's not as if Breitbart had struck a deal with a spammer or a lobbyist looking to promote a specific product or policy. The Reuters.com links led to news stories, not penis-enhancement ads or campaign talking points.

Still, it's pretty clear that with the new deal in place, Breitbart began to look at Reuters.com the way Sarah Palin looks at the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In his case, however, he had unchecked authority to drill, baby, drill!

In 2006, the Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com 1888 times. At this point, it trailed only Breitbart.com as the Drudge Report's favorite destination. Meanwhile, 1852 of those links, or 98% of them, contained the RPC strings that Reuters was presumably using to keep track of how much traffic Breitbart was sending it.

Over the following two years, the Drudge Report linked to Reuters.com 2368 times, with 82% of those links containing the RPC strings.

While Kalev Leetaru's database does not include data for 2009, the Drudge Report still regularly features Reuters.com links containing the RPC=22 and RPC=23 strings. See, for example, the link associated with the IT'S UNDER$900,000,000,000.00 headline that appeared on October 20, 2009.

At Breitbart.com, all links to Reuters.com continue to use those two RPC strings as well. From all appearances, the synergistic three-way between Breitbart, Reuters, and the Drudge Report remains in effect.

From 2005 through 2008, the Drudge Report featured more than 4000 links to Reuters.com that included the RPC strings.

How much money did Breitbart make from them?

Don't expect an answer any time soon. But when you're single-handedly taking on what Breitbart calls the Democrat-Media Complex, every bit helps. And any money that actually comes from the Democrat-Media Complex itself must be extra appreciated.

"Newswires are, I don't know, 70% of the action, and I wanted to begin my business based on that platform," Breitbart exclaimed in a recent interview at Technorati. He then revealed that he's planning to hire reporters for Big Government and Big Hollywood, and buying up numerous domain names to expand his network of sites. "I've spent way too much money these URLs. Those guys have to be living on an island the way they're able to sell crappy URLs for $20,000," he joked.

He didn't provide any details about where the money to buy crappy $20,000 URLs comes from, but maybe the world's most powerful journalist, Matt Drudge, will eventually break that story. In the meantime, if you can't wait to see sites like BigClimate.com and BigNannyState.com, you know what to do. Every time you see a Reuters.com link at the Drudge Report, click on it at least a dozen times!