I’m starting to think that the prevalence of "flash mob"/mugging stories in the local media has a lot to do with the Drudge Report. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, people on Twitter were talking about how much traffic the Drudge Report drives to news sites. This is nothing new, of course. In 2006, Mark Halperin, former editor of the widely-read political tip sheet The Note—himself was so famed for having his finger on the pulse of DC chatter that he earned a New Yorker profile for it—said:
"Today Matt Drudge can influence the news like Walter Cronkite did," Halperin told ABC News. "If Drudge says something, it may not lead everybody instantly in the same direction, but it gets people thinking about what Matt Drudge wants them to think about."
Sound crazy? Not really:
Drudge has been in the catbird seat for ages, but for some reason or another it became a topic of conversation again.
That discussion led me to a 2008 post by influential developer and writer Jason Fried, "Why the Drudge Report is one of the best-designed sites on the Web." It’s an interesting post. I hadn’t visited the Drudge Report in years, and that post led me to swing by and take a look.
On the same day, I read a post about a panic arising on various ideologically driven news blogs, in the wake of an incident in New York in which a bunch of youths tore up a Dunkin’ Donuts. And guess what term turned up:
Apparently, it’s racist to note that all of the youths involved in the attack were black just like the flashmob that attacked the Milwaukee Mayfair Mall in January, the mob that attacked a Dupont Circle store in Washington DC in April, and the flashmob that ransacked a Las Vegas convenience store in early May.
Why did anyone care what happened at a neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts? A Drudge link, prominently displayed when I stopped by.
People who actually can bear to read the Drudge Report every day—and obviously, there are lots of them—have been noticing that he’s been linking to these sorts of stories for awhile.
[Actually, let’s pause here for a moment. Drudge’s site is funny. Not funny "haha," but funny "opaque." All he does is link. So to the extent that the Drudge Report is political or ideological, it’s difficult to parse, which is why his sociopolitical leanings have been a hot topic for years. Is he a Republican? A conservative? A libertarian? No one really knows. It’s a minor miracle of the Internet era: a guy who floated from marginal job to marginal job, whose chief journalism experience prior to his meteoric rise was overhearing gossip in a CBS Studios gift shop, drives a significant portion of the country’s political debate… while remaining somewhat mysterious as a public figure. And, for that matter, his success remains somewhat mysterious to media folks as well. It’s really a remarkable story. By the way, the Weiner twitter-picture story? That came from Andrew Breitbart’s "Big Government"; Breitbart cut his teeth as Drudge’s assistant.]
OK, back to these flash mob/mob violence stories. Drudge has been linking to them here and there; Alex Pareene of Salon notes that they’ve been going back awhile:
Since Obama actually took office, though, Drudge has seriously stepped up his "scary black people" coverage. There was, in September of 2009, the story he heavily publicized of a kid on a bus in Illinois getting beaten up. A kid on a bus in Illinois getting beaten up is not really national news — until Drudge makes it so.
That we know. If something gets on Drudge, it gets read across the world, and thus often becomes national or world news, even if it would otherwise barely make the crime blotter. Then Pareene makes a leap:
The fact that the beater was black and the victim white is why Drudge made it national news. Rush Limbaugh made the subtext explicit: "In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering."
Like I said, the politics of the Drudge Report are opaque. Is he a racist? An opportunist? Both? Neither? It’s kind of a Rorschach blot of a publication, which may somewhat explain its success.
Back to the present day. John Cook of Gawker noticed that, on Memorial Day weekend, Drudge lined up a bunch of stories about incidents of violence, in a post cheekily titled "Matt Drudge Launches Black Teen Crime News Service":
The race-baiting is a bit more transparent—"urban," "rib fest"—than we’ve come to expect from Drudge, who is usually more elegant in his efforts to stoke white rage.
Yesterday, as Daily Intel noted, there was the interesting juxtaposition of a photo of an enraged Serena Williams telling a judge she was going to "take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat" with a photo of an angry-looking Barack Obama warning that "they can’t stop us" on healthcare.
Interesting, or not interesting. Like I said, it’s kind of a Rorschach blot (blog?). Cook’s interpretation is spreading, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes.
Today, a Capitol Fax commenter, discussing the "flash mobs," noticed that Drudge has a headline reading "CHICAGOLAND: Police warn of teen girls committing strong arm robberies…".
Flash mobs of teen girl strong arm robbers? Yow! But it’s actually a minor WLS story from the Sun-Times wire about two less-than-fearsome-sounding Hispanic teens: "One is between 4-foot-8 to 5-foot-2 and between 100 to 115 pounds. The other is between 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-6 and 115 to 150 pounds." They allegedly stole a gold necklace from one 15-year-old, and "a gold chain and a gold heart ring" from another 15-year-old.
I’m not sure you could find a more insignificant story in Chicago today: a couple of teens stole some jewelry from a couple of other teens. Which is not to say the jewelry isn’t priceless to the victims, but come on. Yet it’s on one of the most trafficked news sites in the world.
Between June 2 and June 9, the Drudge Report linked to 12 stories with "Chicago" in the headline; half are about "flash mobs," "mob attacks," and "gangs."
They’re odd phenomena, both the flash or not-flash mobs, and the back and forth between the incidents and the coverage. On one hand, I don’t want to dismiss anecdotal data, because it comes in advance of hard data; by the time a crime wave is known to exist, you’re already swimming in it.
On the other hand, the Illinois State Rifle Association warning its members to AVOID CHICAGO AS A VACATION DESTINATION because "vacationing in Chicago will place readers and their families at high risk of being victimized by violent criminals" is exactly the sort of absurd, self-indulgent panic that worries me just as much as getting my phone stolen.
Sometimes these kinds of stories become completely detached to any sort of reality, as a Tribune editorial semi-inadvertently revealed:
It feels like a variation on "wilding," in which roving gangs assault strangers, seemingly for sport. In 1989, five young men were charged with raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Police said the attack was a case of wilding — though in the end the convictions were vacated.
"In the end the convictions were vacated" is a mild way of putting it. The five young men spent seven to 13 years in prison before DNA evidence implicated another man—a serial rapist. And 22 years later, the case hasn’t remotely gone away. It’s the subject of a new book and a documentary in the making by Ken Burns.
The post-vacancy lawsuit alone is now in its eighth year.