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Drudge Report, a Trump Ally in 2016, Isn’t in 2020

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Something has changed at Drudge Report, the influential site known for its tabloid-poetry headlines and conservative take on the news, and don’t think the president hasn’t noticed.

Matt Drudge, a web pioneer who went live with his site in 1995, was seen as an important media champion of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign. “A large measure of why Trump is the nominee goes to Matt Drudge,” Carl Bernstein said four years ago. And Mr. Trump has expressed his appreciation for the fedora-wearing web journalist, calling him “a great gentleman.”

But nowadays, like CNN, The New York Times and many other outlets, Drudge Report is just one more purveyor of “fake news,” in the Trump view.

For anyone who had not stopped by the site since it developed a reputation for lifting Mr. Trump and his brand of conservatism, the welcome page on Monday made for an arresting sight. At the top were images of stickers being sold by the Biden-Harris campaign that read, “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump.” Below that appeared a scroll of headlines linking to news stories from various sites, all of them written in Mr. Drudge’s staccato style, many of them related to a New York Times investigation of Mr. Trump’s troubled financial history.

“LOST MORE MONEY THAN MADE? … FINANCED EXTRAVAGANT LIFESTYLE WITH USE OF BUSINESS EXPENSES … FAKE BILLIONAIRE? … CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE: TRUMP OWES $421M.”

Mr. Drudge also did not pull any punches after Tuesday’s presidential debate: “Chaos reigns in hell debate … Undecided voters describe President as a ‘crackhead,’ ‘arrogant’ in focus group … Joe faces down raging Don.”

It was a notable shift from four years ago, when Mr. Drudge heralded Mr. Trump’s “rock star welcome in Florida” and highlighted stories that cast doubt on the health of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. His site, back then, also included links to coverage of Trump rallies as they happened.

Cracks started to appear in the summer of 2019, when Drudge Report featured a headline about the slow progress on a barrier Mr. Trump had repeatedly pledged to build along the southern border with Mexico: “NO NEW WALL AT ALL!” In December, when the House of Representatives impeached the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the site went big once again: “TRUMP ON BRINK.”

The Washington Times, a conservative daily, noted the shift. “The Drudge Report has stoked alarm on the right for appearing to pivot on its support for President Trump,” the paper reported last November, “increasingly linking to stories that are critical of the administration and to media websites that are accused of having an anti-Trump bias such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.”

In December, to raise awareness of a website he had started, Dan Bongino, a conservative radio host and frequent guest on Fox News programs, wrote on Twitter: “Drudge has abandoned you. I NEVER will.”

In April this year, President Trump weighed in on Twitter: “I gave up on Drudge (a really nice guy) long ago, as have many others. People are dropping off like flies!” The Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson echoed the sentiment in a July episode of his show, saying that Drudge Report “has changed dramatically, 180 degrees” and calling Mr. Drudge “a man of the progressive left.”

With the presidential campaign entering its final stretch, the attacks are mounting. On Sept. 1, Mr. Trump retweeted a post from Mark Levin, the host of a conservative syndicated radio show and a Fox News program, complaining about Drudge Report’s all-caps coverage of Mr. Trump’s denial of having suffered a health crisis (“TRUMP DENIES MINI-STROKE SENT HIM TO HOSPITAL … VIDEO: DRAGGING RIGHT LEG”). In response, Mr. Trump tweeted, Drudge didn’t support me in 2016, and I hear he doesn’t support me now. Maybe that’s why he is doing poorly.”

Two weeks later, the president deemed Drudge Report “Fake News.” “Our people have all left Drudge,” he said on Twitter. “He is a confused MESS, has no clue what happened.”

The site has perhaps paid a price for jumping off the Trump train. It had 1.4 million unique visitors in August, down 42 percent from a year earlier, according to Comscore data provided by The Righting, which analyzes viewership of right-leaning outlets. Its audience has trailed that of the right-wing sites The Gateway Pundit and Daily Caller. New rivals looking to outdraw the once-fastest news-slinger on the web include Liberty Daily, Rantingly and NewsAmmo, The Washington Times noted.

Mr. Drudge, who rarely gives interviews, did not respond to requests for comment.

In “The Drudge Revolution,” a book published this year, the journalist Matthew Lysiak described how Mr. Drudge, the child of two liberal Democrats, started out some 25 years ago from a Hollywood apartment equipped with a dial-up connection. What began as a Sunday night online newsletter filled with musings on natural disasters and celebrities soon became a venue for scoops on media, entertainment and politics.

Its founder displayed a knack for knowing what would make readers click when he started posting links to articles plucked from the fast-growing internet. He has had many big scoops of his own over the years, but he made his name as an aggregator — a digital journalist who highlights work published elsewhere — and he moved with such speed that he often gave the impression of being first, even when he wasn’t.

When the relationship between President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky — a story he broke — led to an impeachment in 1998, Mr. Drudge fully embraced the role of “sledgehammer to the media establishment complex,” Mr. Lysiak wrote. The site had lurid scoops on Mr. Clinton alongside curios like “Sting says today’s rock music — is a bore!

Mr. Drudge “effectively invented clickbait,” wrote the Columbia Journalism Review. Frank Rich, writing in The Times in 1999, said he was a “grandstander whom many, I included, once feared as the Devil of journalism incarnate.”

Drudge Report attracted plenty of conservative love and attention. Mr. Drudge worked with Andrew Breitbart, who later created the right-wing news site Breitbart News, and he met Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago. In 2015, he sat off-camera for a 45-minute interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy-theory-peddling founder of Infowars.

Mr. Lysiak, the author, said in an interview that rival websites are “licking their chops — they see blood in the water.” But he noted that there may be another factor in Drudge Report’s recent loss of traffic: the rise of social media.

“Matt Drudge was always first at everything, but not anymore, not even close — Twitter’s first,” Mr. Lysiak said. “For years now, people have been wondered who the next Drudge is, but it isn’t a person. It’s a social media revolution, and he sees that writing on the wall.”

But Mr. Drudge has a deep desire, and a talent, for staying relevant, Mr. Lysiak said. Betting big on Mr. Trump did the trick in 2016. Betting against him could work this time around.

Mr. Lysiak suggested that readers who expected Mr. Drudge’s site to stay true to one line of political thought were misguided.

“In reality, while Matt Drudge has his own personal political opinions, his website has absolutely no loyalty to any political party or ideology,” he said. “Now he’s thinking long-term, really putting his political capital on a Biden candidacy. And if that happens, he will once again weaponize his site on behalf of more conservative causes.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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