Sensationalism

12.13.12

Matt Drudge Pushes Outrage Button With N-Word Headline

The libertarian bomb-thrower splashed the N-word seven times on a story about Quentin Tarantino’s new film, in a tactic critics attacked, but cooler heads say was designed to grab attention—which it did.

Libertarian Internet impresario Matt Drudge, who delights in mischief above all else, is no doubt enjoying the sh*tstorm he created Wednesday by splashing the N-word seven times in bold capital letters (spelled out except for substituting “*” for the “i”) at the top of his Drudgereport.com homepage.

Other than going for shock and awe, Drudge’s purpose wasn’t entirely clear, although he linked his repetitively epithetic headline to a film review of Quentin Tarantino’s latest violent mockudrama, Django Unchained, about a mid-19th Century former slave (played by Jamie Foxx) who wreaks gory vengeance on the evil white masters of Dixie. Sort of Inglourious Basterds transferred from World War II Europe to the Old South.

Drudge, as usual, declined to comment on his incendiary exhibition —leaving tweeters, bloggers and pundits to boil in their own stew of outrage and confusion.

“I thought it was a really dumb headline, and without any context it becomes a really dumb conversation,” said cultural critic Touré, cohost of MSNBC’s The Cycle and author of the recent book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?. “What is being said here? Did Quentin Tarantino go on some kind of Michael Richards rage thing where he cursed out some black people? No, not at all.”

Touré, a Tarantino fan who says it makes perfect sense that the n-word would be uttered repeatedly in a film set in the pre-Civil War South, attributes Drudge’s attention-getting headline to just that—a bid for attention.

“Matt Drudge is just saying, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ ” Touré theorized. “He’s like a little boy on the playground who pulls his penis out of his pants because he knows that means everybody will look at him. It doesn’t matter what happens after that or what the consequences of that are. He just wants everybody to look at him, and because he’s self-employed, there are no repercussions.”

On the contrary, the 46-year-old Drudge, who achieved instant fame 14 years ago with his scoop about a 23-year-old former White House intern having a sexual relationship with President Clinton, probably feels richly rewarded by disparaging tweets such as:

“It’s likely that Drudge did it because he’s been dying to scream it himself.”

“Ah, nothing like a little race-baiting from Matt Drudge to get the blood boiling.”

And, in a tweet noting Drudge’s preference for 2012 campaign stories that made President Obama look bad: “Drudge’s current headline is a distillation of his entire election year coverage.”

Harvard Law professor and race relations scholar Randall Kennedy, author of the 2002 bestseller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, marvels that despite its ubiquity in the public space and various well-meaning attempts to demystify and detoxify it, the word has lost none of its power and punch.

“It still has the capacity to grab people’s attention,” he said. “It’s quite a sensational, shocking word. That’s why he [Drudge] did it, obviously. And with the little asterisk in there, he doesn’t say ‘nigger,’ he says ‘n*gger,’ sort of an attempt to heighten the taboo.”

He just wants everybody to look at him, and because he’s self-employed, there are no repercussions.

Kennedy is surprisingly non-judgmental about Drudge’s decision to drop the n-bomb. “Come on, we know what’s up here,” he said. “He’s a sensationalist. He’s grabbed ahold of the word and it helps with his overall strategy” to lure eyeballs and make waves.

Could Kennedy have been thinking along similar lines when he gave his own book its controversial title?

“Sure. Absolutely,” he agreed. “When I went on my book tour, people were very hostile to it, they asked me that question, and people were really angry at me. They said, ‘Mr. Kennedy, you’re trying to get attention.’ And my response was, ‘I stand guilty of that.’ If you’re writing a book…you’re thinking about how you’re going to get it a second look in the bookstore.”

As for Drudge’s provocative headline, “It’s vulgar, it’s sensationalizing, but that’s certainly not the worst use of the word I can think of,” Kennedy said. “Right now as we speak, somewhere in the United States, somebody is being insulted with this word, being intimidated with this word; some act of arson is going on right now with the arsonist muttering this word as he burns down something. Obviously, those uses are horrible.”