Hard Lessons from the HuffPost Sale
U.S. progressive media has had a tough few weeks. First, Keith Olbermann, the pioneer for liberal programming during MSNBC’s evening hours, was sent packing. Then, Arianna Huffington allowed AOL to subsume her Huffington Post into AOL’s right-of-center content for the price tag of $315 million.
Leftist bloggers who had provided free content to Huffington Post, enabling it to become a valuable property, found themselves quite literally sold out, with Huffington pocketing $18 million while making clear that she won’t battle for the liberal banner inside AOL.
Huffington joined with her new boss, AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong, to declare that their focus will be on how many eyeballs can be drawn to AOL, not in pushing progressive causes.
"Arianna has the same interest we do, which is serving consumers' needs and going beyond the just straight political needs of people," Armstrong said.
For her part, Huffington noted that her Web site was already shedding its political identity, providing more celebrity news and scandal stories, including a new section devoted to divorces. While about half of the traffic was on politics a couple of years ago, she said, that is now down to about 15 percent with only one of two dozen “sections” centered on politics.
Huffington, who burst onto the national stage in the 1990s as a right-wing talker denouncing President Bill Clinton, indicated in the wake of the sale to AOL that she may be shifting her ideology again.
"It's time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right," Huffington told PBS's "NewsHour." "Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing."
As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted, Huffington used almost the same words when she changed her political colorations a decade ago. In 2000, she told Fox News, "The old distinctions of right and left, Democrat, Republican, are pretty obsolete."
Milbank wrote: “Anybody who expects her to continue as a reliable voice of the left is a poor student of Huffington history. I first came across Huffington in 1995, when she was working at [Newt] Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation, preaching social consciousness to fellow conservatives.
“She railed against ‘big government’ and pronounced: ‘We do our part and God meets us halfway. That's why I'm a conservative.’ That version of Huffington called for strict immigration restrictions. She favored Bill Clinton's resignation and floated the rumor that a former ambassador had been buried in Arlington because Clinton had slept with his wife.”
She thrived as a rightist talking-head during the height of the Clinton-bashing in the 1990s, decrying his marital infidelity even as her own marriage to Rep. Michael Huffington, R-California, had the look of a political arrangement. She divorced the multimillionaire Huffington in 1997, shortly before he disclosed that he was bisexual.
A Second Divorce
Emerging from the divorce with a sizeable settlement, Arianna Huffington also separated from her right-wing ideological family. She moved leftward, filling what turned out to be a lucrative void as an outspoken leader of Hollywood's liberal community.
While many on the Left embraced Huffington’s ideological transformation then – with some wealthy progressives contributing substantial sums to her liberal projects – others remained skeptical, in part, because she never fully explained the reasons for her political shift.
She spoke only generally about how the Right had "seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled" her. But some of her critics saw instead an opportunistic calculation in her chameleon-like approach to politics.
In 2005, Huffington founded Huffington Post, which operated with a business model that relied on activists, politicians and entertainers contributing free content. The Web site soon became an important center for progressives critical of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Over time, Huffington Post also featured gossipy articles about popular celebrities. Like other left-of-center sites, such as Salon.com, those stories often emerged as the best-read, encouraging a further drift in that direction as a means of securing advertising dollars.
The commercial success of Huffington Post – resulting from its low overhead due to the work of some 3,000 bloggers writing for free and from Huffington’s effective self-promotion – caught the eye of Wall Street investors and obviously AOL.
Though AOL generally provides right-of-center news content to subscribers – for instance, AOL joined in last week’s hagiography of Ronald Reagan – its management concluded that it could do business with Arianna Huffington.
The sale of Huffington Post to a corporation that positions itself in the right branch of the mainstream media – what many on the Left deride as the MSM – upset a number of the site’s bloggers, including some who vowed to withdraw their work.
The broadside continued: “Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she's cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.
“But the Huffington Post is not Arianna's to sell. It is ours: the lefty writers and readers, environmentalism activists and anti-corporate organizers who flooded the site with 25 million visits a month. So we're going to take it back. We'll stop going to her site. And we'll stop blogging for her too.”
In another big disappointment to progressives, Olbermann abruptly left MSNBC last month, announcing his departure in a brief signoff at the end his regular Friday broadcast of his “Countdown” program. Olbermann’s unceremonious push out the door would never have been matched by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing Fox News toward its media stars.
In that way, Olbermann’s treatment was a reminder to the surviving liberal hosts on MSNBC – the likes of Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz – that they are expendable, too, and that MSNBC experimented with liberal-oriented programming only after its attempts to out-Fox Fox had failed.
In his nearly eight years at “Countdown,” Olbermann was the brave soul who charted the course for other mainstream media types to even mildly criticize Bush. More typical of NBC Universal’s cable shows was the fawning treatment that Chris Matthews afforded Bush in 2003 during the heady days of what was viewed as the victorious invasion of Iraq.
Fish to Fry
NBC’s owner, General Electric, was a charter member of the military-industrial complex and – as a major international conglomerate – had more corporate fish to fry than the modestly higher ratings that Olbermann provided MSNBC. Comcast, the cable giant which is assuming a majority stake in NBC Universal, similarly has more lucrative interests amid the regulatory world of Washington.
This week, Olbermann announced that he would become “chief news officer” at former Vice President Al Gore’s “Current Media,” a struggling media operation that is available mostly over the Internet and in households with digital cable connections.
“Nothing is more vital to a free America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of a free media than news produced independently of corporate interference,” Olbermann told reporters. “In Current Media, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt have created the model truth-seeking entity.”
Though Olbermann may draw new attention and more viewers to Current, the overall impact of his departure from MSNBC is that far fewer Americans will have access to Olbermann’s influential commentaries which were important in rallying progressives especially during the peak of Bush’s power.
A lesson for progressives from AOL’s purchase of Huffington Post may be that they should be a bit more leery of converts from the Right, especially those who don’t explain adequately what led to their ideological switch.
While liberals seem especially eager to reward ex-conservatives by lavishing them with financial and other support, progressives might consider showing their generosity more to people who have proven their commitment to worthy causes or honest journalism with years of hard work.
All these points, however, go back to the overall weakness of progressives in the field of media. If a powerful liberal cable network did exist, MSNBC might have had second thoughts about treating someone like Olbermann so high-handedly, since he could jump to a competing channel that could badly dent MSNBC’s ratings.
Similarly, progressives behaved in an overly credulous manner toward Arianna Huffington, thrilled that someone with such an outsized media profile – gained from her service as a foot soldier in the right-wing war on Clinton – would turn the bright light of her celebrity on liberal causes and create a home for progressive content.
Having suffered these recent painful reminders of where they really stand in the thinking of corporate media, progressives may want to rethink their own media strategies, forgoing shortcuts and returning to the difficult work of building an effective media infrastructure.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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