Will The Left Lose The Huffington Post?

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

If “The Social Network” walks away with Oscars this year, ushering in a series of Hollywood blockbusters about online powerhouses, we can expect the fictionalized feature about The Huffington Post to be one of the most entertaining. It already had the charismatic and eccentric protagonist, the roster of celebrity cameos and the upstart start-up mentality. It’s had its share of controversy including recent lawsuits alleging that members of the founding team have been written out of the script. It’s had skeptics questioning how it balances its roles as hub of original journalism, platform for progressive punditry, and nexus of entertainment “news” – and whether the “firing” of an unpaid contributor, who used journalist credentials for an act of labor protest, signaled a shift in its brand.

Now, of course, the story has a climactic deus ex machina: a buy-out by AOL that’s more marriage than merger. It's a surprise twist that will open, in the words of Arianna Huffington, “a brand new media universe," emphasis on the word brand.

The business experts aren’t sure what to make of the deal. Barrons’ columnist Miriam Gottfried wrote, “Count us as skeptical” about the prospects this would rejuvenate AOL. Others saw a larger industry shift, with Businessweek reporting a jump in newspaper stocks and The Times Dealbook blog suggesting that more sites that create content and community may be hot purchases for other online giants. While the guests on The Brian Lehrer Show joked about which unlikely buyer might gobble up the liberal blog DailyKos, the truth is that less traditional media sites can provide insights, partnerships, nimbleness and passion that legacy media might find desirable. The New Yorker’s recent feature on AOL’s new head Tim Armstrong emphasized his interest in boosting the company as a news source. Owning the news isn’t a surprising strategy (just look at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and its intense investment in media consolidation) — owning the Huffington Post, though, is the part that nobody saw coming…except, maybe, for Arianna herself.

So let the business “experts” disagree as they speculate what this means, and the news “experts” bemoan the shaping media environment.  What, though, does this mean for the left? The Huffington Post was conceived initially as a progressive counter-balance to the Drudge Report. If Fox had purchased Drudge, we’d have rolled our eyes at the obviousness of that partnership. However, if Disney — owner of ABC — had purchased conservative Andrew Breitbart’s empire and made him editorial director, there’d be outrage. There was controversy over their invitation to Breitbart to be an election night analyst — imagine if he suddenly had a role in Disney editorial content?

Of course, Huffington is not Breitbart. While the latter spreads the smears of James O’Keefe’s video pranksterism and crusades against innocent victims like Shirley Sherrod, the Huffington Post isn’t just a propaganda outlet. HuffPo doesn’t balance Drudge and the like by being left where they are right, but by being right where they are wrong. Arianna Huffington and her team have all the sensationalism and savvy of the best right-wing sites — and they use that approach to promote real journalism.

During years when newspapers have closed up shop and major media outlets have laid off reporters, The Huffington Post has increased its staff of paid investigative journalists. Their bloggers are often unpaid, a subject of debate in the progressive blogosphere. But the work of Ryan Grimm, Sam Stein and other journalists is compensated, supported and expanding. The site is not one thing or another — simply a center of independent reporting or a left-leaning community blog or a self-serving traffic generator that relies on celebrity gossip and photo spreads to boost numbers for political pontificators. It’s a little of all of those — which is probably part of the appeal to AOL. 

As a liberal blogger (and only occasional Huffington Post contributor), I hope this new partnership brings my peers’ posts to many new readers across America. It will be interesting to see how AOL adjusts to, or alters, the decidedly left-bent of its new property’s roster of columnists. What won’t change, though, is the Huffington Post approach to reporting, which is just as important as the opining. It is a media group that takes seriously the economic crisis, including the often underreported foreclosure crisis, persistent inequality across race and ethnicity, and the hypocrisies of the elite — all stories that deserve a wider readership. And it if it’s liberal to talk about those topics, then liberal media just got a boost.

It’s not clear what will happen to HuffPo’s more activist initiatives. The “Move Your Money” campaign encouraged the idea of taking money out of banks that had abused the public trust and moving funds to smaller institutions and community banks that met different standards. It was founded by Arianna Huffington and promoted through the site. More recently, The Huffington Post teamed up with MSNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan to cultivate “Mortgage Madness Meetups,” getting Americans together face-to-face with their neighbors to discuss the mortgage and foreclosure crises. These are valuable campaigns that relied on the website’s promotional platform. Will they get an even larger platform, or will AOL corporate culture segregate them to a more limited media channel?

For now, the move should be an encouragement to those who create liberal communities and liberal content, and will hopefully have a rejuvenating impact on media more broadly. The overall financial fortune of this deal will have to wait for the sequel.

And who knows? Maybe by then Twitter or HBO will have purchased “It’s A Free Country”…

February 08, 2011

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