The Politics of the New Huffington Post at AOL

Feb.
9
Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism? I think it is. My suggestion: Drop the View from Nowhere and go with transparency throughout the reborn AOL.

These are the top five questions journalists have been asking about Monday’s announcement that AOL will purchase the Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington will become the editor-in-chief of all AOL properties:

1. Will it work? (Howard Kurtz: “Can a fast-moving, irreverent, and sometimes racy product keep its DNA once transplanted into a very different corporate culture?”)

2. Did AOL overpay? (Yes, they did. No, they made a smart bet.)

3. Will Huffington Post starting paying its bloggers? (Dan Gillmor: They should. Tim Rutten: Picture a slaveship.)

4. Can you imagine Arianna trying to boss around Mike Arrington? (Link.)

5. Will AOL now lean left? (Ken Doctor, for example, or Dana Milbank.)

My top question: Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism, and will we see it from this merger?

Well, is it?

No one ever thinks to ask that. Without understanding why, we just assume the answer is no. So the ideological possibilities for the new AOL narrow down to three: lean left… don’t lean left or right… lean left but say you’re not because it sounds better for a big company. Thus: Will AOL now lean left? (The Wrap, Feb. 7.) Arianna Huffington Will Not Make AOL a Leftie Blog (The Wrap, Feb 8.)

Jeffrey Brown of the Newshour on PBS put it this way when he interviewed Huffington and Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL: “Does AOL risk something to its brand by partnering with Huffington Post, given its  reputation as a liberal, left commentary site?” Armstrong said the Huffington Post is a lot more than that; it’s a general news, information and entertainment site.  But Huffington said she wanted to transcend the assumptions in Brown’s question:

It’s time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right. Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing.

What’s happening to the middle class, what’s happening in our foreign policy in Afghanistan are not easily divided into left-right positions. People have different positions across the political spectrum. All voices have been welcome at The Huffington Post. People ranging from Newt Gingrich to David Frum and Joe Scarborough and Tony Blankley have been blogging on The Huffington Post.

Here’s the question (and the answer) again, this time posed by Kathleen Parker on CNN’s Parker Spitzer:

PARKER: The “Huffington Post” is known as a liberal web site and I think it has been spoken of as having been created as sort of an antidote or sort of the liberal version of the drudge report as a way of giving voice for people who have a different political view. How do you see it merging with AOL? To me it seems like yet another sign that journalism is no longer going to be occupied that neutralism, but it will have more of a political partisan bent. Do you see that happening?

HUFFINGTON: Not at all. Actually one of the most exciting things for me about this deal is what I have been repeating endlessly over the last two, three years, about the need for journalism to move beyond a left and right space.

I actually now have a bigger platform to get the message through because I think it’s really debilitating in terms of our conversation. Look at your positions, look at the number of people who — whether it’s Pat Buchanan or Joe Scarborough, or Richard Haass or George Will who oppose the war in Afghanistan — and yet journalists keep referring to that position as left wing.

We know many card-carrying capitalists who sleep with copies of Ann Rand books under their pillows who think the way we bailed out Wall Street is not good capitalism. Are they left wing? So we need to drop these obsolete definitions.

Armstrong and Huffington have three answers, then, to “Will AOL lean left?” First, Huff Post is a lot more than politics; it’s a general news site. (That’s true: 26 sections including entertainment, books, college life and, the most original, divorce.) Second, Huff Post has a mix of voices: Joe Scarborough, David Frum! Third: we need to get beyond left and right as autofill categories. They don’t work any more.

I understand why she’s doing it, but I don’t think the “beyond left and right” construct is breaking through the unofficial prohibition we have on ideological innovation in journalism. It sounds bland and safe, like a call for “common ground” (which is how Kathleen Parker heard it) or the dubious campaign that goes by the name No Labels. (“Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”)  She needs something better.

My suggestion: The new AOL should announce that its dropping the View From Nowhere. When Arianna is asked the “lean left” question she should say that we’re not going to impose an artificial neutrality on our editors and their sites, and viewlessness won’t be mandatory for writers and contributors because it’s not the best way to generate trust. But there won’t be a party line or a single dominant perpsective, either. That wouldn’t work for AOL or the expanded Huffington Post Media Group. What will work is pluralism, transparency and the View from Somewhere. And there are certain things that are non-negotiable.

Here the rest of what would she would say if AOL and Arianna decided that ideological innovation was part of their plan, as I think it should be…

Pluralism: Many voices, coming from many perspectives, and reflecting many different starting points, rooting interests and life experiences. This is as important to a parenting or technology site as it is in covering politics. Instead of “balance” between two fixed poles or an “above it all” stance that often feels like indifference, editors will be responsible for mixing it up more as they cover the news, air the isssues and engage their users. Not only in opinion sections but in news coverage itself, a plurality of starting points and strong points of view are assets. Cookie cutter coverage and pack journalism are low value added. And the way to avoid bias is to multiply the range of perspectives that can be found in news, commentary and analysis, not to pick one or pretend that journalists have no views.

Transparency: All our contributors and the journalists we employ will have a page that links to their by-line and tells the user where they’re coming from, not just politically–though that is one option–but in a variety of ways that are specifically relevant to the work they are doing. We’ve already begun this with the editors at Patch. They post a bio, a little about their politics and religious beliefs, and they also describe what they see as the major issues in the towns they cover. Our plan is to innovate in the area of disclosure so that these transparency pages get better and better at revealing what an informed user of our coverage would want to know about the people who produce that coverage.

The View from Somewhere: All our sites and the sections of big sites like the Huffington Post will start to identify on an About page where their coverage is coming from. In a statement written by the editor, or a video that accomplishes the same thing, each site will identify its topical niche, as well as the perspective the editor brings to the table and the priorities that a user can expect to see reflected in day-to-day coverage: the most important issues, themes, conflicts, ongoing stories and running debates, as well as what won’t be covered. Just as individuals have to be transparent, so will our editorial properties.

Non-negotiables. Accuracy in reporting. Fairness in portraying public controversy. Up-to-date information. No undue influence by advertisers or sponsors. Mutltiple portals for users to interact with and influence our coverage. And a fact-checking form on every piece of content.

Update: Feb. 10: Peter Goodman of the Huffington Post, a former economics correspondent for the New York Times, has written a superb essay on these very issues, putting teeth (and quite a bit of press criticism) into the phrase, Beyond Left and Right:

In the sort of journalism I am interested in practicing here, I want my reporters to reject the false idea that you simply poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality. We have to reject the tired notion that objectivity means the reader can get all the way to the bottom of the story and not know what to think. We do have to be objective in our journalism, but this does not mean we are empty vessels with no ideas of our own, and with no prior experiences that influence what we ultimately deliver: That is a fantasy, and an unhelpful one at that, because every time the reader discovers that personal values have indeed “intruded” into the copy, they experience another “gotcha” moment that undermines the credibility of serious journalism.

Read what Goodman said about his reasons for leaving the Times to join the Huffington Post. It all fits together.

16 Comments

  1. Jay, are you asking the right question? Isn't the better question does Arianna have the skills to run a large media organization?  Last month I had dinner in DC with another former Huff Po-er, who said, "Arianna does not know how to say 'no.'"  I realized that here was the explanation for Arianna's leading me on for two years about possible projects she said she was interested in my covering.  If she had just been able to say, at the start of 2009, that she did not want to hire me for any work, that would have been fine and we could have avoided a lot of subsequent kerfuffle.  But she did not know how to say "no."

    Therefore, I predict much turmoil and misunderstanding ahead for the new AOL/Huff.  

    As for the "view from somewhere," I never have understood you here, although in so many other ways I have learned much from you.  If I had to explain my religious and political views, I would need more than a paragraph.  And if there is one thing I learned talking to people in '07 and '08, they really are not interested in the details of what I/you think.  

    Although I always hope for more intelligence in my readers than I usually find, on the whole the American people are not stupid in certain basic ways.  For example, they perceive–correctly, in my estimation–that most reporters are socially and politically liberal.  The reporters who are not, because they are in the minority, are identifiable.  The very best reporters, in my opinion, are the George Packers of our time, whose views are not easily pigeon-holed.  And they take a lot of flak for being "liberal" when they are not, quite.  

    What readers and subjects want is not to know your views but to be treated with respect by you in your reporting.  This is where American media has lost its way, as well as an Antarctic ice shelf-sized chunk of readership as a result.  I have seen the truth of this coming and going:  trying to interview right-to-lifers who refuse to speak with me because others in media have written them up as nasty-assed rubes; giving interviews only to see myself treated with great condescension in print.  

    It seems to me (and maybe I'm wrong–going out on a limb here) that you want to shift the center, the "givens" on which we all can agree, to the left.  A few years ago, if I had known you then, I bet I would have seen no such effort of mind, because educated urban Americans were then kind of in agreement that a shift left, through demographics if nothing else, was a given, inevitable over time.  Now it seems that we were wrong.  The country and our culture are eddying in conservative patterns.  But if we are journalists first and foremost–and we are–isn't this a great story to be exploring and writing about?  We go where the story takes us–and right now that's into trying to make sense of some, to us, crazy evolutions.    

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mayhill.

      “The better question does Arianna have the skills to run a large media organization.”

      That's a different question. I would not call it a better one, no. 

      “As for the ‘view from somewhere,’ I never have understood you here.”

      Agreed. You haven't. Obviously I have not made myself clear. I nowhere said that the users are clamoring for personal information about the producers of news.  Nor did I say that your views have to be crammed into a paragraph. I have tried to make a single point, which obviously does not do much for you. There is a politics to editorial trust. One part of it has to do with disclosure. And in so far as disclosure is an ingredient in the trust transaction, it is better (I say) for the producers of news to tell us where they are coming from than to try to generate trust with the View from Nowhere, or the mask of neutrality. 

      “It seems to me (and maybe I'm wrong–going out on a limb here) that you want to shift the center, the ‘givens’ on which we all can agree, to the left.”

      You are wrong. To repeat: Obviously I have not made myself clear, despite many, many attempts. That's why I keep writing about this. It's a very difficult point to get across. Cheers.


      • Correct. It “does not do much for me” when you exaggerate. I did not write “crammed into a single paragraph.”

        So I’m still trying to understand. For editors and their publications, are you talking about a mission statement? Al Jazeera comes to mind. It seems to me that with Al Jazeera its execution is powerful precisely because it is implied.

        As for the VFN, my sister, who is a doctor at MD Anderson, has been railing about this for 35 years. PBS is her particular bete noire, in the way science segments are crafted as if any given issue has experts who argue one thing, other experts another–when in reality all experts agree and only crackpots believe differently.

        So I get where you might be coming from on this kind of intellectual dishonesty in journalism. Or what might seem to us to be dishonesty. My sister has always said that the problem with science reporting is that the journalist usually doesn’t know enough about the issue at hand to provide needed context. I tend to think that over time this deficiency will correct itself, as interest in science journalism increases and the bar for generalist reporting there is raised.

        I’m still dubious about the Jay Rosen Trust Elixir. But like Alice I’m holding the bottle in my hand, and maybe some day I’ll drink.

  2. Matt Welch says:

    I think the answer to "is ideological innovation possible in online journalism" is a resounding and obvious "yes," as illustrated by the rise of political blogging (then Tweeting), and also the comparative enthusiasm and speed with which most view-from-somewhere print publications jumped online. In fact, I would think that a plurality of people who think about such things (especially print journalists) would "assume" precisely that — that online = more opinionated. It's one of the 10 or so most oft-stated print-v.-online complaints, I reckon, and helps explain some awkward moments in newspaper blogging (particularly at the Washington Post).

    No idea what the new monster will bring w/ all this, but media mergers in general rarely work out well, and one of HuffPo's main accomplishments was to be the embodiment of a certain type of personality. I'd set the chances of retaining even 75% of that personality within AOL to be pretty low.

  3. L Haughton says:

    Under non negotiables I wish you would consider demanding your definition of "competent" paraphrasing in journalism. You wrote once "a competent paraphrase is where I [the journalist] tells you what you said, you read it, and you recognize it: 'yeah, more or less… I wouldn't use those words, but yes.'" It was genius. 

    And I agree with M Fowler above when he asks "does Arianna have the skills to run a large media [highly creative, advertising supported] organization?" Investigate what it takes by analyzing someone who actually has those skills and attitudes (rather than rely on a professor's or pundit's opinion of what it takes) and then compare what you find to Ms Huffington's experience and mindset. 

  4. David Brauer says:

    Quick note – the Patch sites already ask local editors to disclose political leanings in their bios. Not all do – there are the usual evasions, and leanings aren't referenced in specific stories.
    Still, it's a relatively unnoticed baby step in the direction Jay advocates.

  5. Jay, what is your take on Arianna's embrace of junk science, particularly vaccine rejectionism and other dubious medical claims? Will AOL have a moderating influence on Arianna in that regard?
     
     

  6. kejia says:

    The main content at Huffpo may express different viewpoints. However, many commentators have noticed that their comments are removed, not for inappropriate language or incivility, but because they express opinions that (a) are not to the liking of the blogger or the moderators or (b) are critical of Arianna Huffington.
    Here is a recent example: http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlla/exclusive-huffington-post-bloggers-told-to-censor-comments-regarding-ariannas-airplane-incident_b20641

    How can Huffpo move beyond left and right, let alone achieve ideological innovation, when it can't move beyond Arianna's ego?
     

  7. Cheers once again to Jay for his clear consistent championship of these important issues. Predictably enough, I do have a couple of nits to pick.

    I don’t know if you recall the hyperventilating “journalism manifesto” I wrote as a 25-year old in Alaska (http://goo.gl/VLCOy), but I’ve been advocating against the notion of artificial neutrality for a long time. 

    Abandoning false equivalencies in news reporting and pretensions of a journalistic tabla rasa are essential. In my judgment, Arianna’s “move beyond left/right” posture is just marketing that means what you suggests it should: continued abandonment of the construct of fairness-through-artificial-neutrality. I hope so.

    Having said that, I also hope readers don’t think declaring an institutional View From Somewhere adequately substitutes for a journalistic ethic grounded in intellectual honesty.

    As an opinion editor at various points in my career I always asked writers for just that: to discover facts and reach conclusions, not start with conclusions and then gather supporting facts. In this sense, I worry about equating the View From Somewhere with ideology. Ideological publications and writers serve real needs, but they do not substitute for journalism produced with an ethic that demands fearless willingness to follow facts to whatever conclusion they reveal. Ideologists just don’t do that.

    Institutional point of view is readily apparent in any case. Journalists are traditionally taught the 5 Ws — who, what, when, where, why — but rarely reminded of the sixth W that trumps them all: Which? Point of view and intention are best demonstrated by which stories get pursued. Editing is about allocating scare resources — things like talent, space, and (most importantly), reader attention. In deciding to cover X instead of Y, we proclaim what we think is most important.

    None of this suggests that ideological publications aren’t welcome to the debate. As the Great Helmsman said, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Let’s have Views From Many Somewheres. But let’s not pretend disclosure is inoculation against deceit.
    Finally I’d add that I am wholly on board with your final point. In the 1980s the Anchorage Daily News started checking on reporting by sending accuracy questionnaires to people mentioned in news stories. It helped us correct some errors and, more importantly, made our commitment to accuracy both public and measurable.

    It also gave me a great talking point for all those speeches I had to give at hostile Rotary Clubs.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks for these reflections.

      “I also hope readers don’t think declaring an institutional View From Somewhere adequately substitutes for a journalistic ethic grounded in intellectual honesty.”

      Nothing substiutes for a basic commitment to intellectual honesty. In fact, that's how my critique of the View from Nowhere began. The VFN struck me as a journalistically respectable way to escape that commitment. So I undertook to make it less respectable, via the limited means I have available to me as a writer.

      Isn't it interesting that pro journalists are taught to resist commercial pressure when it issues as a special pleader (the advertiser trying to kill a story), and yet the View from Nowhere is a commercial pressure, and journalists were taught to place a very high value on it. 

      • Howard says:

        I’ve also heard it argued that VFN approach was where publishers came to understand they couldn’t always get exactly the slant they wanted, and thus preferred the neutered version.

  8. Sarah S says:

    hi everyone!, First time poster and looking forward to being a part of the threaded

  9. JHIlton says:

    UGH! VFN vs. Floods from everywhere, and we the audience to become responsible for finding truth in all of it. Why is the old idea, or is it really so old but just diminishing in use, that a neutrality in Journalism is a bad thing? Yes, certainly many journalist have ideals and values, and some would have us believe that because a main tenet of journalism is free speech and discourse that they are somehow easily pigeonholed as liberal. What I would like is to not have to sift through pages on pages of opinion to get to the facts of a story. I would like to be able to read, listen to or watch, an intelligent and insightful piece, that may or may not agree with the politics of the writer – or even the media hosting company – hey they too may find an education in discovering facts to an end story they originally had a decided opinion on, and then I could walk away with the interest to explore the topic further, but not a necessity because what I read was fully informing. In your world of VFS are you turning the profession into a pundit driven experience fully exposed and the biggest benefitting parties the advertisers who have us sifting through so much with their banners on top of the page, inserting in the paragraph and then again to the left and right side bars. Who has the time? I guess I thought that there was something heroic to the idea of pushing oneself to telling a fact driven neutral story…wasn’t that journalism? And no not everyone who had an opinion and wanted to write it was considered a journalist. Those with opinions were opinion leaders…pundits. Do you remember the days of watching an on air journalist learn from the story they had written? I do.