By Robert Scheer
In defense of Arianna Huffington. Not that the lady needs one, having been a leader in undermining the right-wing dominance of Internet reporting. Defenders of a free press should be thrilled that it is Huffington who is now merging with AOL rather than Matt Drudge, the unrivaled leader of Internet news whom I first met at Arianna’s home when she was cozier with the right.
But a defense is salutary now because too many progressives, including Chris Hedges on Truthdig, which I edit, have made Huffington a symbol of the crisis in American journalism. While I still believe that Hedges is the finest journalist working in this country today and have no intention of ever censoring him, I do believe that he and the other critics of Huffington have missed the point.
First off, and in defense of the use of unpaid bloggers, of which I happen to be one among the many who appear on a regular basis on the website The Huffington Post, we are not exploited. Blogging has opened up the traditional channels of reporting to include informed people with scholarly and experiential credibility who formerly were begging for the rare opportunity to appear on the carefully preserved Op-Ed plantation of leading newspapers. For most contributors, the Op-Ed page was never a serious source of income.
I occupied a privileged, if modestly paid, weekly place at the Los Angeles Times plantation for 13 years until a publisher upset with my views on the Iraq War and media concentration summarily ended it. The greed that telecommunication deregulation unleashed within the Times’ parent corporation, Tribune, eventually landed the newspaper in bankruptcy, but that is another story. Arianna picked up my column the instant it appeared with the launch of Truthdig and has prominently displayed it on The Huffington Post for more than five years, even when she told me she disagreed with what I wrote.
That exact approach was used in the deal we at Truthdig made with Hedges when he was pushed out of The New York Times after a most distinguished career (including winning a team Pulitzer Prize) because, in his case too, he spoke the truth about the Iraq War; in both instances the freedom of the writer, more important than a paycheck, was held sacred.
As for paychecks, I am not an expert on the finances of The Huffington Post, any more than are the critics whom I have read, but I do know that staffers and writers who joined the website after I recommended them are most definitely paid. One of them, Shahien Nasiripour, who went to HuffPo after leaving the Center for Investigative Reporting, has done superior reporting on the banking industry, beating his mainstream competition in a number of instances. This was reported to me by my wife, a former masthead journalist at both the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, while she was doing research for a recent Ms. Magazine story on Elizabeth Warren.
As I understand it, The Huffington Post has upward of 70 paid staffers, which is quite formidable for an Internet venture. It is no secret that with most of the Internet advertising money going to Google and other massive marketing entities that do not generate news reporting, there is little left over to pay for content, and that aggregation from threatened traditional news sources is the norm. At Truthdig we started with and continue the practice of paying for all original and syndicated content and supporting writers, photographers and artists. Obviously, with their limited resources, sites like ours are hardly a full-throated substitute for the failing print and broadcast journalism of yore. My hope is that with the more substantial funding that Huffington acquires from AOL she will vastly expand her pool of paid writers and editors and begin to fill the void.
That is also my expectation given my 15-year association with Huffington on “Left, Right & Center,” the show produced by public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. Huffington started out as the right-wing host on the program and I was and am still the left. We had our disagreements about the virtues of unfettered capitalism, but at no time did I ever find Arianna to be insensitive to the consequences that major decisions in the private or public sector had for the average person. While still on the right, she teamed up with Colin Powell to push the private sector to fill the gaps in the safety net and took the uncompromising position that when the business community failed to deliver, government must step in to protect the economically vulnerable. She always championed an absolutist defense of First Amendment freedoms and was vigilant in opposing all forms of discrimination based on gender, race or sexual orientation. Even while on the right, Arianna was a progressive committed to breathing life into our democratic forms.
This is not intended as a blanket endorsement. With power come the responsibility and the obligation of an editor or publisher to provide a living wage for journalists as well as to support the costs of covering news throughout the world. My difference with Huffington’s critics is that her success reassures rather than disheartens me as to the state of Internet journalism.
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AP / Earl Gibson III
Arianna Huffington appears as a panelist for Tavis Smiley’s “America’s Next Chapter” in Washington, D.C., last month.